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Eight Instructional Strategies for Promoting Critical Thinking

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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is critical thinking and how can we integrate it into the classroom?

This three-part series will explore what critical thinking is, if it can be specifically taught and, if so, how can teachers do so in their classrooms.

Today’s guests are Dara Laws Savage, Patrick Brown, Meg Riordan, Ph.D., and Dr. PJ Caposey. Dara, Patrick, and Meg were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show . You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources On Teaching & Learning Critical Thinking In The Classroom .

Current Events

Dara Laws Savage is an English teacher at the Early College High School at Delaware State University, where she serves as a teacher and instructional coach and lead mentor. Dara has been teaching for 25 years (career preparation, English, photography, yearbook, newspaper, and graphic design) and has presented nationally on project-based learning and technology integration:

There is so much going on right now and there is an overload of information for us to process. Did you ever stop to think how our students are processing current events? They see news feeds, hear news reports, and scan photos and posts, but are they truly thinking about what they are hearing and seeing?

I tell my students that my job is not to give them answers but to teach them how to think about what they read and hear. So what is critical thinking and how can we integrate it into the classroom? There are just as many definitions of critical thinking as there are people trying to define it. However, the Critical Think Consortium focuses on the tools to create a thinking-based classroom rather than a definition: “Shape the climate to support thinking, create opportunities for thinking, build capacity to think, provide guidance to inform thinking.” Using these four criteria and pairing them with current events, teachers easily create learning spaces that thrive on thinking and keep students engaged.

One successful technique I use is the FIRE Write. Students are given a quote, a paragraph, an excerpt, or a photo from the headlines. Students are asked to F ocus and respond to the selection for three minutes. Next, students are asked to I dentify a phrase or section of the photo and write for two minutes. Third, students are asked to R eframe their response around a specific word, phrase, or section within their previous selection. Finally, students E xchange their thoughts with a classmate. Within the exchange, students also talk about how the selection connects to what we are covering in class.

There was a controversial Pepsi ad in 2017 involving Kylie Jenner and a protest with a police presence. The imagery in the photo was strikingly similar to a photo that went viral with a young lady standing opposite a police line. Using that image from a current event engaged my students and gave them the opportunity to critically think about events of the time.

Here are the two photos and a student response:

F - Focus on both photos and respond for three minutes

In the first picture, you see a strong and courageous black female, bravely standing in front of two officers in protest. She is risking her life to do so. Iesha Evans is simply proving to the world she does NOT mean less because she is black … and yet officers are there to stop her. She did not step down. In the picture below, you see Kendall Jenner handing a police officer a Pepsi. Maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal, except this was Pepsi’s weak, pathetic, and outrageous excuse of a commercial that belittles the whole movement of people fighting for their lives.

I - Identify a word or phrase, underline it, then write about it for two minutes

A white, privileged female in place of a fighting black woman was asking for trouble. A struggle we are continuously fighting every day, and they make a mockery of it. “I know what will work! Here Mr. Police Officer! Drink some Pepsi!” As if. Pepsi made a fool of themselves, and now their already dwindling fan base continues to ever shrink smaller.

R - Reframe your thoughts by choosing a different word, then write about that for one minute

You don’t know privilege until it’s gone. You don’t know privilege while it’s there—but you can and will be made accountable and aware. Don’t use it for evil. You are not stupid. Use it to do something. Kendall could’ve NOT done the commercial. Kendall could’ve released another commercial standing behind a black woman. Anything!

Exchange - Remember to discuss how this connects to our school song project and our previous discussions?

This connects two ways - 1) We want to convey a strong message. Be powerful. Show who we are. And Pepsi definitely tried. … Which leads to the second connection. 2) Not mess up and offend anyone, as had the one alma mater had been linked to black minstrels. We want to be amazing, but we have to be smart and careful and make sure we include everyone who goes to our school and everyone who may go to our school.

As a final step, students read and annotate the full article and compare it to their initial response.

Using current events and critical-thinking strategies like FIRE writing helps create a learning space where thinking is the goal rather than a score on a multiple-choice assessment. Critical-thinking skills can cross over to any of students’ other courses and into life outside the classroom. After all, we as teachers want to help the whole student be successful, and critical thinking is an important part of navigating life after they leave our classrooms.



Patrick Brown is the executive director of STEM and CTE for the Fort Zumwalt school district in Missouri and an experienced educator and author :

Planning for critical thinking focuses on teaching the most crucial science concepts, practices, and logical-thinking skills as well as the best use of instructional time. One way to ensure that lessons maintain a focus on critical thinking is to focus on the instructional sequence used to teach.

Explore-before-explain teaching is all about promoting critical thinking for learners to better prepare students for the reality of their world. What having an explore-before-explain mindset means is that in our planning, we prioritize giving students firsthand experiences with data, allow students to construct evidence-based claims that focus on conceptual understanding, and challenge students to discuss and think about the why behind phenomena.

Just think of the critical thinking that has to occur for students to construct a scientific claim. 1) They need the opportunity to collect data, analyze it, and determine how to make sense of what the data may mean. 2) With data in hand, students can begin thinking about the validity and reliability of their experience and information collected. 3) They can consider what differences, if any, they might have if they completed the investigation again. 4) They can scrutinize outlying data points for they may be an artifact of a true difference that merits further exploration of a misstep in the procedure, measuring device, or measurement. All of these intellectual activities help them form more robust understanding and are evidence of their critical thinking.

In explore-before-explain teaching, all of these hard critical-thinking tasks come before teacher explanations of content. Whether we use discovery experiences, problem-based learning, and or inquiry-based activities, strategies that are geared toward helping students construct understanding promote critical thinking because students learn content by doing the practices valued in the field to generate knowledge.


An Issue of Equity

Meg Riordan, Ph.D., is the chief learning officer at The Possible Project, an out-of-school program that collaborates with youth to build entrepreneurial skills and mindsets and provides pathways to careers and long-term economic prosperity. She has been in the field of education for over 25 years as a middle and high school teacher, school coach, college professor, regional director of N.Y.C. Outward Bound Schools, and director of external research with EL Education:

Although critical thinking often defies straightforward definition, most in the education field agree it consists of several components: reasoning, problem-solving, and decisionmaking, plus analysis and evaluation of information, such that multiple sides of an issue can be explored. It also includes dispositions and “the willingness to apply critical-thinking principles, rather than fall back on existing unexamined beliefs, or simply believe what you’re told by authority figures.”

Despite variation in definitions, critical thinking is nonetheless promoted as an essential outcome of students’ learning—we want to see students and adults demonstrate it across all fields, professions, and in their personal lives. Yet there is simultaneously a rationing of opportunities in schools for students of color, students from under-resourced communities, and other historically marginalized groups to deeply learn and practice critical thinking.

For example, many of our most underserved students often spend class time filling out worksheets, promoting high compliance but low engagement, inquiry, critical thinking, or creation of new ideas. At a time in our world when college and careers are critical for participation in society and the global, knowledge-based economy, far too many students struggle within classrooms and schools that reinforce low-expectations and inequity.

If educators aim to prepare all students for an ever-evolving marketplace and develop skills that will be valued no matter what tomorrow’s jobs are, then we must move critical thinking to the forefront of classroom experiences. And educators must design learning to cultivate it.

So, what does that really look like?

Unpack and define critical thinking

To understand critical thinking, educators need to first unpack and define its components. What exactly are we looking for when we speak about reasoning or exploring multiple perspectives on an issue? How does problem-solving show up in English, math, science, art, or other disciplines—and how is it assessed? At Two Rivers, an EL Education school, the faculty identified five constructs of critical thinking, defined each, and created rubrics to generate a shared picture of quality for teachers and students. The rubrics were then adapted across grade levels to indicate students’ learning progressions.

At Avenues World School, critical thinking is one of the Avenues World Elements and is an enduring outcome embedded in students’ early experiences through 12th grade. For instance, a kindergarten student may be expected to “identify cause and effect in familiar contexts,” while an 8th grader should demonstrate the ability to “seek out sufficient evidence before accepting a claim as true,” “identify bias in claims and evidence,” and “reconsider strongly held points of view in light of new evidence.”

When faculty and students embrace a common vision of what critical thinking looks and sounds like and how it is assessed, educators can then explicitly design learning experiences that call for students to employ critical-thinking skills. This kind of work must occur across all schools and programs, especially those serving large numbers of students of color. As Linda Darling-Hammond asserts , “Schools that serve large numbers of students of color are least likely to offer the kind of curriculum needed to ... help students attain the [critical-thinking] skills needed in a knowledge work economy. ”

So, what can it look like to create those kinds of learning experiences?

Designing experiences for critical thinking

After defining a shared understanding of “what” critical thinking is and “how” it shows up across multiple disciplines and grade levels, it is essential to create learning experiences that impel students to cultivate, practice, and apply these skills. There are several levers that offer pathways for teachers to promote critical thinking in lessons:

1.Choose Compelling Topics: Keep it relevant

A key Common Core State Standard asks for students to “write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.” That might not sound exciting or culturally relevant. But a learning experience designed for a 12th grade humanities class engaged learners in a compelling topic— policing in America —to analyze and evaluate multiple texts (including primary sources) and share the reasoning for their perspectives through discussion and writing. Students grappled with ideas and their beliefs and employed deep critical-thinking skills to develop arguments for their claims. Embedding critical-thinking skills in curriculum that students care about and connect with can ignite powerful learning experiences.

2. Make Local Connections: Keep it real

At The Possible Project , an out-of-school-time program designed to promote entrepreneurial skills and mindsets, students in a recent summer online program (modified from in-person due to COVID-19) explored the impact of COVID-19 on their communities and local BIPOC-owned businesses. They learned interviewing skills through a partnership with Everyday Boston , conducted virtual interviews with entrepreneurs, evaluated information from their interviews and local data, and examined their previously held beliefs. They created blog posts and videos to reflect on their learning and consider how their mindsets had changed as a result of the experience. In this way, we can design powerful community-based learning and invite students into productive struggle with multiple perspectives.

3. Create Authentic Projects: Keep it rigorous

At Big Picture Learning schools, students engage in internship-based learning experiences as a central part of their schooling. Their school-based adviser and internship-based mentor support them in developing real-world projects that promote deeper learning and critical-thinking skills. Such authentic experiences teach “young people to be thinkers, to be curious, to get from curiosity to creation … and it helps students design a learning experience that answers their questions, [providing an] opportunity to communicate it to a larger audience—a major indicator of postsecondary success.” Even in a remote environment, we can design projects that ask more of students than rote memorization and that spark critical thinking.

Our call to action is this: As educators, we need to make opportunities for critical thinking available not only to the affluent or those fortunate enough to be placed in advanced courses. The tools are available, let’s use them. Let’s interrogate our current curriculum and design learning experiences that engage all students in real, relevant, and rigorous experiences that require critical thinking and prepare them for promising postsecondary pathways.


Critical Thinking & Student Engagement

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the award-winning Meridian CUSD 223 in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

When I start my keynote on student engagement, I invite two people up on stage and give them each five paper balls to shoot at a garbage can also conveniently placed on stage. Contestant One shoots their shot, and the audience gives approval. Four out of 5 is a heckuva score. Then just before Contestant Two shoots, I blindfold them and start moving the garbage can back and forth. I usually try to ensure that they can at least make one of their shots. Nobody is successful in this unfair environment.

I thank them and send them back to their seats and then explain that this little activity was akin to student engagement. While we all know we want student engagement, we are shooting at different targets. More importantly, for teachers, it is near impossible for them to hit a target that is moving and that they cannot see.

Within the world of education and particularly as educational leaders, we have failed to simplify what student engagement looks like, and it is impossible to define or articulate what student engagement looks like if we cannot clearly articulate what critical thinking is and looks like in a classroom. Because, simply, without critical thought, there is no engagement.

The good news here is that critical thought has been defined and placed into taxonomies for decades already. This is not something new and not something that needs to be redefined. I am a Bloom’s person, but there is nothing wrong with DOK or some of the other taxonomies, either. To be precise, I am a huge fan of Daggett’s Rigor and Relevance Framework. I have used that as a core element of my practice for years, and it has shaped who I am as an instructional leader.

So, in order to explain critical thought, a teacher or a leader must familiarize themselves with these tried and true taxonomies. Easy, right? Yes, sort of. The issue is not understanding what critical thought is; it is the ability to integrate it into the classrooms. In order to do so, there are a four key steps every educator must take.

  • Integrating critical thought/rigor into a lesson does not happen by chance, it happens by design. Planning for critical thought and engagement is much different from planning for a traditional lesson. In order to plan for kids to think critically, you have to provide a base of knowledge and excellent prompts to allow them to explore their own thinking in order to analyze, evaluate, or synthesize information.
  • SIDE NOTE – Bloom’s verbs are a great way to start when writing objectives, but true planning will take you deeper than this.


