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Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

Instructor: Clio Stearns
Critical thinking is one of the most important habits a student can learn. This lesson helps you figure out what critical thinking skills are and how you can help your students develop them.

Critical Thinking is What Education Is All About

Perhaps more than anything else, we hope that our students become critical thinkers. Someone who can think critically can see the world from different points of view. A critical thinker isn't easily duped by false advertising, nor is she fooled by political machinations. A critical thinker is an active, engaged citizen who reads the world with an eye toward improving it. Someone with strong critical thinking skills sees how complicated the important questions can be. Critical thinkers are even able to have richer interpersonal relationships because of their ability to see the world from multiple perspectives.

Yet even though few would argue that it is important, critical thinking can be a challenge to teach. Critical thinking skills develop over time, and there is no one magical way to teach a student to think critically. In this lesson, we will look in depth at three effective strategies for helping students become critical thinkers. The strategies you will learn - perspective taking, question/answer parking lots, and learning transfer times - can be modified for any age group and can work in the context of any subject area. Experiment with these strategies as you plan lessons, and you might be surprised by how deeply and critically your students can think.

Perspective Taking

Have you ever tried looking at a question from a different person's point of view? Many of us do this all the time in our day to day life, not to mention in our work. In social situations, we ask ourselves, 'Why is my friend not calling me back? What might she be going through?' At work, we might look at a problem or question from the point of view of a boss or an employee.

Turns out, learning to take different people's perspectives is at the heart of critical thinking, and exercises in perspective taking can be surprisingly easy to incorporate into your teaching. Here are some tricks for getting your students to take on other perspectives:

  • When social conflicts come up, as they do in so many classes, ask your students to take a break and write a journal entry from a different individual's point of view. Describe the situation from that person's point of view, and then reflect on how that perspective is different from their own.
  • Literacy and social studies are perfect places for perspective taking. Ask students to spend ten minutes imagining they are in the mind of a character from literature or history. This can be particularly meaningful if the character is very different from the student: a different ethnic background, race, gender, or physical ability, for instance. Give your students lots of opportunities to talk about what this is like.
  • Perspective taking can happen in math, science, and any other class as well. When you pose questions for your students, ask them to think about how they might answer differently if they were a different person. Give them a chance to discuss how who they are impacts how they see the world. This is a key aspect of critical thinking and engaged learning.

Question/Answer Parking Lots

A parking lot is a place where cars can stay while their drivers are doing other things. Similarly, a question/answer parking lot is a place where students' ideas can rest and percolate while the student is focusing on other tasks.

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