This is the first article in a three-part series on teaching critical thinking: Part I | Part II | Part III

There is a great deal of discussion among teachers on how to get students to reason and think critically — and for good reason. With well-developed critical thinking, learners can better scrutinize information they encounter, think flexibly and make informed decisions instead of jumping to conclusions. These abilities are crucial both in and outside school especially as they mature and become immersed in a world full of complexities.

In this three-part series, I will first present ways teachers can prepare students for the rigors of higher-order thinking, then examine how to address the challenges inherent in teaching critical thinking strategies. Finally, we'll look at integrating metacognition throughout this process of inspiring learners to think critically.

Most educators agree that imparting the ability to think critically is quite complicated, yet fortunately there are concrete steps to be taken that promote the capacity to think critically.

The probability of students experiencing success when embarking on assignments requiring higher-order thinking capabilities increases when they have certain foundational cognitive skills and thinking habits. On the other hand, when students lack these capabilities, the outcomes may range from confusion and boredom to automatic rote responses and shouting matches.

Helpful resources

Two resources in particular have helped me identify how to guide my own students in thinking more deeply and broadly. One is Bloom's Taxonomy, and the other is a list of 13 categories of activity developed by Herbert Puchta and Marion Williams, authors of English language textbooks including "Think," a series especially dedicated to inspiring thinking. Both progress from basic to more complex thinking skill areas.

Bloom's hierarchy of thinking processes starts with the fundamentals of memorization, understanding and application. These are considered the foundational mental processes for critical thinking, which is considered part of Level IV analyzing and Level V evaluating.

To apply this taxonomy in my lesson planning, I've made use of charts that break Bloom's levels down into correlating verbs and activities. For example, I may begin to generate questions using keywords from Level II — demonstrate, interpret, extend, illustrate, rephrase, classify — to help students understand the current chapter of the class reader.

Developing language and thinking skills simultaneously

My students have also benefited from activities informed by the categories Herbert Puchta introduces in the booklet, "Developing Thinking Skills in the Young Learner's Classroom." The categories, roughly organized from basic to complex, were designed with the foreign and second language class in mind, yet seem pertinent to students in other disciplines.

Ideally, students leaving primary school should be capable of doing these 13 things:

  • Making comparisons
  • Categorizing
  • Sequencing
  • Focusing attention
  • Memorizing
  • Exploring space
  • Exploring time
  • Exploring numbers
  • Making associations
  • Analyzing cause and effect
  • Making decisions
  • Solving problems
  • Creative thinking

The work created by these two authors has a dual aim: to stimulate learners cognitively with intellectually challenging concepts while at the same time incorporating themes that are significant to their lives.

"The tasks we have developed have a real-world purpose: examples include problem solving, decision making, thinking about the consequences of one’s own or other people's actions and so on," Puchta writes.

Employing guides such as the above list or Bloom's chart serve to reveal our blind spots as teachers.

One of my colleagues suddenly became aware that in literature studies she nearly always asked her students to compare and contrast, little else. When I examined the above list, I recognized areas that some of my students grappled with and tasks I'd yet to explore. As I fill in these gaps, I observe my students more willing to engage in tasks that challenge them to think beyond the obvious and the given.

Building toward critical thinking

Regardless of how deeply or broadly our learners seem to think currently, we can keep an eye on the long-term objective of assisting them in developing into critical thinkers by slanting our basic skills work toward independent thought.

When asking them to categorize, for example, rather than giving students the categories, we can encourage them to develop their own. See how they would group whatever they are classifying, then discuss and get them to justify the reasoning behind their decision-making process.

To incorporate the disposition of fair-mindedness into the above exercise, have them consider other points of view asking them why someone else might choose different categories and to identify other situations where organizing ideas in an alternative fashion would be more useful. This serves to promote sensitivity to other perspectives and flexibility to changing conditions.

Given the rapid shifts that our future generations are sure to witness in the world, we do our students a true service by helping them develop these invaluable qualities of thought alongside their cognitive skills.

In Part II, we examine challenges and strategies for teaching critical thinking.