  • If the questions and prompts given in a classroom have correct answers or if the teacher ends up answering their own questions, the lesson will lack critical thought and rigor.
  • Script five questions forcing higher-order thought prior to every lesson. Experienced teachers may not feel they need this, but it helps to create an effective habit.
  • If lessons are rigorous and assessments are not, students will do well on their assessments, and that may not be an accurate representation of the knowledge and skills they have mastered. If lessons are easy and assessments are rigorous, the exact opposite will happen. When deciding to increase critical thought, it must happen in all three phases of the game: planning, instruction, and assessment.


  • To increase rigor, the teacher must DO LESS. This feels counterintuitive but is accurate. Rigorous lessons involving tons of critical thought must allow for students to work on their own, collaborate with peers, and connect their ideas. This cannot happen in a silent room except for the teacher talking. In order to increase rigor, decrease talk time and become comfortable with less control. Asking questions and giving prompts that lead to no true correct answer also means less control. This is a tough ask for some teachers. Explained differently, if you assign one assignment and get 30 very similar products, you have most likely assigned a low-rigor recipe. If you assign one assignment and get multiple varied products, then the students have had a chance to think deeply, and you have successfully integrated critical thought into your classroom.


Thanks to Dara, Patrick, Meg, and PJ for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected] . When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo .

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Helping Students Hone Their Critical Thinking Skills

Used consistently, these strategies can help middle and high school teachers guide students to improve much-needed skills.

Middle school students involved in a classroom discussion

Critical thinking skills are important in every discipline, at and beyond school. From managing money to choosing which candidates to vote for in elections to making difficult career choices, students need to be prepared to take in, synthesize, and act on new information in a world that is constantly changing.

While critical thinking might seem like an abstract idea that is tough to directly instruct, there are many engaging ways to help students strengthen these skills through active learning.

Make Time for Metacognitive Reflection

Create space for students to both reflect on their ideas and discuss the power of doing so. Show students how they can push back on their own thinking to analyze and question their assumptions. Students might ask themselves, “Why is this the best answer? What information supports my answer? What might someone with a counterargument say?”

Through this reflection, students and teachers (who can model reflecting on their own thinking) gain deeper understandings of their ideas and do a better job articulating their beliefs. In a world that is go-go-go, it is important to help students understand that it is OK to take a breath and think about their ideas before putting them out into the world. And taking time for reflection helps us more thoughtfully consider others’ ideas, too.

Teach Reasoning Skills 

Reasoning skills are another key component of critical thinking, involving the abilities to think logically, evaluate evidence, identify assumptions, and analyze arguments. Students who learn how to use reasoning skills will be better equipped to make informed decisions, form and defend opinions, and solve problems. 

One way to teach reasoning is to use problem-solving activities that require students to apply their skills to practical contexts. For example, give students a real problem to solve, and ask them to use reasoning skills to develop a solution. They can then present their solution and defend their reasoning to the class and engage in discussion about whether and how their thinking changed when listening to peers’ perspectives. 

A great example I have seen involved students identifying an underutilized part of their school and creating a presentation about one way to redesign it. This project allowed students to feel a sense of connection to the problem and come up with creative solutions that could help others at school. For more examples, you might visit PBS’s Design Squad , a resource that brings to life real-world problem-solving.

Ask Open-Ended Questions 

Moving beyond the repetition of facts, critical thinking requires students to take positions and explain their beliefs through research, evidence, and explanations of credibility. 

When we pose open-ended questions, we create space for classroom discourse inclusive of diverse, perhaps opposing, ideas—grounds for rich exchanges that support deep thinking and analysis. 

For example, “How would you approach the problem?” and “Where might you look to find resources to address this issue?” are two open-ended questions that position students to think less about the “right” answer and more about the variety of solutions that might already exist. 

Journaling, whether digitally or physically in a notebook, is another great way to have students answer these open-ended prompts—giving them time to think and organize their thoughts before contributing to a conversation, which can ensure that more voices are heard. 

Once students process in their journal, small group or whole class conversations help bring their ideas to life. Discovering similarities between answers helps reveal to students that they are not alone, which can encourage future participation in constructive civil discourse.

Teach Information Literacy 

Education has moved far past the idea of “Be careful of what is on Wikipedia, because it might not be true.” With AI innovations making their way into classrooms, teachers know that informed readers must question everything. 

Understanding what is and is not a reliable source and knowing how to vet information are important skills for students to build and utilize when making informed decisions. You might start by introducing the idea of bias: Articles, ads, memes, videos, and every other form of media can push an agenda that students may not see on the surface. Discuss credibility, subjectivity, and objectivity, and look at examples and nonexamples of trusted information to prepare students to be well-informed members of a democracy.

One of my favorite lessons is about the Pacific Northwest tree octopus . This project asks students to explore what appears to be a very real website that provides information on this supposedly endangered animal. It is a wonderful, albeit over-the-top, example of how something might look official even when untrue, revealing that we need critical thinking to break down “facts” and determine the validity of the information we consume. 

A fun extension is to have students come up with their own website or newsletter about something going on in school that is untrue. Perhaps a change in dress code that requires everyone to wear their clothes inside out or a change to the lunch menu that will require students to eat brussels sprouts every day. 

Giving students the ability to create their own falsified information can help them better identify it in other contexts. Understanding that information can be “too good to be true” can help them identify future falsehoods. 

Provide Diverse Perspectives 

Consider how to keep the classroom from becoming an echo chamber. If students come from the same community, they may have similar perspectives. And those who have differing perspectives may not feel comfortable sharing them in the face of an opposing majority. 

To support varying viewpoints, bring diverse voices into the classroom as much as possible, especially when discussing current events. Use primary sources: videos from YouTube, essays and articles written by people who experienced current events firsthand, documentaries that dive deeply into topics that require some nuance, and any other resources that provide a varied look at topics. 

I like to use the Smithsonian “OurStory” page , which shares a wide variety of stories from people in the United States. The page on Japanese American internment camps is very powerful because of its first-person perspectives. 

Practice Makes Perfect 

To make the above strategies and thinking routines a consistent part of your classroom, spread them out—and build upon them—over the course of the school year. You might challenge students with information and/or examples that require them to use their critical thinking skills; work these skills explicitly into lessons, projects, rubrics, and self-assessments; or have students practice identifying misinformation or unsupported arguments.

Critical thinking is not learned in isolation. It needs to be explored in English language arts, social studies, science, physical education, math. Every discipline requires students to take a careful look at something and find the best solution. Often, these skills are taken for granted, viewed as a by-product of a good education, but true critical thinking doesn’t just happen. It requires consistency and commitment.

In a moment when information and misinformation abound, and students must parse reams of information, it is imperative that we support and model critical thinking in the classroom to support the development of well-informed citizens.

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What Is Critical Thinking and Why Do We Need To Teach It?

Question the world and sort out fact from opinion.

What is critical thinking? #buzzwordsexplained

The world is full of information (and misinformation) from books, TV, magazines, newspapers, online articles, social media, and more. Everyone has their own opinions, and these opinions are frequently presented as facts. Making informed choices is more important than ever, and that takes strong critical thinking skills. But what exactly is critical thinking? Why should we teach it to our students? Read on to find out.

What is critical thinking?

Critical Thinking Skills infographic detailing observation, analysis, inference, communication, and problem solving

Source: Indeed

Critical thinking is the ability to examine a subject and develop an informed opinion about it. It’s about asking questions, then looking closely at the answers to form conclusions that are backed by provable facts, not just “gut feelings” and opinion. These skills allow us to confidently navigate a world full of persuasive advertisements, opinions presented as facts, and confusing and contradictory information.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking says, “Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief-generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior.”

In other words, good critical thinkers know how to analyze and evaluate information, breaking it down to separate fact from opinion. After a thorough analysis, they feel confident forming their own opinions on a subject. And what’s more, critical thinkers use these skills regularly in their daily lives. Rather than jumping to conclusions or being guided by initial reactions, they’ve formed the habit of applying their critical thinking skills to all new information and topics.

Why is critical thinking so important?

education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think. -Albert Einstein

Imagine you’re shopping for a new car. It’s a big purchase, so you want to do your research thoroughly. There’s a lot of information out there, and it’s up to you to sort through it all.

  • You’ve seen TV commercials for a couple of car models that look really cool and have features you like, such as good gas mileage. Plus, your favorite celebrity drives that car!
  • The manufacturer’s website has a lot of information, like cost, MPG, and other details. It also mentions that this car has been ranked “best in its class.”
  • Your neighbor down the street used to have this kind of car, but he tells you that he eventually got rid of it because he didn’t think it was comfortable to drive. Plus, he heard that brand of car isn’t as good as it used to be.
  • Three independent organizations have done test-drives and published their findings online. They all agree that the car has good gas mileage and a sleek design. But they each have their own concerns or complaints about the car, including one that found it might not be safe in high winds.

So much information! It’s tempting to just go with your gut and buy the car that looks the coolest (or is the cheapest, or says it has the best gas mileage). Ultimately, though, you know you need to slow down and take your time, or you could wind up making a mistake that costs you thousands of dollars. You need to think critically to make an informed choice.

What does critical thinking look like?

Infographic of 8 scientifically proven strategies for critical thinking

Source: TeachThought

Let’s continue with the car analogy, and apply some critical thinking to the situation.

  • Critical thinkers know they can’t trust TV commercials to help them make smart choices, since every single one wants you to think their car is the best option.
  • The manufacturer’s website will have some details that are proven facts, but other statements that are hard to prove or clearly just opinions. Which information is factual, and even more important, relevant to your choice?
  • A neighbor’s stories are anecdotal, so they may or may not be useful. They’re the opinions and experiences of just one person and might not be representative of a whole. Can you find other people with similar experiences that point to a pattern?
  • The independent studies could be trustworthy, although it depends on who conducted them and why. Closer analysis might show that the most positive study was conducted by a company hired by the car manufacturer itself. Who conducted each study, and why?

Did you notice all the questions that started to pop up? That’s what critical thinking is about: asking the right questions, and knowing how to find and evaluate the answers to those questions.

Good critical thinkers do this sort of analysis every day, on all sorts of subjects. They seek out proven facts and trusted sources, weigh the options, and then make a choice and form their own opinions. It’s a process that becomes automatic over time; experienced critical thinkers question everything thoughtfully, with purpose. This helps them feel confident that their informed opinions and choices are the right ones for them.

Key Critical Thinking Skills

There’s no official list, but many people use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help lay out the skills kids should develop as they grow up.

A diagram showing Bloom's Taxonomy (Critical Thinking Skills)

Source: Vanderbilt University

Bloom’s Taxonomy is laid out as a pyramid, with foundational skills at the bottom providing a base for more advanced skills higher up. The lowest phase, “Remember,” doesn’t require much critical thinking. These are skills like memorizing math facts, defining vocabulary words, or knowing the main characters and basic plot points of a story.

Higher skills on Bloom’s list incorporate more critical thinking.

True understanding is more than memorization or reciting facts. It’s the difference between a child reciting by rote “one times four is four, two times four is eight, three times four is twelve,” versus recognizing that multiplication is the same as adding a number to itself a certain number of times. When you understand a concept, you can explain how it works to someone else.

When you apply your knowledge, you take a concept you’ve already mastered and apply it to new situations. For instance, a student learning to read doesn’t need to memorize every word. Instead, they use their skills in sounding out letters to tackle each new word as they come across it.

When we analyze something, we don’t take it at face value. Analysis requires us to find facts that stand up to inquiry. We put aside personal feelings or beliefs, and instead identify and scrutinize primary sources for information. This is a complex skill, one we hone throughout our entire lives.

Evaluating means reflecting on analyzed information, selecting the most relevant and reliable facts to help us make choices or form opinions. True evaluation requires us to put aside our own biases and accept that there may be other valid points of view, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.

Finally, critical thinkers are ready to create their own result. They can make a choice, form an opinion, cast a vote, write a thesis, debate a topic, and more. And they can do it with the confidence that comes from approaching the topic critically.

How do you teach critical thinking skills?

The best way to create a future generation of critical thinkers is to encourage them to ask lots of questions. Then, show them how to find the answers by choosing reliable primary sources. Require them to justify their opinions with provable facts, and help them identify bias in themselves and others. Try some of these resources to get started.

  • 5 Critical Thinking Skills Every Kid Needs To Learn (And How To Teach Them)
  • 100+ Critical Thinking Questions for Students To Ask About Anything
  • 10 Tips for Teaching Kids To Be Awesome Critical Thinkers
  • Free Critical Thinking Poster, Rubric, and Assessment Ideas

More Critical Thinking Resources

The answer to “What is critical thinking?” is a complex one. These resources can help you dig more deeply into the concept and hone your own skills.

