Two questions:
1)   Should we teach students to be critical thinkers?
Everyone said yes – right? Excellent!  We all agree!
Now for the tough one…
2)   How would you define critical thinking?  Can you do it in one sentence?
Hmmm….maybe we have slightly different answers to that one.  Not totally different, but different enough to matter.
 So let’s start where we all agree:

  • Critical thinking is crucial for students’ learning.
  • Teaching thinking as an explicit goal (along with understandings and discrete skills) is clearly moving us in the right direction. 

ImageA little research to back that up:
In The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner interviewed employers across the country to determine what skills students needed most in the 21st century.  Top of his list:  critical thinking and problem solving. It’s the first of the Seven Survival Skills students “need for careers, continuous learning, and citizenship in an increasingly flat world” (Wagner, Creating Innovators 12).
Critical thinking is clearly an important goal.
So how do we define it?
ImageThe Foundation for Critical Thinking has a pretty straightforward definition:  critical thinking is thinking about your thinking in order to improve it.   
It seems, though, that when people talk about critical thinking that’s not exactly what they mean.   They mean something a little broader and more encompassing than the Foundation’s definition.
In fact it almost seems like we are using critical thinking as shorthand for the type of thinking we should be teaching to prepare students for college, for careers and for the 21st century – the kind of thinking that allows you to figure out something complex or create a new solution.
What that thinking looks like? 
A good first step is to break thinking down into different types.  The indisputable king of that domain is Benjamim Bloom’s taxonomy which was revised by Anderson and Krathwohl in the 1990’s.  The taxonomy outlines different cognitive processes including remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create.

(In the revision, Anderson and Krathwohl also added knowledge dimensions to the framework.  One of those dimensions is metacognition – thinking about your thinking.   We could place the Critical Thinking Foundation’s model in this category as it is a system for analyzing and evaluating your thinking.)
People use the term “critical thinking” to mean the thinking we should teach, then in the context of Blooms it often becomes a proxy for higher order thinkinganalyze, evaluate, create.  All of which certainly fall in the category of the thinking we should be teaching (especially create!).
The idea that we should move away from teaching “lower-order thinking” skills, however, is a bit of an oversimplification.  The process of understanding, which is lumped with lower-order processes, is extremely complex and valuable.
In fact in another attempt to describe thinking, Ron Ritchhart of the Cultures of Thinking Project and Harvard’s Project Zero identified eight thinking moves that were needed to develop deep understanding.  They are:

2. Building explanations and interpretations
3. Reasoning with evidence
4. Making connections
5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
6. Capturing the heart and forming a conclusion
7. Wondering and asking questions
8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things
(Making Thinking Visible, 11-13)
In addition, Ritchhart identifies six other key thinking moves that are useful for problem solving, decision making and forming judgments:
2. Generating possibilities and alternatives
3. Evaluating evidence, arguments and actions
4. Formulating plans and monitoring actions
5. Identifying claims, assumptions and bias
6. Clarifying priorities, conditions and what is known

If that’s not enough thinking skills for you, the college readiness world has also developed a list of thinking skills crucial for college success.
In the 2007 report “Redefining College ReadinessDavid Conely listed seven cognitive strategies that were “at the heart of the intellectual endeavor of the university.”  Conely wrote that without these “entering college student either struggles mightily until these habits begin to develop or misses out on the largest portion of what college has to offer, which is how to think about the world.” The seven are:

  1. Intellectual openness
  2. Inquisitiveness
  3. Interpretation
  4. Precision and accuracy
  5. Problem solving
  6. Analysis
  7. Reasoning, argumentation, proof

Woooo …that’s a lot and it’s not even taking into consideration the field of creative thinking where Sir Ken Robinson is the guru-in-chief.


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Now it’s your turn to put on your thinking cap.  How would you synthesize this research?  What are the patterns that emerge across different ways we categorize thinking?  What  are the key thinking moves that we need to be teaching students?
Here’s a few thoughts:
1) Without a doubt, teaching thinking as an explicit goal is a MUST!  Teaching thinking is the Holy Grail  of transferable learning and it has to be at the center of instruction.
2) No matter what thinking skill you are trying to teach, the first step is getting students to do the intellectual heavy-lifting – to do the thinking for themselves.
3) Whatever your thinking focus, having students evaluate and analyze their own thinking is a powerful lever for improving that thinking.  And for doing that there’s no system (that I’ve come across) better than the model from the Critical Thinking Foundation.
So maybe it all does come down to teaching critical thinking!  🙂
Have a great week!