Posted by David R. Wetzel, Ph.D.
Encouraging students to use critical thinking is more than an extension activity in science and math lessons, it is the basis of true learning.
Teaching students how to think critically helps them move beyond basic comprehension and rote memorization. They shift to a new level of increased awareness when calculating, analyzing, problem solving, and evaluating.
Another way to view the power of critical thinking – as students learn how to apply and use higher order thinking skills, they learn how to question the accuracy of their solutions and findings.
Students wonder why they got the results they did and not another outcome. This in turn leads to internalization of concepts, along with all important point of making connections with related concepts.
Teaching Critical Thinking
Some students have the natural ability to ask higher cognitive questions. Specifically when evaluating experimental findings in science or solving math problems. However, many students do not have this innate skill and need to learn how to ask higher order questions.
An important point for encouraging students to use critical thinking is by modeling these skills for your students. Students will inherently follow their teacher’s lead; this is why it is important to practice what we preach.
The following are examples of questions to ask your students to encourage them to think critically (Richard Paul).
- What additional information do you need to solve the problem?
- How does the data relate to your findings?
- How does the evidence support your conclusions?
- What would you need to do to determine if the solution is true?
- How can you compare this with other problems?
- Are their alternative solutions to the problem? If so, what are they?
- What else may be true if this is correct?
- What effect would _______ have?
- What do you mean by that statement?
- How could you ask that question differently?
- What did you learn from solving this problem?
- Is this the most important question to ask when solving the problem?
- What questions need to be answered before answering this question?
- What does this presume?
These questions all have one purpose – keeping the train on the track by guiding students through the critical thinking process. When you ask these and similar questions, you are encouraging your students to move from passive to active learning.
Avoiding Questions Easily Answered on the Internet
Questions and problems easily answered through a quick query on the internet are not an effective strategy for teaching critical thinking. Students need questions which require them to create a product to show what they learned. The following examples are referred to “Google-Proofing” in some circles.
- Construct a data table and graph to display a comparison of cost of three competing cell phone companies.
- Design an investigation to determine the best materials for building a hurricane proof house.
- Compare the organs in the human body with other mammals.
- Create a board game based on geometric shapes.
- Redesign an existing product to reduce its carbon footprint.
The goal is to help students learn how to develop higher level questions and make connections when solving math problems or analyzing experimental data.
Quality Thinking In order to support quality critical thinking, the frequency of questions is not as important as the quality of questions. Also, increasing wait-time between teacher-student-teacher is important to success with teaching quality thinking. According to Kathleen Cotton, the following are factors to consider when asking students questions.
- The average level of questions asked by teachers are 60 percent lower cognitive, 20 percent procedural, and 20 percent higher cognitive.
- Increasing the frequency of higher cognitive questions to the 50 percent level produces superior gains in middle and high school student achievement.
- Asking higher cognitive questions does not reduce student achievement on lower cognitive questions.
- With predominate use of lower cognitive questions; students tend toward lower achievement.
The use of higher cognitive questions tends to elicit longer student answers in complete sentences, quality inference and conjecture by students, and the forming of higher level questions. This in turn results in increased student use of critical thinking and classroom participation. There is never a wrong time to begin encouraging your students to use critical thinking skills, so why not start today.
Cotton, Kathleen, Classroom Questioning, North West Regional Educational Laboratory.
Paul, Richard, Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World, Foundation for Critical Thinking.