  • The Foundation for Critical Thinking
  • Cultivating a Critical Thinking Mindset (PDF)
  • Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (Browne/Keeley, 2014)

Have more questions about what critical thinking is or how to teach it in your classroom? Join the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook to ask for advice and share ideas!

Plus, 12 skills students can work on now to help them in careers later ..

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Developing Critical Thinking

  • Posted January 10, 2018
  • By Iman Rastegari

Critical Thinking

In a time where deliberately false information is continually introduced into public discourse, and quickly spread through social media shares and likes, it is more important than ever for young people to develop their critical thinking. That skill, says Georgetown professor William T. Gormley, consists of three elements: a capacity to spot weakness in other arguments, a passion for good evidence, and a capacity to reflect on your own views and values with an eye to possibly change them. But are educators making the development of these skills a priority?

"Some teachers embrace critical thinking pedagogy with enthusiasm and they make it a high priority in their classrooms; other teachers do not," says Gormley, author of the recent Harvard Education Press release The Critical Advantage: Developing Critical Thinking Skills in School . "So if you are to assess the extent of critical-thinking instruction in U.S. classrooms, you’d find some very wide variations." Which is unfortunate, he says, since developing critical-thinking skills is vital not only to students' readiness for college and career, but to their civic readiness, as well.

"It's important to recognize that critical thinking is not just something that takes place in the classroom or in the workplace, it's something that takes place — and should take place — in our daily lives," says Gormley.

In this edition of the Harvard EdCast, Gormley looks at the value of teaching critical thinking, and explores how it can be an important solution to some of the problems that we face, including "fake news."

About the Harvard EdCast

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly series of podcasts, available on the Harvard University iT unes U page, that features a 15-20 minute conversation with thought leaders in the field of education from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Matt Weber and co-produced by Jill Anderson, the Harvard EdCast is a space for educational discourse and openness, focusing on the myriad issues and current events related to the field.

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An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

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There's a Better Way to Teach Critical Thinking: 9 Rules of Thumb

C ritical thinking is the study of clear and unclear thinking. A simple definition, maybe, but that’s how it should be. The term was popularised long ago–by John Dewey, in the 1930s–but in recent years it has become less of an actionable technique and more of a trendy educational buzzword.

Our definition of “critical thinking” is sliding towards the obscure. Here’s the Australian Curriculum website’s take:

“Critical thinking is at the core of most intellectual activity that involves students in learning to recognise or develop an argument, use evidence in support of that argument, draw reasoned conclusions, and use information to solve problems. Examples of thinking skills are interpreting, analysing, evaluating, explaining, sequencing, reasoning, comparing, questioning, inferring, hypothesising, appraising, testing and generalising.”

From the Common Core Standards website:

“The Common Core asks students to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.”


What exactly is the difference between critical thinking and analysing, problem-solving, questioning, reasoning, etc? By stringing all these terms together we are diluting the power of each. What we need is precision. Teachers need it, and students need it. We all need to think critically about the meaning of critical thinking and come up with something that is actionable and distinct.

But first–it may be instructive to take a step backward and consider what critical thinking looked like before it became “critical thinking.”

Where Did the Concept Come From?

The Greeks, of course.

From the beginning, the concept included not only the examination of others but the constant cognitive monitoring of one’s own thinking as well. When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he meant it quite literally. So, the very earliest origins of critical thinking lie in self-examination.

But let’s take it a step further. It’s in the notion of self-correcting that the “critical” part starts to show. Thomas Aquinas was known to constantly test his thinking by systematically anticipating, considering, and answering every criticism of his ideas that he could conceive of. In so doing, he inspired others to appreciate a kind of systematic cross-examination of the self, which helped ensure rational and objective thinking.

Socrates, of course, established Socratic questioning, which we still use today. Rather than anticipating criticisms, it employs them: “I believe one should always be truthful. But what if telling a falsehood would save another person’s life? Is truth nobler than life?”

Later, Bacon and Descartes paved the way to the Age of Reason and Boyle and Newton challenged the existing definition of scientific proof. Quantifiable proof truly began to take hold in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the likes of Marx, Darwin, and Freud continued to challenge assumptions.

In 1906, William Graham Sumner published Folkways, which pointed to the dangers of social indoctrination in schools:

“School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe…The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations.”

Sumner supported critical thinking in life and in education, and believed that effective thinking is dependent on a mental habit and power.

Dewey is widely credited with sparking the contemporary critical thinking movement with his books How We Think (1910) and Democracy and Education (1916). Dewey popularised the words “reflective thinking” and “inquiry,” and solidified them as vital parts of critical thinking.

In the 1970s the term “ metacognition ,” literally defined as “thinking about thinking,” emerged, and critical thinking became a widely accepted educational virtue.

Still, when we hear the term “critical thinking” today, it reminds us more of   Bloom’s Taxonomy   than of Ancient Greek wisdom.

If we want our students to end up with critical thinking skills, we’re going to have to teach them what makes it distinct from other types of thinking. If we lump it in with deep thinking and analysing, we get a dizzying array of standards that are too obscure to meet. I think we’d all agree that today’s students, especially, need very concrete objectives in order to succeed in the workforce and beyond.

The problem is, sometimes we don’t know where to start to make this happen.

What Does the Term Really Mean?

A few years ago the Center for Critical Thinking was asked to conduct a study for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to determine the extent to which teacher preparation programs were preparing prospective teachers to teach for critical thinking. The study showed that although most faculty considered critical thinking to be of primary importance to instruction (89%), only 19% could adequately articulate what critical thinking is.

More than 75% of educators interviewed were unable to reconcile how to teach content while fostering critical thinking.

In addition, more than 75% of those interviewed were unable to reconcile how to teach content while fostering critical thinking.

“The reason teacher preparation programs fail to place critical thinking at the heart of the curriculum is two-fold,” says educational psychologist and critical thinking specialist Linda Elder. “First, faculty who control and teach the curriculum simply don’t know what critical thinking is. Second, they think they do.”

This is a problem, she says, not just with faculty in teacher preparation programs, but with faculty as a rule. Most teachers have never been explicitly taught the intellectual skills inherent in critical thinking. Many of them teach as if learning were equivalent to rote memorisation. Teachers tend to teach as they have been taught. Many confuse schooling with intellectual development.

They believe that, because they are college graduates, they automatically think well. The fact is, teacher preparation programs seldom prepare teachers to foster critical thinking skills and dispositions.

So what is critical thinking? Or–maybe a better place to start–what   isn’t   it?

Here’s what we know critical thinking   isn’t :

  • Simply mimicking other thinking
  • Simply agreeing with other thinking
  • Being biased towards one way of thinking
  • Being biased against one way of thinking
  • Drawing conclusions too quickly
  • Denying faults in one’s own thinking
  • Placing weight on insignificant details

Here’s what we know critical thinking   is :

  • Questioning other thinking
  • Embracing other thinking
  • Emulating other thinking
  • Willingness to be wrong
  • Questioning one’s own thinking
  • Putting logic before bias
  • Recognising contradictions

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s at least a start at trying to define critical thinking in concrete terms. The next challenge, once you’ve defined it, is to teach it. If critical thinking is such an essential academic standard in our society, as the Australian Curriculum and Common Core websites suggest, then we need clear examples of how to help our students meet it.

Critical thinking can occur anywhere, at any time. But it most often shows up in three contexts: essay writing, class discussions, and assessment. Below are nine practical ways to hone your students’ critical thinking skills in these areas:

Rules of Thumb for Essays

The best arguments try desperately to prove themselves wrong

1. Discuss the phrasing of prompts.

Do your students know the difference between “analysing” and “assessing” something? Part of critical thinking is being discerning about terms, if only because the language we use affects the way we think. Obviously, this applies to more than just prompts–you could create an entire lesson on word choice and thought in the construction of essays.

2. There’s no argument without a counter-argument.

The best arguments try desperately to prove themselves wrong in order to gain their audience’s trust and lend greater credence to their own assertion. This is also the way good science works–the hypothesis is correct only when all attempts to prove it wrong have failed. A great lesson in critical thinking.

3. Good essayists admit when they don’t know the answer.

Just because a thesis statement should be clear doesn’t mean it has to be black or white. If there’s a limit or a condition to an argument, say so. The grey area is just as important a part of critical thinking as anything else.

Rules of Thumb for Discussions

1. hold regular “written” discussions..

In-class discussions are essential, but they appeal to a certain type of learner. Written discussions appeal to another type of learner. With an online discussion forum added to your curriculum, you’ll meet the needs of students who think best verbally and students who think best while writing.

2. Highlight the mysterious.

Every outstanding educator I ever had managed to make his or her topic interesting not because of what was known about it but because of what was unknown about it. It’s important for students to learn the basics of a concept, but that’s what readings and lectures are for. Use discussions to show that your topic is still “alive” and very much up for interpretation.

3. Always refer to other disciplines.

If you’re teaching a lesson on the history of Troy, tie in information about   The Iliad . If you’re discussing 19th century US politics, talk about   Uncle Tom’s Cabin .   Collaborate with other instructors   to see what material students will identify with if you bring it up in your class.

Rules of Thumb for Tests

1. have students write their own test questions..

What better way to   test a student’s understanding   of a concept (and their critical thinking skills) than to have them write their own test questions on a topic? You can either end the exercise here, and have the questions themselves be turned in for grading, or you can have students take each other’s tests. Either way, it will be an effective assessment.

2. Include the “how” and “why” in MC questions.

If you’re going to administer Multiple Choice exams, don’t make them content-knowledge-exclusive. Add questions that test students’ knowledge of why events occurred and how concepts work. Short answer questions serve a similar purpose, but MC questions force students to be discerning and recognise the difference between similar concepts.

3. Hold oral exams.

It’s pretty astonishing that nearly all of our assessments are written. In the real world, isn’t it far more likely that a student will have to explain a concept orally than in writing? But who has time to test every student’s oral skills separately, you may ask. You do. If you have the time to grade 25 papers, you have time to meet with 25 students individually.

“There is a direct relationship between teacher practices and student development of critical thinking,” says Elder. “To the extent that teachers foster the development of thinking abilities through their practices, students will begin to develop these abilities. To the extent that teachers fail to foster critical thinking, students will fail to develop these abilities. As a rule, people will not develop these abilities on their own. And very few students will learn them at home.”

We’re still a long way from streamlining or even understanding the way we teach critical thinking. But we know that we have to start closing the distance–because no one else is going to.

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How to Teach Critical Thinking

Last Updated: September 28, 2023 Approved

This article was co-authored by Jai Flicker . Jai Flicker is an Academic Tutor and the CEO and Founder of Lifeworks Learning Center, a San Francisco Bay Area-based business focused on providing tutoring, parental support, test preparation, college essay writing help, and psychoeducational evaluations to help students transform their attitude toward learning. Jai has over 20 years of experience in the education management industry. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of California, San Diego. There are 7 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. This article received 11 testimonials and 100% of readers who voted found it helpful, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 293,038 times.

If you want to teach your students critical thinking, give them opportunities to brainstorm and analyze things. Classroom discussions are a great way to encourage open-mindedness and creativity. Teach students to ask "why?" as much as possible and recognize patterns. An important part of critical thinking is also recognizing good and bad sources of information.

Encouraging Students to Have an Open Mind

Step 1 Start a class discussion by asking an open-ended question.

  • For example, ask students an open-ended question like, "What would be a good way to get more people to recycle in the school?"
  • Whether or not it's realistic, offer praise for an inventive answer like, "we could start to make a giant sculpture out of recyclable things in the middle of the school. Everyone will want to add to it, and at the end of the year we can take pictures and then break it down to bring to the recycling plant."

Step 2 Give students time to think things through.

  • Try including a brief creative exercise in the beginning of class to help get their minds working. For example, you could ask students to identify 5 uses for a shoe besides wearing it.

Step 3 Make a list naming the pros of two conflicting ideas.

  • For instance, make columns to name the good things about both a camping trip and a city excursion, then have students think about a happy medium between the two.

Helping Students Make Connections

Step 1 Ask your students to look for patterns and connections.

  • For instance, environmental themes may come up in science, history, literature, and art lessons.
  • If you are teaching geometry, then you might ask if they have ever seen a building that resembles the shapes you are teaching about. You could even show them some images yourself.

Step 2 Show students a vague picture to get them thinking about their own assumptions.

  • Explain to your students how the clues and their own personal influences form their final conclusions about the picture.
  • For instance, show students a picture of a man and woman shaking hands in front of a home with a "For Sale" sign in front of it. Have students explain what they think is happening in the picture, and slowly break down the things that made them reach that conclusion.

