“I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” Socrates
Critical thinking is when we engage with an idea in order to form both an analysis and an evaluation of the idea. It fosters independent thought that allows us to make personal connections to ideas, to our lives and to the world. Without critical thinking we lack the ability to think beyond ideas previously presented to us. Is there a consequence for having a dearth of these skills or a reward for having them? In an era in which everything is instant and in which answers can easily be googled, is there an incentive to think? What’s the incentive for spending hours writing when answers, or more importantly the answers of others, their thoughts, and opinions can be accessed in seconds. How does this lack of thinking play out in the classroom? It creates impatient students who feel as as if teachers are not helping them when a question goes unanswered. This impatience is reflected in the parent emails that say, “My child is complaining that you aren’t helping him/her in class.” The downcast countenance of students who feel as if they are incapable of resolving a problem on their own exemplify this problem. In this technological age, what would Socrates say? How are teachers able to get their students to think critically?
Despite the struggle, teachers who want their students to do well should spend time developing critical thinkers. When I look at my own top performing students and that of others, I realize that bright students are critical thinkers. Not only do they have the capacity to think critically, but because of this critical thinking, they are able to be flexible with their thinking. I find that students who are both taught and supplied answers are less flexible in their thinking. They are often seen choosing an incorrect answer while knowing it’s incorrect. Their rigidity will not let them pick the unknown answer simply because it’s unknown or because they did not hear the teacher provide explicit instruction. They struggle with process of elimination because they have a difficult time processing new answers or words they have not seen before as possible correct solutions.
Teaching critical thinking in the classroom is an essential skill that is part of sound pedagogical practice. The classroom environment, however, must be conducive to creating original thought, the cornerstone to producing critical thinking. Students must feel comfortable expressing themselves and must be encouraged to support their own ideas grounded in sound reasoning and evidence. Individuality must be exhorted, allowing for students to either agree or disagree with their peers’ ideas, thoughts, and opinions. One technique that develops critical thinking is Socratic Seminars, a pedagogical approach that evolves from natural organic conversations versus scripted facilitation cards and unnatural shifts in conversation because the teacher wants to target a predetermined point. If Socratic Seminars are used correctly, students can develop critical analysis at each level of their education.
To further develop critical thinking, students need a wide variety of knowledge in order to connect ideas to larger concepts. Reading informational texts including broadsheet newspapers, essays, and news magazines will develop the knowledge necessary for critical thinking. Let’s encourage our students to read and analyze more fiction and nonfiction texts and watch them soar to great heights. Use alternative assessments that call for original thought instead of a regurgitation of information.
Ponder the following quote from Daniel T. Willingham’s, Critical Thinking, Why Is It So Hard To Teach?
“critical thinking is not a set of skills that
can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type
of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in—and
even trained scientists can fail in. And it is very much
dependent on domain knowledge and practice.”
What are your thoughts on critical thinking and building background knowledge?