How to teach critical thinking in K-12


One of the secular goals of education is to teach students “how to think.” but what does that mean exactly? Doesn’t everyone already think for himself? Is thinking – in the abstract – even something you can teach or improve upon?

These questions have new resonances in these tense and sometimes frightening times. New communication technologies and media sources seemingly exceed our capacities for thinking, concentration and self-control. There is a lot of speculation that they have poisoned our political discourse, polarized democratic electorates, and have been exploited by potential despots to misinform and gain political power.

Can learning to think help us overcome these challenges? At the Reboot Foundation, which I founded to advance critical thinking research and education, we firmly believe the answer is yes. And to that end, we recently released a critical thinking teacher’s guide. We worked with top professors in different fields and grade levels across the country to produce the guide.

We ask a lot of our teachers in the United States. They must meet a range of state requirements; they face pressure (often unreasonable) to provide test results; they are overworked and underpaid. In many schools, as our survey found, they have little or no time to focus on deeper learning goals – like critical thinking skills – which are difficult to measure, but which in the long run. term, can impact the lives of students far more than testable. knowledge.

In addition to these time constraints and testing pressures, critical thinking is too often overlooked because it is not usually taught as a stand-alone academic subject. There is a lack of consensus on how to teach it and even what critical thinking is. And there isn’t a lot of high-quality material available to provide ideas on how to incorporate critical thinking into teaching or advance professional development about it.

That said, there is actually a good reason for do not teaching critical thinking as its own subject, and at Reboot we don’t advocate stand-alone critical thinking courses. Research shows that while critical thinking can be taught, it cannot be taught on its own – at least not effectively. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive science researcher, writes that attempts to teach general thinking skills through logical and spatial puzzles, for example, as parts of lessons added to the curriculum are usually unsuccessful. These skills do not “transfer” to thinking in other areas, but generally remain linked to the logic games where they are learned.

It may sound daunting, but it also presents a great opportunity for schools and teachers. What is needed is not necessarily new courses, but critical reflection throughout the program. Some of these changes can happen quickly with adjustments to existing programs and the incorporation of deeper and more creative thinking exercises.

For example, in our article on teaching critical thinking in science, we advocate for science labs that give students the opportunity to design their own experiments and test their own hypothesis about how to acquire knowledge – rather than to simply follow recipes to duplicate already known results. Our example lesson asks students to create their own model to describe the movement of coffee filters falling to the floor. Science education that fosters this type of creativity can help the science method come to life for students. Instead of seeing it as a set of steps that they have to complete or memorize, it becomes a way of thinking that they discover by doing. It also helps to strengthen the intrinsic motivation of the students.

Likewise, in our article on teaching civics, we advise teachers to facilitate classroom discussions where students are responsible for researching topics such as the death penalty, developing a knowledge base and learning about it. ‘use to advocate for particular positions. Throughout the process, teachers should also give students the opportunity to reflect on their progress in articulating and refining their views, through explicit journaling projects or class discussions. The goal is to develop students’ abilities to reflect on their own learning and to begin to develop conscious and intentional interests that will stay with them when they leave the classroom.

Students come to school with a natural curiosity and love of learning, but too often, in the midst of rote testing and programming priorities, these attributes disappear. In order to best foster the development of natural curiosity into a genuine and continuing interest in learning and knowledge, schools should give students the opportunity to pursue their own interests, develop their own points of view and struggle with open questions. In other words, they must prioritize critical thinking.



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