Step 3 Analyze statements by asking

  • "To take a train."
  • "To get to the city."
  • "To meet his friend."
  • "Because he missed him."
  • "Because he was lonely."
  • On a more advanced level, students will benefit from interrogating their research and work to determine its relevance.

Teaching Students About Reliable Information

Step 1 Teach students the difference between opinions and factual statements.

  • For instance, if a student says that there are fewer libraries than there used to be, have them provide some actual statistics about libraries to support their statement.

Step 2 Remind students to be open to conflicting views.

  • Encourage students to ask the simple question, "Who is sharing this information, and why?"
  • For instance, an advertisement for a low calorie food product may be disguised as a special interest television segment about how to lose weight on a budget.

Step 4 Have students rate a website.

  • The date it was published, whether or not it has been updated, and how current the information is. Tell students where to find this information on the website.
  • What the author's qualifications are. For instance, a medical article should be written by a doctor or other medical professional.
  • If there is supporting evidence to back up what the writer says. Sources should always have information to back them up, especially when the source is something your students find on the internet.

Step 5 Encourage students to question the sources of their information.

  • For example, if your students are reviewing the political viewpoint of a senator in the USA, ask your students to look up donations provided to that senator from any special interest groups. This may provide your students with insight into the reasons for the senator’s views.

How Do You Improve Critical Thinking Skills?

Expert Q&A

Jai Flicker

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Practice Divergent Thinking

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About This Article

Jai Flicker

To teach critical thinking, start class discussions by asking open-ended questions, like "What does the author mean?" Alternatively, have your students make lists of pros and cons so they can see that two conflicting ideas can both have merit. You can also encourage your students to think more deeply about their own reasoning by asking them “Why?” 5 times as they explain an answer to you. Finally, teach students to figure out whether information, especially from online sources, is reliable by checking to see if it comes from a trusted source and is backed by evidence. For more from our reviewer on how to help students make connections that lead to more critical thinking, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Strategies to Increase Critical Thinking Skills in students

Matthew Joseph October 2, 2019 Blog , Engage Better , Lesson Plan Better , Personalize Student Learning Better

best way to teach critical thinking

In This Post:

  • The importance of helping students increase critical thinking skills.
  • Ways to promote the essential skills needed to analyze and evaluate.
  • Strategies to incorporate critical thinking into your instruction.

We ask our teachers to be “future-ready” or say that we are teaching “for jobs that don’t exist yet.” These are powerful statements. At the same time, they give teachers the impression that we have to drastically change what we are doing .

So how do we plan education for an unknown job market or unknown needs?

My answer: We can’t predict the jobs, but whatever they are, students will need to think critically to do them. So, our job is to teach our students HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

Helping Students Become Critical Thinkers

My answer is rooted in the call to empower our students to be critical thinkers. I believe that to be critical thinkers, educators need to provide students with the strategies they need. And we need to ask more than just surface-level questions.

Questions to students must motivate them to dig up background knowledge. They should inspire them to make connections to real-world scenarios. These make the learning more memorable and meaningful.

Critical thinking is a general term. I believe this term means that students effectively identify, analyze, and evaluate content or skills. In this process, they (the students) will discover and present convincing reasons in support of their answers or thinking.

You can look up critical thinking and get many definitions like this one from Wikipedia: “ Critical thinking consists of a mental process of analyzing or evaluating information, particularly statements or propositions that people have offered as true. ”

Essential Skills for Critical Thinking

In my current role as director of curriculum and instruction, I work to promote the use of 21st-century tools and, more importantly, thinking skills. Some essential skills that are the basis for critical thinking are:

  • Communication and Information skills
  • Thinking and Problem-Solving skills
  • Interpersonal and Self- Directional skills
  • Collaboration skills

These four bullets are skills students are going to need in any field and in all levels of education. Hence my answer to the question. We need to teach our students to think critically and for themselves.

One of the goals of education is to prepare students to learn through discovery . Providing opportunities to practice being critical thinkers will assist students in analyzing others’ thinking and examining the logic of others.

Understanding others is an essential skill in collaboration and in everyday life. Critical thinking will allow students to do more than just memorize knowledge.

Ask Questions

So how do we do this? One recommendation is for educators to work in-depth questioning strategies into a lesson launch.

Ask thoughtful questions to allow for answers with sound reasoning. Then, word conversations and communication to shape students’ thinking. Quick answers often result in very few words and no eye contact, which are skills we don’t want to promote.

When you are asking students questions and they provide a solution, try some of these to promote further thinking:

  • Could you elaborate further on that point?
  • Will you express that point in another way?
  • Can you give me an illustration?
  • Would you give me an example?
  • Will you you provide more details?
  • Could you be more specific?
  • Do we need to consider another point of view?
  • Is there another way to look at this question?

Utilizing critical thinking skills could be seen as a change in the paradigm of teaching and learning. Engagement in education will enhance the collaboration among teachers and students. It will also provide a way for students to succeed even if the school system had to start over.

[scroll down to keep reading]

Promoting critical thinking into all aspects of instruction.

Engagement, application, and collaboration are skills that withstand the test of time. I also promote the integration of critical thinking into every aspect of instruction.

In my experience, I’ve found a few ways to make this happen.

Begin lessons/units with a probing question: It shouldn’t be a question you can answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ These questions should inspire discovery learning and problem-solving.

Encourage Creativity: I have seen teachers prepare projects before they give it to their students many times. For example, designing snowmen or other “creative” projects. By doing the design work or by cutting all the circles out beforehand, it removes creativity options.

It may help the classroom run more smoothly if every child’s material is already cut out, but then every student’s project looks the same. Students don’t have to think on their own or problem solve.

Not having everything “glue ready” in advance is a good thing. Instead, give students all the supplies needed to create a snowman, and let them do it on their own.

Giving independence will allow students to become critical thinkers because they will have to create their own product with the supplies you give them. This might be an elementary example, but it’s one we can relate to any grade level or project.

Try not to jump to help too fast – let the students work through a productive struggle .

Build in opportunities for students to find connections in learning.  Encouraging students to make connections to a real-life situation and identify patterns is a great way to practice their critical thinking skills. The use of real-world scenarios will increase rigor, relevance, and critical thinking.

A few other techniques to encourage critical thinking are:

  • Use analogies
  • Promote interaction among students
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Allow reflection time
  • Use real-life problems
  • Allow for thinking practice

Critical thinking prepares students to think for themselves for the rest of their lives. I also believe critical thinkers are less likely to go along with the crowd because they think for themselves.

About Matthew X. Joseph, Ed.D.

Dr. Matthew X. Joseph has been a school and district leader in many capacities in public education over his 25 years in the field. Experiences such as the Director of Digital Learning and Innovation in Milford Public Schools (MA), elementary school principal in Natick, MA and Attleboro, MA, classroom teacher, and district professional development specialist have provided Matt incredible insights on how to best support teaching and learning. This experience has led to nationally publishing articles and opportunities to speak at multiple state and national events. He is the author of Power of Us: Creating Collaborative Schools and co-author of Modern Mentoring , Reimagining Teacher Mentorship (Due out, fall 2019). His master’s degree is in special education and his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Boston College.

Visit Matthew’s Blog

best way to teach critical thinking

Cut Through the Buzz: 8 Ways to Teach Critical Thinking

best way to teach critical thinking

Critical thinking has long been the buzz-word in education, from primary schools up through graduate programs. That, in fact, is one of the problems—it is so ubiquitous that it carries with it all the cache and excitement of a slice of white bread.

But the truth is that we do live in a world, more now than ever, that requires the ability to think critically — to see and know when information presented is dubious or honest, accurate or intentionally fake, biased or impartial. Not only do fake news, reviews, and information affect our elections, but they also influence our attitudes, social networks, beliefs, and actions. And while the phrase critical thinking might be a little stale to us educators, its actual importance is essential. What we teach our students matters. Showing our students how to process information and how to evaluate the soundness of an idea or argument is probably the most important skill we can impart to our students. Teaching them not just what to learn, but how to learn!

As a Professor of Psychology, whose research focuses on the nature of the creative personality and the psychology of science and scientific thinking, I have the luxury of teaching critical thinking skills without hardly ever using the word. Here are at least 8 different strategies for bringing critical thinking skills into the classroom:

Challenging Your Assumptions / Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Assumptions are the starting points of our thinking and reasoning. They are what we take for granted and don’t really question. The ability to reflect and be clear about what your assumptions are is the first and most crucial step toward becoming a critical thinker. A primary theme of my classes and in my textbook  Psychology: Perspectives and Connections  is to teach students to challenge their own and other people’s assumptions. I also use the phrase “Don’t believe everything you think” quite regularly. Just because we believe something doesn’t make it true and understanding that is the first step in challenging assumptions and stepping outside of our own mindset.

Not only does this help with critical thinking, but it also helps with creative thinking. Creative people have the ability to “think outside the box”, which really means seeing things from a different perspective and intuitively breaking out of mindsets that prevent novel and original ways of thinking and solving problems.

Discuss Components of Critical Thinking / What Does It Actually Mean?

Except in my Critical Thinking Seminar, I seldom use the phrase “critical thinking”. Nevertheless, it is important to clarify what I mean by the phrase and what I want my students to understand it to be. Typically, this comes down to asking students some important questions:

  • How do you know that?
  • What logic or evidence supports that idea or belief?
  • How do I (we, you) know that?

In short, critical thinking involves the skills of knowing how to analyze, evaluate, and interpret information.

Explaining Science vs. Pseudoscience

In its simplest form, scientific thinking involves the ability to separate belief (theory) from evidence. Those not trained in the scientific method all too often fall prey to stopping inquiry with their assumptions and confusing belief and evidence. They mistake belief for evidence.

One important way to get students to think critically about science is to contrast it with claims that pretend to be scientific but eschew the scientific method, namely the pseudosciences. As Gregory Derry wrote in  What is Science and How It Works , we know something is a pseudoscience when its practitioners:

  • Do not progress in their thinking or knowledge in a cumulative fashion over time;
  • Are not internally skeptical (they do not challenge their own assumptions);
  • Use faulty logic and have no clear explanation for how something works (no mechanism);
  • Dismiss out of hand known established evidence/facts.

Evaluating Scientific Evidence

Because I am a research psychologist (not a clinician), I frequently utilize scientific literature in my classes to provide weight and examples in my lectures. But introducing this material also means teaching my students to evaluate, examine, and critique the quality and methodological rigor of the evidence presented. Some ways to encourage discussion and teach students to ask critical questions of what they are reading include:

  • Was it a good vs. poor study (e.g., representativeness of the sample; sample size, reliability, and validity of the measurements)? The devil is always in the details.
  • Were the conclusions tied closely to the evidence?
  • Was the study peer-reviewed?
  • Did the authors go beyond the evidence?

Establishing Fact vs. Opinion

We all need to be clear on the distinction between fact and opinion. The simplest way to think about facts and opinions is to understand that facts are impersonal, and opinions are personal. Opinions belong to people and hence they are neither right nor wrong. You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Facts don’t belong to anyone. Establishing this concept with students early on is critical in order to form a foundation for questioning information and thinking critical thinking.

Uncovering Fake News and Misinformation

One of the most pressing needs for critical thinking comes from the most ubiquitous of all sources of information—the internet.  Fake news, fake photos, fake social media posts, fake product reviews, fake videos, and fake political ads  are just a few of the kinds of misinformation that we confront every single day.

The current generation of students—the Millennials and iGen—never really knew of time without the internet and social media. Mobile phones, apps, and social media are their standard modes of communication and they need to know how to identify misinformation when it appears. A few telltale signs that news or information may be fake are when they have:

  • URLs that are bogus (such as
  • Bylines with authors who are not real people
  • Dates of post that came before events discussed in the text
  • Been uncovered as fake by,,, or

Defining Faulty Reasoning

Biased reasoning is endemic to the human condition. Even well-educated people fall victim to various forms of bias. Two common forms of biased reasoning and information processing are confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

Confirmation bias occurs when we select and attend to information that we like or that supports our ideas and we ignore information inconsistent with our beliefs. Even scholars do this in writing articles, where they develop a thesis and discuss only the literature that supports their argument and ignores literature that doesn’t fit the narrative. Similar to, but distinct from, confirmation bias is  motivated reasoning , whereby we reason about the information that confirms our beliefs in a relatively uncritical and accepting way but are very skeptical of and critical toward information that challenges and contradicts our beliefs.

Defining these topics and framing them as a trap we all fall victim to can help students be more alert to the possibilities of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning in their own thought proc

Faulty Memory and Perception

A few principles of human thought have emerged over the last few decades; they include the realization that human memories are much more  malleable and inaccurate  than any of us would like to admit and that our attention and focus do not typically expand beyond one thing at a time.

