Developing Critical Thinking Skills

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson we'll explore critical thinking skills, examine how they develop, and provide a few sample exercises that can be used to work on these skills with individuals of all age ranges. A short quiz follows.


When asked the question 'How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?' the great thinker Homer S. (that gives too much away, let's call him H. Simpson) once answered 'seven.' Upon learning the question was rhetorical, Simpson instead responded 'eight.' This man, fictional though he may be, is not a master of critical thinking. The question we must ask ourselves, rather than being concerned with numbers of roads, is how can we ensure future generations develop the necessary critical thinking skills to become greater thinkers than Homer?

Let us first start by trying to define critical thinking. This can be quite the challenge as there are as many definitions as there are thinkers, so we'll try and condense all these definitions down to the most succinct possible answer. Critical thinking is intentional thought that is logical, rational, and open-minded. That's not too bad, right? A hallmark of critical thinking is the concept of metacognition which is thinking about your thinking. Critical thinking can be considered the application of metacognitive skills to reasoning. Let's use an example to demonstrate what makes critical thinking.


Let's say that you and your friend are trying to decide what the greatest song ever written is. This is quite the challenge, as it is fundamentally a subjective question. However, you opt to think critically, whereas your friend doesn't. Your friend responds that 'Friday' by Rebecca Black is the greatest song ever written. At this point he/she stops being your friend, but that's beside the point.

You, utilizing your critical thinking, try to dissect the question. What makes a song great? This could be a number of factors: most awards, highest record sales, standing the test of time, influence over culture…you get the point. You are thinking about the question as well as the answer. You are thinking about your thinking. In this process you'll come up with some answers, evaluate their worth, and probably reject most.

You'll weigh various factors, break down information, and use reason and logic to sort through information to find out what is best. Eventually you settle on your idea of the best song ever written, Bach's 'Cello Suite No. One in G Major.' Is this the greatest song ever written? Probably not, but you certainly have utilized critical thinking and come to a better conclusion than your former friend.

Developmental Stages

Many theorists believe there are five stages of development that we pass through in our critical thinking. The basics of each stage are represented in the graphic below.

The Five Stages of Critical Thinking Development
Five Stages of Critical Thinking Development

By engaging in critical thinking exercises you can encourage development between these stages. Don't worry about achieving instant excellence, as most people never reach stage five, and only a handful reach stage four.

Developmental Exercises

So now that we know the fundamentals of what makes critical thinking, how do we encourage its development? This depends greatly on the age and ability of the students in question. For each age group you could come up with hundreds of exercises, but for now we'll explain a few basic exercises so you can see what they are like.

Young Children (ages 5-12)

A fun way to encourage young children to think critically is a game called Space Voyage. The name is pretty self-explanatory - the children pretend they are going to go on a voyage into space. As a class or in small groups the children decide what they should bring on their voyage. You can list a few scenarios they should prepare for, such as landing on a new planet, to get them started. A fun twist is to pretend to be an alien and have them try to explain their Earth ways to you, asking lots of questions to encourage them to think about why we do the things we do. Dressing up as ALF is optional, but recommended.

Teenagers (ages 13-18)

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