The truth is our memories are not objective accounts of events; they are inherently reconstructive and change each time we remember something we actually change the memory. It’s important to make it clear to students that confidence in human beings’ memory and attention span (e.g., multitasking) is not always warranted; they should always take the opportunity to question assumptions and probe for factual information.

For Further Reading

Derry, G. (2002). What Science is and How it Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Feist, G.J. (2006). The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press. Feist, G.J., & Rosenberg, E.L. (2018). Psychology: Perspectives and Connections (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. Kiely, E., & Robertson, L. (2016, November 18).  How To Spot Fake News . Kunda, Z. (1990). The Case for Motivated Reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498. Wilson, J. (2013).  Trust You Memory? Maybe You Shouldn’t.

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Teaching Strategies to Promote Critical Thinking

Janelle cox.

  • September 9, 2014

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Critical thinking is an essential skill that all students will use in almost every aspect of their lives. From solving problems to making informed decisions, thinking critically is a valuable skill that will help students navigate the world’s complexities. In a post-COVID teaching environment , incorporating teaching strategies that help students think rationally and independently is an excellent way to strengthen students’ abilities and prepare them for any new challenges in the future.

There are several techniques to engage students and help strengthen these skills. Here are some teaching strategies that prove to be effective.

Encourage Students to Question Everything

We are now living in a world where AI ( artificial intelligence ) is slowly making its way into the classrooms. With these innovations, it’s imperative today, more than ever, for students to question everything and understand how to verify information when making an informed decision. AI has the potential to spread misinformation or be biased. Teach students to be careful of what is and is not a reliable source . Discuss credibility and bias and have students look for examples of both trusted content and misinformation. By using different forms of media for this exercise, students will need to use their critical thinking skills to determine the validity of the information.

Activate Student Curiosity

You can activate a student’s curiosity by using the inquiry-based learning model. This approach involves posing questions or problems for students to discover the answers on their own. In this method, students develop questions they want to know the answers to, and their teacher serves as their guide providing support as needed along the way. This approach nurtures curiosity and self-directed learning by encouraging students to think critically and independently. Recent  research  from 2019 supports the assertion that the use of this model significantly enhances students’ critical thinking abilities.

Incorporate Project-Based Learning

Immerse students in real-world problem scenarios by having them partake in project-based learning. Engaging in hands-on projects where students need to collaborate, communicate, analyze information, and find solutions to their challenges is a great way to develop their critical thinking skills. Throughout the project, students must engage in higher-order thinking while gathering their information and making decisions throughout various stages.

This approach pushes students to think critically while they connect to a real-world issue, and it helps them understand the relevance this issue has in their lives. Throughout the project, students will hone their critical thinking skills because PBL is a process that requires reflection and continuous improvement.

Offer Diverse Perspectives

Consider offering students a variety of viewpoints. Sometimes classrooms are filled with students who share similar perspectives on their beliefs and cultural norms. When this happens, it hinders learners from alternative viewpoints or experiences. Exposing students to diverse perspectives will help to broaden their horizons and challenge them to think beyond their perspectives. In addition, being exposed to different viewpoints encourages students to be more open-minded so they are more equipped to develop problem-solving strategies and analytical skills. It also helps them to cultivate empathy which is critical for critical thinking because it helps them appreciate others more and be concerned for them.

To support diverse viewpoints in the classroom, use various primary sources such as documentaries and articles from people who have experienced current events firsthand. Or invite in a few guest speakers who can offer varying perspectives on the same topic. Bring diverse perspectives into the classroom through guest speakers or by watching documentaries from varying experts.

Assign Tasks on Critical Writing

Assign writing tasks that encourage students to organize and articulate their thoughts and defend their position. By doing so, you are offering students the opportunity to demonstrate their critical thinking skills as well as effectively communicate their thoughts and ideas. Whether it’s through a research paper or an essay, students will need to support their claims and show evidence to prove their point of view. Critical writing also requires students to analyze information, scrutinize different perspectives, and question the reliability of sources, all of which contribute to the development of their critical thinking skills.

Promote Collaboration

Collaborative learning is a powerful tool that promotes critical thinking among students. Whether it’s through group discussions, classroom debates , or group projects, peer interaction will help students develop the ability to think critically. For example, a classroom debate will challenge students to articulate their thoughts, defend their viewpoints, and consider opposing viewpoints.

It will also challenge students to have a deep understanding of the subject matter as well as sharpen their communication skills. Any group setting where students can work together and be exposed to the thought processes of their classmates will help them understand that their way of thinking is not the only way. Through peer interaction, students will develop the ability to think critically.

Critical thinking requires consistency and commitment. This means that to make the above teaching strategies effective, they must be used consistently throughout the year. Encourage students to question everything and verify all information and resources. Activate student curiosity by using the inquiry-based learning model. Incorporate a real-world project that students can work on throughout the entire semester or school year. Assign critical writing tasks that require students to analyze information and prove their point of view. Finally, foster peer interaction where students work with their classmates to sharpen their communication skills and gain a deeper understanding of other perspectives.

The ultimate goal is for students to become independent thinkers who are capable of analyzing and solving their own problems. By modeling and developing student’s critical thinking skills in the classroom we are setting the stage for our student’s growth and success in the future.

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  • How to apply critical thinking in learning

Sometimes your university classes might feel like a maze of information. Consider critical thinking skills like a map that can lead the way.

Why do we need critical thinking?  

Critical thinking is a type of thinking that requires continuous questioning, exploring answers, and making judgments. Critical thinking can help you: 

  • analyze information to comprehend more thoroughly
  • approach problems systematically, identify root causes, and explore potential solutions 
  • make informed decisions by weighing various perspectives 
  • promote intellectual curiosity and self-reflection, leading to continuous learning, innovation, and personal development 

What is the process of critical thinking? 

1. understand  .

Critical thinking starts with understanding the content that you are learning.

This step involves clarifying the logic and interrelations of the content by actively engaging with the materials (e.g., text, articles, and research papers). You can take notes, highlight key points, and make connections with prior knowledge to help you engage.

Ask yourself these questions to help you build your understanding:  

  • What is the structure?
  • What is the main idea of the content?  
  • What is the evidence that supports any arguments?
  • What is the conclusion?

2. Analyze  

You need to assess the credibility, validity, and relevance of the information presented in the content. Consider the authors’ biases and potential limitations in the evidence. 

Ask yourself questions in terms of why and how:

  • What is the supporting evidence?  
  • Why do they use it as evidence?   
  • How does the data present support the conclusions?  
  • What method was used? Was it appropriate?  

 3.  Evaluate   

After analyzing the data and evidence you collected, make your evaluation of the evidence, results, and conclusions made in the content.

Consider the weaknesses and strengths of the ideas presented in the content to make informed decisions or suggest alternative solutions:

  • What is the gap between the evidence and the conclusion?  
  • What is my position on the subject?  
  • What other approaches can I use?  

When do you apply critical thinking and how can you improve these skills?   

1. reading academic texts, articles, and research papers.

  • analyze arguments
  • assess the credibility and validity of evidence
  • consider potential biases presented
  • question the assumptions, methodologies, and the way they generate conclusions

2. Writing essays and theses

  • demonstrate your understanding of the information, logic of evidence, and position on the topic
  • include evidence or examples to support your ideas
  • make your standing points clear by presenting information and providing reasons to support your arguments
  • address potential counterarguments or opposing viewpoints
  • explain why your perspective is more compelling than the opposing viewpoints

3. Attending lectures

  • understand the content by previewing, active listening , and taking notes
  • analyze your lecturer’s viewpoints by seeking whether sufficient data and resources are provided
  • think about whether the ideas presented by the lecturer align with your values and beliefs
  • talk about other perspectives with peers in discussions

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The best books on critical thinking, recommended by nigel warburton.

Thinking from A to Z by Nigel Warburton

Thinking from A to Z by Nigel Warburton

Do you know your straw man arguments from your weasel words? Nigel Warburton , Five Books philosophy editor and author of Thinking from A to Z,  selects some of the best books on critical thinking—and explains how they will help us make better-informed decisions and construct more valid arguments.

Interview by Cal Flyn , Deputy Editor

Thinking from A to Z by Nigel Warburton

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World by Carl Bergstrom & Jevin West

The best books on Critical Thinking - Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

The best books on Critical Thinking - Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About The World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About The World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

The best books on Critical Thinking - Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed

Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed

The best books on Critical Thinking - The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

The best books on Critical Thinking - Critical Thinking: Your Guide to Effective Argument, Successful Analysis and Independent Study by Tom Chatfield

Critical Thinking: Your Guide to Effective Argument, Successful Analysis and Independent Study by Tom Chatfield

The best books on Critical Thinking - Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World by Carl Bergstrom & Jevin West

1 Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World by Carl Bergstrom & Jevin West

2 thinking, fast and slow by daniel kahneman, 3 factfulness: ten reasons we're wrong about the world — and why things are better than you think by hans rosling, 4 black box thinking: the surprising truth about success by matthew syed, 5 the art of thinking clearly by rolf dobelli, 6 critical thinking: your guide to effective argument, successful analysis and independent study by tom chatfield.

I t’s been just over two years since you explained to us what critical thinking is all about. Could you update us on any books that have come out since we first spoke?

Calling Bullshit by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West started life as a course at the University of Washington. It is a book—a handbook really—written with the conviction that bullshit, particularly the kind that is circulated on the Internet, is damaging democracy , and that misinformation and disinformation can have very serious consequences. Bullshitters don’t care about truth. But truth is important, and this book shows why. It is focussed on examples from science and medicine, but ranges more widely too. It’s a lively read. It covers not just verbal bullshit, bullshit with statistics (particularly in relation to big data) and about causation, but also has a chapter on bullshit data visualisations that distract from the content they are about, or present that data in misleading ways. Like all good books on critical thinking this one includes some discussion of the psychology of being taken in by misleading contributions to public debate.

In How To Make the World Add Up , Tim Harford gives us ten rules for thinking better about numbers, together with a Golden Rule (‘Be curious’). Anyone who has listened to his long-running radio series More or Less will know how brilliant Tim is at explaining number-based claims – as I read it, I hallucinated Tim’s reassuring, sceptical, reasonable, amused, and  patient voice. He draws on a rich and fascinating range of examples to teach us (gently) how not to be taken in by statistics and poorly supported claims. There is some overlap with Calling Bullshit , but they complement each other. Together they provide an excellent training in how not to be bamboozled by data-based claims.

[end of update. The original interview appears below]


We’re here to talk about critical thinking. Before we discuss your book recommendations, I wonder if you would first explain: What exactly is critical thinking, and when should we be using it?

There’s a whole cluster of things that go under the label ‘critical thinking’. There’s what you might call formal logic , the most extreme case of abstractions. For example take the syllogism: if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, you can deduce from that structure of arguments that Socrates is mortal. You could put anything in the slots of ‘men,’ ‘Socrates,’ ‘mortal’, and whatever you put in, the argument structure remains valid. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. That kind of logic, which can be represented using letters and signs rather than words, has its place. Formal logic is a quasi-mathematical (some would say mathematical) subject.

But that’s just one element of critical thinking. Critical thinking is broader, though it encompasses that. In recent years, it’s been very common to include discussion of cognitive biases—the psychological mistakes we make in reasoning and the tendencies we have to think in certain patterns which don’t give us reliably good results. That’s another aspect: focussing on the cognitive biases is a part of what’s sometimes called ‘informal logic’, the sorts of reasoning errors that people make, which can be described as fallacious. They’re not, strictly speaking, logical fallacies, always. Some of them are simply psychological tendencies that give us unreliable results.

The gambler’s fallacy is a famous one: somebody throwing a die that isn’t loaded has thrown it three times without getting a six, and then imagines that, by some kind of law of averages, the fourth time they’re more likely to get a six, because they haven’t yet got one yet. That’s just a bad kind of reasoning, because each time that you roll the dice, the odds are the same: there’s a one in six chance of throwing a six. There’s no cumulative effect and a dice doesn’t have a memory. But we have this tendency, or certainly gamblers often do, to think that somehow the world will even things out and give you a win if you’ve had a series of losses. That’s a kind of informal reasoning error that many of us make, and there are lots of examples like that.

I wrote a little book called Thinking from A to Z which was meant to name and explain a whole series of moves and mistakes in thinking. I included logic, some cognitive biases, some rhetorical moves, and also (for instance) the topic of pseudo-profundity, whereby people make seemingly deep statements that are in fact shallow. The classical example is to give a seeming paradox—to say, for example ‘knowledge is just a kind of ignorance,’ or ‘virtue is only achieved through vice.’ Actually, that’s just a rhetorical trick, and once you see it, you can generate any number of such ‘profundities’. I suppose that would fall under rhetoric, the art of persuasion: persuading people that you are a deeper thinker than you are. Good reasoning isn’t necessarily the best way to persuade somebody of something, and there are many devious tricks that people use within discussion to persuade people of a particular position. The critical thinker is someone who recognises the moves, can anatomise the arguments, and call them to attention.

So, in answer to your question: critical thinking is not just pure logic . It’s a cluster of things. But its aim is to be clear about what is being argued, what follows from the given evidence and arguments, and to detect any cognitive biases or rhetorical moves that may lead us astray.

Many of the terms you define and illustrate in Thinking from A to Z— things like ‘straw man’ arguments and ‘weasel words’—have been creeping into general usage. I see them thrown around on Twitter. Do you think that our increased familiarity with debate, thanks to platforms like Twitter, has improved people’s critical thinking or made it worse?

I think that improving your critical thinking can be quite difficult. But one of the ways of doing it is to have memorable labels, which can describe the kind of move that somebody’s making, or the kind of reasoning error, or the kind of persuasive technique they’re using.

For example, you can step back from a particular case and see that somebody’s using a ‘weak analogy’. Once you’re familiar with the notion of a weak analogy, it’s a term that you can use to draw attention to a comparison between two things which aren’t actually alike in the respects that somebody is implying they are. Then the next move of a critical thinker would be to point out the respects in which this analogy doesn’t hold, and so demonstrate how poor it is at supporting the conclusion provided. Or, to use the example of weasel words—once you know that concept, it’s easier to spot them and to speak about them.

Social media, particularly Twitter, is quite combative. People are often looking for critical angles on things that people have said, and you’re limited in words. I suspect that labels are probably in use there as a form of shorthand. As long as they’re used in a precise way, this can be a good thing. But remember that responding to someone’s argument with ‘that’s a fallacy’, without actually spelling out what sort of fallacy it is supposed to be, is a form of dismissive rhetoric itself.

There are also a huge number of resources online now which allow people to discover definitions of critical thinking terms. When I first wrote Thinking from A to Z , there weren’t the same number of resources available. I wrote it in ‘A to Z’ form, partly just as a fun device that allows for lots of cross references, but partly because I wanted to draw attention to the names of things. Naming the moves is important.

“People seem to get a kick out of the idea of sharing irrelevant features—it might be a birthday or it might be a hometown—with somebody famous. But so what?”

The process of writing the book improved my critical thinking quite a lot, because I had to think more precisely about what particular terms meant and find examples of them that were unambiguous. That was the hardest thing, to find clear-cut examples of the various moves, to illustrate them. I coined some of the names myself: there’s one in there which is called the ‘Van Gogh fallacy,’ which is the pattern of thought when people say: ‘Well, Van Gogh had red hair, was a bit crazy, was left-handed, was born on the 30th of March, and, what do you know, I share all those things’—which I do happen to do—‘and therefore I must be a great genius too.’

I love that. Well, another title that deals with psychological biases is the first critical thinking book that you want to discuss, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow . Why did you choose this one?

This is an international bestseller by the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist—although he’s principally a psychologist—Daniel Kahneman. He developed research with Amos Tversky, who unfortunately died young. I think it would have been a co-written book otherwise. It’s a brilliant book that summarizes their psychological research on cognitive biases (or its patterns of thinking) which all of us are prone to, which aren’t reliable.

There is a huge amount of detail in the book. It summarizes a lifetime of research—two lifetimes, really. But Kahneman is very clear about the way he describes patterns of thought: as using either ‘System One’ or ‘System Two.’ System One is the fast, intuitive, emotional response to situations where we jump to a conclusion very quickly. You know: 2 + 2 is 4. You don’t think about it.

System Two is more analytical, conscious, slower, methodical, deliberative. A more logical process, which is much more energy consuming. We stop and think. How would you answer 27 × 17? You’d have to think really hard, and do a calculation using the System Two kind of thinking. The problem is that we rely on this System One—this almost instinctive response to situations—and often come out with bad answers as a result. That’s a framework within which a lot of his analysis is set.

I chose this book because it’s a good read, and it’s a book you can keep coming back to—but also because it’s written by a very important researcher in the area. So it’s got the authority of the person who did the actual psychological research. But it’s got some great descriptions of the phenomena he researches, I think. Anchoring, for instance. Do you know about anchoring?

I think so. Is that when you provide an initial example that shapes future responses? Perhaps you’d better explain it.

That’s more or less it. If you present somebody with an arbitrary number, psychologically, most people seem prone when you ask them a question to move in the direction of that number. For instance, there’s an experiment with judges. They were being asked off the cuff: What would be a good sentence for a particular crime, say shoplifting? Maybe they’d say it would be a six-month sentence for a persistent shoplifter.

But if you prime a judge by giving an anchoring number—if you ask, ‘Should the sentence for shoplifting be more than nine months?’ They’re more like to say on average that the sentence should be eight months than they would have been otherwise. And if you say, ‘Should it be punished by a sentence of longer than three months?’ they’re more likely to come down in the area of five , than they would otherwise.

So the way you phrase a question, by introducing these numbers, you give an anchoring effect. It sways people’s thinking towards that number. If you ask people if Gandhi was older than 114 years old when he died, people give a higher answer than if you just asked them: ‘How old was Gandhi when he died?’

I’ve heard this discussed in the context of charity donations. Asking if people will donate, say, £20 a month returns a higher average pledge than asking for £1 a month.

People use this anchoring technique often with selling wine on a list too. If there’s a higher-priced wine for £75, then somehow people are more drawn to one that costs £40 than they would otherwise have been. If  that was the most expensive one on the menu, they wouldn’t have been drawn to the £40 bottle, but just having seen the higher price, they seem to be drawn to a higher number. This phenomenon occurs in many areas.

And there are so many things that Kahneman covers. There’s the sunk cost fallacy, this tendency that we have when we give our energy, or money, or time to a project—we’re very reluctant to stop, even when it’s irrational to carry on. You see this a lot in descriptions of withdrawal from war situations. We say: ‘We’ve given all those people’s lives, all that money, surely we’re not going to stop this campaign now.’ But it might be the rational thing to do. All that money being thrown there, doesn’t mean that throwing more in that direction will get a good result. It seems that we have a fear of future regret that outweighs everything else. This dominates our thinking.

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What Kahneman emphasizes is that System One thinking produces overconfidence based on what’s often an erroneous assessment of a situation. All of us are subject to these cognitive biases, and that they’re extremely difficult to remove. Kahneman’s a deeply pessimistic thinker in some respects; he recognizes that even after years of studying these phenomena he can’t eliminate them from his own thinking. I interviewed him for a podcast once , and said to him: ‘Surely, if you teach people critical thinking, they can get better at eliminating some of these biases.’ He was not optimistic about that. I’m much more optimistic than him. I don’t know whether he had empirical evidence to back that up, about whether studying critical thinking can increase your thinking abilities. But I was surprised how pessimistic he was.


Unlike some of the other authors that we’re going to discuss . . .

Staying on Kahneman for a moment, you mentioned that he’d won a Nobel Prize, not for his research in psychology per se but for his influence on the field of economics . His and Tversky’s ground-breaking work on the irrationality of human behaviour and thinking forms the spine of a new field.

Let’s look at Hans Rosling’s book next, this is Factfulness . What does it tell us about critical thinking?

Rosling was a Swedish statistician and physician, who, amongst other things, gave some very popular TED talks . His book Factfulness , which was published posthumously—his son and daughter-in-law completed the book—is very optimistic, so completely different in tone from Kahneman’s. But he focuses in a similar way on the ways that people make mistakes.

We make mistakes, classically, in being overly pessimistic about things that are changing in the world. In one of Rosling’s examples he asks what percentage of the world population is living on less than $2 a day. People almost always overestimate that number, and also the direction in which things are moving, and the speed in which they’re moving. Actually, in 1966, half of the world’s population was in extreme poverty by that measure, but by 2017 it was only 9%, so there’s been a dramatic reduction in global poverty. But most people don’t realise this because they don’t focus on the facts, and are possibly influenced by what they may have known about the situation in the 1960s.

If people are asked what percentage of children are vaccinated against common diseases, they almost always underestimate it. The correct answer is a very high proportion, something like 80%. Ask people what the life expectancy for every child born today is, the global average, and again they get it wrong. It’s over 70 now, another surprisingly high figure. What Rosling’s done as a statistician is he’s looked carefully at the way the world is.

“Pessimists tend not to notice changes for the better”

People assume that the present is like the past, so when they’ve learnt something about the state of world poverty or they’ve learnt about health, they often neglect to take a second reading and see the direction in which things are moving, and the speed with which things are changing. That’s the message of this book.

It’s an interesting book; it’s very challenging. It may be over-optimistic. But it does have this startling effect on the readers of challenging widely held assumptions, much as Steven Pinker ‘s The Better Angels of Our Nature has done. It’s a plea to look at the empirical data, and not just assume that you know how things are now. But pessimists tend not to notice changes for the better. In many ways, though clearly not in relation to global warming and climate catastrophe, the statistics are actually very good for humanity.

That’s reassuring.

So this is critical thinking of a numerical, statistical kind. It’s a bit different from the more verbally-based critical thinking that I’ve been involved with. I’m really interested to have my my assumptions challenged, and Factfulness is a very readable book. It’s lively and thought-provoking.

Coming back to what you said about formal logic earlier, statistics is another dense subject which needs specialist training. But it’s one that has a lot in common with critical thinking and a lot of people find very difficult—by which I mean, it’s often counter-intuitive.

One of the big problems for an ordinary reader looking at this kind of book is that we are not equipped to judge the reliability of his sources, and so the reliability of the conclusions that he draws. I think we have to take it on trust and authority and hope that, given the division of intellectual labour, there are other statisticians looking at his work and seeing whether he was actually justified in drawing the conclusions that he drew. He made these sorts of public pronouncements for a long time and responded to critics.

But you’re right that there is a problem here. I believe that most people can equip themselves with tools for critical thinking that work in everyday life. They can learn something about cognitive biases; they can learn about reasoning and rhetoric, and I believe that we can put ourselves as members of a democracy in a position where we think critically about the evidence and arguments that are being presented to us, politically and in the press. That should be open to all intelligent people, I think. It is not a particularly onerous task to equip yourself with a basic tools of thinking clearly.

Absolutely. Next you wanted to talk about Five Books alumnus Matthew Syed ‘s Black Box Thinking .

Yes, quite a different book. Matthew Syed is famous as a former international table tennis player, but—most people probably don’t know this—he has a first-class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from Oxford as well.

This book is really interesting. It’s an invitation to think differently about failure. The title, Black Box Thinking, comes from the black boxes which are standardly included in every passenger aircraft, so that if an accident occurs there’s a recording of the flight data and a recording of the audio communications as the plane goes down. When there’s a crash, rescuers always aim to recover these two black boxes. The data is then analysed, the causes of the crash, dissected and scrutinized, and the information shared across the aeronautic industry and beyond.

Obviously, everybody wants to avoid aviation disasters because they’re so costly in terms of loss of human life. They undermine trust in the whole industry. There’s almost always some kind of technical or human error that can be identified, and everybody can learn from particular crashes. This is a model of an industry where, when there is a failure, it’s treated as a very significant learning experience, with the result that airline travel has become a very safe form of transport.

This contrasts with some other areas of human endeavour, such as, sadly, much of healthcare, where the information about failures often isn’t widely shared. This can be for a number of reasons: there may be a fear of litigation—so if a surgeon does something unorthodox, or makes a mistake, and somebody as a result doesn’t survive an operation, the details of exactly what happened on the operating table will not be widely shared, typically, because there is this great fear of legal comeback.

The hierarchical aspects of the medical profession may have a part to play here, too. People higher up in the profession are able to keep a closed book, and not share their mistakes with others, because it might be damaging to their careers for people to know about their errors. There has been, historically anyway, a tendency for medical negligence and medical error, to be kept very quiet, kept hidden, hard to investigate.

“You can never fully confirm an empirical hypothesis, but you can refute one by finding a single piece of evidence against it”

What Matthew Syed is arguing is that we need to take a different attitude to failure and see it as the aviation industry does. He’s particularly interested in this being done within the healthcare field, but more broadly too. It’s an idea that’s come partly from his reading of the philosopher Karl Popper, who described how science progresses not by proving theories true, but by trying to disprove them. You can never fully confirm an empirical hypothesis, but you can refute one by finding a single piece of evidence against it. So, in a sense, the failure of the hypothesis is the way by which science progresses: conjecture followed by refutation, not hypothesis followed by confirmation.

As Syed argues, we progress in all kinds of areas is by making mistakes. He was a superb table-tennis player, and he knows that every mistake that he made was a learning experience, at least potentially, a chance to improve. I think you’d find the same attitude among musicians, or in areas where practitioners are very attentive to the mistakes that they make, and how those failures can teach them in a way that allows them to make a leap forward. The book has a whole range of examples, many from industry, about how different ways of thinking about failure can improve the process and the output of particular practices.

When we think of bringing up kids to succeed, and put emphasis on avoiding failure, we may not be helping them develop. Syed’s argument is that we should make failure a more positive experience, rather than treat it as something that’s terrifying, and always to be shied away from. If you’re trying to achieve success, and you think, ‘I have to achieve that by accumulating other successes,’ perhaps that’s the wrong mindset to achieve success at the higher levels. Perhaps you need to think, ‘Okay, I’m going to make some mistakes, how can I learn from this, how can I share these mistakes, and how can other people learn from them too?’

That’s interesting. In fact, just yesterday I was discussing a book by Atul Gawande, the surgeon and New Yorker writer, called The Checklist Manifesto . In that, Gawande also argues that we should draw from the success of aviation, in that case, the checklists that they run through before take-off and so on, and apply it to other fields like medicine. A system like this is aiming to get rid of human error, and I suppose that’s what critical thinking tries to do, too: rid us of the gremlins in machine.

Well, it’s also acknowledging that when you make an error, it can have disastrous consequence. But you don’t eliminate errors just by pretending they didn’t occur. With the Chernobyl disaster , for instance, there was an initial unwillingness to accept the evidence in front of people’s eyes that a disaster had occurred, combined with a fear of being seen to have messed up. There’s that tendency to think that everything’s going well, a kind of cognitive bias towards optimism and a fear of being responsible for error, but it’s also this unwillingness to see that in certain areas, admission of failure and sharing of the knowledge that mistakes have occurred is the best way to minimize failure in the future.

Very Beckettian . “Fail again. Fail better.”

Absolutely. Well, shall we move onto to Rolf Dobelli’s 2013 book, The Art of Thinking Clearly ?

Yes. This is quite a light book in comparison with the others. It’s really a summary of 99 moves in thinking, some of them psychological, some of them logical, some of them social. What I like about it is that he uses lots of examples. Each of the 99 entries is pretty short, and it’s the kind of book you can dip into. I would think it would be very indigestible to read it from cover to cover, but it’s a book to keep going back to.

I included it because it suggests you can you improve your critical thinking by having labels for things, recognising the moves, but also by having examples which are memorable, through which you can learn. This is an unpretentious book. Dobelli doesn’t claim to be an original thinker himself; he’s a summariser of other people’s thoughts. What he’s done is brought lots of different things together in one place.

Just to give a flavour of the book: he’s got a chapter on the paradox of choice that’s three pages long called ‘Less is More,’ and it’s the very simple idea that if you present somebody with too many choices, rather than freeing them and improving their life and making them happier, it wastes a lot of their time, even destroys the quality of their life.

“If you present somebody with too many choices, it wastes a lot of their time”

I saw an example of this the other day in the supermarket. I bumped into a friend who was standing in front of about 20 different types of coffee. The type that he usually buys wasn’t available, and he was just frozen in this inability to make a decision between all the other brands that were in front of him. If there’d only been one or two, he’d have just gone for one of those quickly.

Dobelli here is summarising the work of psychologist Barry Schwartz who concluded that generally, a broader selection leads people to make poorer decisions for themselves. We think going into the world that what we need is more choice, because that’ll allow us to do the thing we want to do, acquire just the right consumable, or whatever. But perhaps just raising that possibility, the increased number of choices will lead us to make poorer choices than if we had fewer to choose between.

Now, that’s the descriptive bit, but at the end of this short summary, he asks ‘So what can you do about this practically?’ His answer is that you should think carefully about what you want before you look at what’s on offer. Write down the things you think you want and stick to them. Don’t let yourself be swayed by further choices. And don’t get caught up in a kind of irrational perfectionism. This is not profound advice, but it’s stimulating. And that’s typical of the book.

You can flip through these entries and you can take them or leave them. It’s a kind of self-help manual.

Oh, I love that. A critical thinking self-help book .

It really is in that self-help genre, and it’s nicely done. He gets in and out in a couple of pages for each of these. I wouldn’t expect this to be on a philosophy reading list or anything like that, but it’s been an international bestseller. It’s a clever book, and I think it’s definitely worth dipping into and coming back to. The author is not claiming that it is the greatest or most original book in the world; rather, it’s just a book that’s going to help you think clearly. That’s the point.

Absolutely. Let’s move to the final title, Tom Chatfield’s Critical Thinking: Your Guide to Effective Argument, Successful Analysis and Independent Study . We had Tom on Five Books many moons ago to discuss books about computer games . This is rather different. What makes it so good?

Well, this is a different kind of book. I was trying to think about somebody reading this interview who wants to improve their thinking. Of the books I’ve discussed, the ones that are most obviously aimed at that are Black Box Thinking , the Dobelli book, and Tom Chatfield’s Critical Thinking . The others are more descriptive or academic. But this book is quite a contrast with the Dobelli’s. The Art of Thinking Clearly is a very short and punchy book, while Tom’s is longer, and more of a textbook. It includes exercises, with summaries in the margins, it’s printed in textbook format. But that shouldn’t put a general reader off, because I think it’s the kind of thing you can work through yourself and dip into.

It’s clearly written and accessible, but it is designed to be used on courses as well. Chatfield teaches a point, then asks you to test yourself to see whether you’ve learnt the moves that he’s described. It’s very wide-ranging: it includes material on cognitive biases as well as more logical moves and arguments. His aim is not simply to help you think better, and to structure arguments better, but also to write better. It’s the kind of book that you might expect a good university to present to the whole first year intake, across a whole array of courses. But I’m including it here more as a recommendation for the autodidact. If you want to learn to think better: here is a course in the form of a book. You can work through this on your own.

It’s a contrast with the other books as well, so that’s part of my reason for putting it in there, so there’s a range of books on this list.

Definitely. I think Five Books readers, almost by definition, tend towards autodidacticism, so this is a perfect book recommendation. And, finally, to close: do you think that critical thinking is something that more people should make an effort to learn? I suppose the lack of it might help to explain the rise of post-truth politics.

It’s actually quite difficult to teach critical thinking in isolation. In the Open University’s philosophy department, when I worked there writing and designing course materials, we decided in the end to teach critical thinking as it arose in teaching other content: by stepping back from time to time to look at the critical thinking moves being made by philosophers, and the critical thinking moves a good student might make in response to them. Pedagogically, that often works much better than attempting to teach critical thinking as a separate subject in isolation.

This approach can work in scientific areas too. A friend of mine has run a successful university course for zoologists on critical thinking, looking at correlation and cause, particular types of rhetoric that are used in write ups and experiments, and so on, but all the time driven by real examples from zoology. If you’ve got some subject matter, and you’ve got examples of people reasoning, and you can step back from it, I think this approach can work very well.

But in answer to your question, I think that having some basic critical thinking skills is a prerequisite of being a good citizen in a democracy . If you are too easily swayed by rhetoric, weak at analysing arguments and the ways that people use evidence, and prone to all kinds of biases that you are unaware of, how can you engage politically? So yes, all of us can improve our critical thinking skills, and I do believe that that is an aspect of living the examined life that Socrates was so keen we all should do.

December 4, 2020

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton is a freelance philosopher, writer and host of the podcast Philosophy Bites . Featuring short interviews with the world's best philosophers on bite-size topics, the podcast has been downloaded more than 40 million times. He is also our philosophy editor here at Five Books , where he has been interviewing other philosophers about the best books on a range of philosophy topics since 2013 (you can read all the interviews he's done here: not all are about philosophy). In addition, he's recommended books for us on the best introductions to philosophy , the best critical thinking books, as well as some of the key texts to read in the Western canon . His annual recommendations of the best philosophy books of the year are among our most popular interviews on Five Books . As an author, he is best known for his introductory philosophy books, listed below:

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Critical thinking definition

best way to teach critical thinking

Critical thinking, as described by Oxford Languages, is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.

Active and skillful approach, evaluation, assessment, synthesis, and/or evaluation of information obtained from, or made by, observation, knowledge, reflection, acumen or conversation, as a guide to belief and action, requires the critical thinking process, which is why it's often used in education and academics.

Some even may view it as a backbone of modern thought.

However, it's a skill, and skills must be trained and encouraged to be used at its full potential.

People turn up to various approaches in improving their critical thinking, like:

  • Developing technical and problem-solving skills
  • Engaging in more active listening
  • Actively questioning their assumptions and beliefs
  • Seeking out more diversity of thought
  • Opening up their curiosity in an intellectual way etc.

Is critical thinking useful in writing?

Critical thinking can help in planning your paper and making it more concise, but it's not obvious at first. We carefully pinpointed some the questions you should ask yourself when boosting critical thinking in writing:

  • What information should be included?
  • Which information resources should the author look to?
  • What degree of technical knowledge should the report assume its audience has?
  • What is the most effective way to show information?
  • How should the report be organized?
  • How should it be designed?
  • What tone and level of language difficulty should the document have?

Usage of critical thinking comes down not only to the outline of your paper, it also begs the question: How can we use critical thinking solving problems in our writing's topic?

Let's say, you have a Powerpoint on how critical thinking can reduce poverty in the United States. You'll primarily have to define critical thinking for the viewers, as well as use a lot of critical thinking questions and synonyms to get them to be familiar with your methods and start the thinking process behind it.

Are there any services that can help me use more critical thinking?

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More From Forbes

13 Easy Steps To Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

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With the sheer volume of information that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis – and with the pervasiveness of fake news and social media bubbles – the ability to look at evidence, evaluate the trustworthiness of a source, and think critically is becoming more important than ever. This is why, for me, critical thinking is one of the most vital skills to cultivate for future success.

Critical thinking isn’t about being constantly negative or critical of everything. It’s about objectivity and having an open, inquisitive mind. To think critically is to analyze issues based on hard evidence (as opposed to personal opinions, biases, etc.) in order to build a thorough understanding of what’s really going on. And from this place of thorough understanding, you can make better decisions and solve problems more effectively.

To put it another way, critical thinking means arriving at your own carefully considered conclusions instead of taking information at face value. Here are 13 ways you can cultivate this precious skill:

1. Always vet new information with a cautious eye. Whether it’s an article someone has shared online or data that’s related to your job, always vet the information you're presented with. Good questions to ask here include, "Is this information complete and up to date?” “What evidence is being presented to support the argument?” and “Whose voice is missing here?”

2. Look at where the information has come from. Is the source trustworthy? What is their motivation for presenting this information? For example, are they trying to sell you something or get you to take a certain action (like vote for them)?

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3. Consider more than one point of view. Everyone has their own opinions and motivations – even highly intelligent people making reasonable-sounding arguments have personal opinions and biases that shape their thinking. So, when someone presents you with information, consider whether there are other sides to the story.

4. Practice active listening. Listen carefully to what others are telling you, and try to build a clear picture of their perspective. Empathy is a really useful skill here since putting yourself in another person's shoes can help you understand where they're coming from and what they might want. Try to listen without judgment – remember, critical thinking is about keeping an open mind.

5. Gather additional information where needed. Whenever you identify gaps in the information or data, do your own research to fill those gaps. The next few steps will help you do this objectively…

6. Ask lots of open-ended questions. Curiosity is a key trait of critical thinkers, so channel your inner child and ask lots of "who," "what," and "why" questions.

7. Find your own reputable sources of information, such as established news sites, nonprofit organizations, and education institutes. Try to avoid anonymous sources or sources with an ax to grind or a product to sell. Also, be sure to check when the information was published. An older source may be unintentionally offering up wrong information just because events have moved on since it was published; corroborate the info with a more recent source.

8. Try not to get your news from social media. And if you do see something on social media that grabs your interest, check the accuracy of the story (via reputable sources of information, as above) before you share it.

9. Learn to spot fake news. It's not always easy to spot false or misleading content, but a good rule of thumb is to look at the language, emotion, and tone of the piece. Is it using emotionally charged language, for instance, and trying to get you to feel a certain way? Also, look at the sources of facts, figures, images, and quotes. A legit news story will clearly state its sources.

10. Learn to spot biased information. Like fake news, biased information may seek to appeal more to your emotions than logic and/or present a limited view of the topic. So ask yourself, “Is there more to this topic than what’s being presented here?” Do your own reading around the topic to establish the full picture.

11. Question your own biases, too. Everyone has biases, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. The trick is to think objectively about your likes and dislikes, preferences, and beliefs, and consider how these might affect your thinking.

12. Form your own opinions. Remember, critical thinking is about thinking independently. So once you’ve assessed all the information, form your own conclusions about it.

13. Continue to work on your critical thinking skills. I recommend looking at online learning platforms such as Udemy and Coursera for courses on general critical thinking skills, as well as courses on specific subjects like cognitive biases.

Read more about critical thinking and other essential skills in my new book, Future Skills: The 20 Skills & Competencies Everyone Needs To Succeed In A Digital World . Written for anyone who wants to surf the wave of digital transformation – rather than be drowned by it – the book explores why these vital future skills matter and how to develop them.

Bernard Marr

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A Short Guide to Building Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills

  • Matt Plummer

best way to teach critical thinking

Critical thinking isn’t an innate skill. It can be learned.

Most employers lack an effective way to objectively assess critical thinking skills and most managers don’t know how to provide specific instruction to team members in need of becoming better thinkers. Instead, most managers employ a sink-or-swim approach, ultimately creating work-arounds to keep those who can’t figure out how to “swim” from making important decisions. But it doesn’t have to be this way. To demystify what critical thinking is and how it is developed, the author’s team turned to three research-backed models: The Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment, Pearson’s RED Critical Thinking Model, and Bloom’s Taxonomy. Using these models, they developed the Critical Thinking Roadmap, a framework that breaks critical thinking down into four measurable phases: the ability to execute, synthesize, recommend, and generate.

With critical thinking ranking among the most in-demand skills for job candidates , you would think that educational institutions would prepare candidates well to be exceptional thinkers, and employers would be adept at developing such skills in existing employees. Unfortunately, both are largely untrue.

best way to teach critical thinking

  • Matt Plummer (@mtplummer) is the founder of Zarvana, which offers online programs and coaching services to help working professionals become more productive by developing time-saving habits. Before starting Zarvana, Matt spent six years at Bain & Company spin-out, The Bridgespan Group, a strategy and management consulting firm for nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropists.  

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Harvard-trained neuroscientist with 20+ years experience: 7 tricks I use to keep my memory sharp


It's happened to just about everyone: You try to remember what happened last week, your Netflix password, your grocery list, where you parked your car or the name of that guy you see at the coffee shop — and just draw a blank.

Memories can be tougher to access with time and age. It's perfectly normal and not necessarily indicative of disease or illness, but it can still be unsettling. However, there are things you can do right now to make yourself more resistant to forgetting.

As a Harvard-trained neuroscientist with more than 20 years of experience, when people ask how they can enhance their ability to remember, I like to share these strategies with them. Here are my most commonly used memory tricks. 

When you create a mental image of what you're trying to remember, you add more neural connections to it. You're deepening the associations, making the formation of that memory more robust, so you'll better remember later. 

If you're writing down something that you want to remember, write it in all caps, highlight it in pink marker or circle it. Add a chart or doodle a picture. Make what you're trying to remember something you can easily see in your mind's eye

2. Use your imagination

People with the best memories have the best imaginations. To help make a memory unforgettable, use creative imagery. Go beyond the obvious and attach bizarre, surprising, vivid, funny, physically impossible and interactive elements to what you're trying to remember, and it will stick. 

For example, if I need to remember to pick up chocolate milk at the grocery store, for example, I might imagine Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson milking a chocolate brown cow in my living room. 

3. Make it about you

I rarely endorse self-centeredness, but I make an exception when it comes to enhancing your memory. You are more likely to remember a detail about yourself or something that you did, than you are to retain a detail about someone else or something someone else did.

So make what you're learning unique to you. Associate it with your personal history and opinions, and you'll strengthen your memory.

People with the best memories have the best imaginations. Lisa Genova Author of "Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting"

4. Look for the drama

Experiences drenched in emotion or surprise tend to be remembered: successes, humiliations, failures, weddings, births, divorces, deaths.

Emotion and surprise activate your amygdala, which then sends a loud and clear message to your hippocampus: "Hey! What is going on right now is extremely important. Remember this!" 

5. Practice makes perfect 

Repetition and rehearsal strengthen memories. Quizzing yourself enhances your memory for the material far better than simply rereading it.

Muscle memories become stronger and are more efficiently retrieved the more you rehearse a skill. Because these memories tell the body what to do, your body gets better at doing these physical tasks with practice.

6. Use plenty of retrieval cues 

Cues are crucial for retrieving memories. The right cue can trigger the memory of something you haven't thought of in decades. Cues can be anything associated with what you're trying to remember — the time of day, a pillbox, concert tickets by the front door, a Taylor Swift song, the smell of Tide detergent. 

Smells are especially powerful memory cues because your olfactory bulb, where smells are perceived (you smell in your brain, not your nose), sends strong neural inputs to the amygdala and the hippocampus, the parts of your brain that consolidate memories.

7. Externalize your memory 

People with the best memories for what they intend to do later use aids like lists, pillboxes, calendars, sticky notes, and other reminders.

You might be worried that this is somehow cheating or that you'll worsen your memory's capabilities if you rely too much on these external "crutches" instead of using your brain. Our brains aren't designed to remember to do things later. Write them down.

Here are a few other helpful reminders:

  • Context matters.  Memory retrieval is far easier and faster when the internal and external conditions match whatever they were when that memory was formed. Your learning circumstances matter, too. For example, if you like to drink a mocha Frappuccino while studying for a test, have another one when you take the exam to get your brain back into that mindset.
  • It helps to chill out.  Chronic stress is nothing but bad news for our ability to remember. In addition to making you more vulnerable to a whole host of diseases, it impairs memory and shrinks your hippocampus. While we can't necessarily free ourselves from the stress in our lives, we can change how we react to it. Through yoga, meditation, exercise, and practices in mindfulness, gratitude and compassion, we can train our brains to become less reactive, put the brakes on the runaway stress response, and stay healthy in the face of chronic, toxic stress.
  • And to get enough sleep. You need seven to nine hours of sleep to optimally consolidate the new memories you created today. If you don't get enough sleep, you'll go through the next day experiencing a form of amnesia. Some of your memories from yesterday might be fuzzy, inaccurate or even missing.  Getting enough sleep is critical for locking whatever you have learned and experienced in your long-term memory, and it reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist New York Times bestselling author of " Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting ." Lisa graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University. She travels worldwide speaking about brain health, memory and neurological diseases and has appeared on PBS, NBC, CNN and NPR. Her first TED talk, " What You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimer's " has been viewed over eight million times.

Want to make extra money outside of your day job?  Sign up for CNBC's new online course  How to Earn Passive Income Online  to learn about common passive income streams, tips to get started and real-life success stories. Register today and save 50% with discount code EARLYBIRD.

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What a brain expert eats in a day to boost memory and stay sharp

This is an adapted excerpt from "Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting," by Lisa Genova, published by Harmony. Copyright © 2021 by Lisa Genova.


Using systems thinking in education: benefits and strategies

best way to teach critical thinking

Systems thinking is becoming a valuable cognitive skill in our interconnected world, with businesses voting it as one of the top- ten growing skills for employees. Thus, as educators, it’s crucial that we develop our own understanding of systems thinking so we can successfully teach this approach to students and prepare them for academic, personal, and career success.

With this in mind, let’s explore systems thinking in education, examine its many benefits for students, and discover how Kialo Edu discussions can provide a useful framework for systems thinking.

What is systems thinking in education?

Systems thinking is an approach to problem-solving and decision-making that views issues as part of wider, dynamic systems.

Systems thinkers see the big picture — the whole system — when solving problems or making decisions. They evaluate how changes to one part of the system could impact other areas and the system as a whole. This gives systems thinkers a holistic understanding of complex issues, enabling them to make informed decisions and generate effective solutions.

This systems thinking approach is crucial in today’s world where systems surround us. From the energy grid to transportation networks to complex supply chains, systems form the infrastructure of society. The same is true in education, where a network of smaller systems such as assessment, curriculum design, and teacher training contribute to the wider education system. 

In education, systems thinking can have an impact in two key ways:

  • Stakeholders, such as national education departments and school leaders, can use systems thinking to improve education systems.
  • Educators can teach students a systems thinking approach to improve decision-making and problem-solving skills.

Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

Why is systems thinking important for improving education systems?

The problems that arise in complex systems, such as education, are aptly named “ wicked problems ” because they involve numerous interdependent factors. This makes finding solutions challenging. 

For example, implementing an intervention to address attainment gaps would impact staff training, resource allocation, timetabling, assessment methods, and more. Thus, education leaders aiming to improve an educational system can benefit from adopting a systems thinking approach. Evaluating the wider impacts of potential solutions on the whole system enables them to confidently select the most effective option.

What are the benefits of teaching systems thinking to students?

Creating systems thinkers who can address these “wicked problems” begins by teaching students how to use systems thinking in the classroom. And just as altering one component of a system affects other elements, instructing students in systems thinking brings them numerous additional benefits!

1. Students practice better problem-solving and decision-making skills

Systems thinking helps students to develop a holistic approach to problem-solving and decision-making. By viewing a problem as part of a system and examining interdependencies, students learn to look beyond the outcomes of a problem and instead identify its root causes. This deeper understanding leads them to make informed decisions and create effective solutions.

2. Students value multiple perspectives

Systems thinking helps students recognize that every part of a system involves stakeholders with diverse needs, goals, and viewpoints. Teaching students to consider these multiple perspectives helps broaden their thinking and moves them away from narrow solutions. 

Instead, students generate inclusive and effective solutions that address the needs of all those involved.

3. Students develop critical thinking skills

best way to teach critical thinking

Systems thinking requires students to practice critical thinking by analyzing interdependencies within a system. With an understanding of these interconnections, students can evaluate the potential implications of different improvement strategies for every type of situation they come across.

4. Students engage in long-term thinking

Teaching students about feedback loops within systems thinking helps them to develop long-term thinking. Once students understand that the output of any decision they make becomes the input for future operations, they will move away from short-term solutions and instead evaluate the longer-term impacts of their decisions.

5. Students become knowledgeable, active citizens

Real-world systems thinking activities provide students with valuable insights into complex systems in society, including political, economic, and environmental systems. Equipping students with knowledge of these systems builds their civic literacy and can empower them to become active and informed citizens of the future.

How can I teach systems thinking to students?

Open-ended, real-world problems or scenarios provide an ideal context for teaching students to use systems thinking. Here’s an example of how this works in the classroom.

Example systems thinking problem: What is the best way to fight climate change?

Step 1: identify the parts of the system.

Begin by asking students to identify the different parts of the climate change system. This could include energy production, industry, transportation, and agriculture. If students are new to systems thinking, consider narrowing down the number of elements to focus on.

Step 2: Identify interdependencies within the system

Then, guide students to identify the interdependencies between different parts of the climate change system. You could ask them to draw a web to represent this visually. Or, for a more active approach, have some students hold a card to represent a different part of the system, while other students link them together with string to show the interdependencies.

Step 3: Analyze potential solutions

Next, ask students to investigate the different ways to fight climate change. Make this manageable by allocating teams of students different areas to investigate. 

Students should use the interdependence webs they created in step 2 to analyze potential impacts of their option on other areas of the system. For example, improving the renewable energy infrastructure could impact agricultural land use, which may impact food production. 

Use an Kialo discussion is a a great way to incorporate systems thinking in education for students to practice analyzing potential solutions to a problem.

Encourage students to develop long-term thinking by having them explore feedback loops, for example by investigating the effect of a temperature increase. Graphics organizers like flowcharts or argument maps can help students to reason through potential impacts.

Step 4: Draw an informed conclusion

Finally, ask students to use their research to draw an informed conclusion to present to the rest of the class. Different groups may draw different conclusions. Teach students that this is acceptable provided that they can justify their decision based on their systems thinking approach.

How to support systems thinking in the classroom with Kialo Edu

Kialo discussions provide an engaging way to develop your students’ systems thinking skills. Our Topic Library contains discussions that are ideal for engaging students in real-world problem-solving scenarios. For example, students can investigate the best source of renewable energy or the best method of transport in a city .

You can even create a discussion question to match your current topic, and guide students’ research by adding your own top-level claims.

Each discussion is framed around an argument-mapping structure that provides students with a visual framework for systems thinking. The branching claims in the discussion prompt students to work through the pros and cons of different ideas. And it’s easy for students to link claims to other claims , helping them to demonstrate interdependencies.

Importantly, there is no limit to this branching system, giving students the space to delve deeply into the topic. Plus, being able to see a representation of the whole system facilitates students in evaluating the wider impact of their suggestions.

Our exploration of systems thinking shows why businesses rate it as an important future skill. But systems thinking in education is not just about preparing students for the future. By teaching students a systems thinking approach, you can equip them with a range of important skills that will have immediate benefits in your classroom! 

We’d love to hear your ideas for teaching systems thinking to students. Contact us at [email protected] or on social media.

Want to try Kialo Edu with your class?

Sign up for free and use Kialo Edu to have thoughtful classroom discussions and train students’ argumentation and critical thinking skills.


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