Critical Thinking Strategies For Kids

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Getting students to dig deeper and answer questions using higher-level thinking can be a challenge. Here are our favorite tips for teaching critical thinking skills, adapted from Mentoring Minds’ Critical Thinking Strategies Guide, that help kids solve problems by going beyond the obvious response.

1. Slow down the pace.

It’s easy to fall into a routine of calling on one of the first kids who raises a hand. But if you wait even just 3 to 5 seconds after asking a question, you’ll probably find the pool of students willing to give an answer grows significantly. Plus, it helps the speedy kids learn that the first answer that pops into their head isn’t always the best. There are times you may even want to wait up to a minute or longer if the question is particularly complex or time-consuming. To avoid an awkward pause, you can let kids know that they have 10 seconds to think before answering the question or that you need to see 10 hands raised from volunteers before you hear a response.

2. Pose a Question of the Day.

Put a new spin on bell ringers by asking a Question of the Day. Use a questioning stem (e.g., create a riddle that uses the mathematics term “multiply” in one of the clues or write a letter to a classmate recommending this book) and put it on the board. Students can write answers in their critical-thinking journals. Then have a class discussion at the end of the day.

3. Make a response box.

Write a random critical-thinking question on the board, (e.g., Is there a better way to work out this problem? Explain your thinking.). Give students a specified amount of time to provide a written response and put it in the response box. Pull out entries one by one and read them aloud to the class. Alternatively, you can give a prize—like a homework pass or free time—to the student with the first appropriate response whose name is drawn from the box or to everyone who submitted appropriate answers.

4. Take a side.

First, read a statement that has two opposing views (e.g., Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why?). Ask kids who agree to stand on one side of the room and those who disagree to stand on the other side. Then have kids talk about why they chose each side. They can switch sides if they change their minds during the discussion.

5. Ask “why?” five times.

When you encounter a problem in class, you can help the class come up with a solution by using the Why? Five Times strategy. Ask the first why question (e.g., Why didn’t the class do well on the spelling test?), and after a response is given, ask why four more times (e.g., Why didn’t students study for the test?, Why didn’t students have time to study for the test?, etc.). The idea is that after the fifth question is asked, the problem will be solved.

6. Role-play.

Come up with an imaginary scenario and have kids work through the steps to solve a problem as a class. First, identify the problem and write it as a question (e.g., Why didn’t the science experiment work as planned?). Then brainstorm ideas to solve it and choose the best one to write as a solution statement. Finally, create an action plan to carry out the solution.

7. Go “hitchhiking.”

Practice creative thinking by collaborating on a storyboard. Write a problem on an index card and pin it on the top of a bulletin board. Then put different headings on index cards and pin them below the main card. Have kids brainstorm ideas that develop each of the heading cards and let kids pin them on the board. Encourage kids to “go hitchhiking” by building onto their classmates’ ideas.

8. Turn around.

A great way to focus on the positive in not-so-positive situations is the Turn Around thinking strategy. If a student forgets to bring his homework to school, you can ask, “What good can come of this?” The student can answer with ideas like, “I will change my routine before I go to bed.”

9. Put your pocket chart to good use.

Choose six completed questioning stems from different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and put them in a pocket chart. Choose some strips as mandatory and let kids pick two from the higher levels to answer aloud or in a journal.

10. Hold a Q&A session.

One way you can figure out how well kids are grasping critical-thinking skills is by holding question-and-answer sessions. Ask a variety of questions one-on-one or in small groups and take note of the levels of thought individual students use regularly and avoid over time. You can review your notes to help build more higher-order-thinking questions into your lessons.

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Teaching critical thinking:

An evidence-based guide

© 2009-2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Teaching critical thinking? You might wonder if kids will work it out for themselves.

After all, lots of smart people have managed to think logically without formal instruction in logic. Moreover, studies show that kids become better learners when they are forced to explain how they solve problems. So maybe kids will discover principles of logic spontaneously, as they discuss their ideas with others.

But research hints at something else, too.

Perhaps the most effective way to foster critical thinking skills is to teach those skills. Explicitly. (Abrami et al 2008).

Studies suggest that students become remarkably better problem-solvers when we teach them to

  • analyze analogies
  • create categories and classify items appropriately
  • identify relevant information
  • construct and recognize valid deductive arguments
  • test hypotheses
  • recognize common reasoning fallacies
  • distinguish between evidence and interpretations of evidence

Do such lessons stifle creativity? Not at all. Critical thinking is about curiosity, flexibility, and keeping an open mind (Quitadamo et al 2008). And, as Robert DeHaan has argued, creative problem solving depends on critical thinking skills (DeHaan 2009).

In fact, research suggests that explicit instruction in critical thinking may make kids smarter, more independent, and more creative.

Here are some examples--and some expert tips for teaching critical thinking to kids.

Teaching critical thinking may boost inventiveness and raise IQ

Richard Herrnstein and his colleagues gave over 400 seventh graders explicit instruction in critical thinking--a program that covered hypothesis testing, basic logic, and the evaluation of complex arguments, inventiveness, decision making, and other topics.

After sixty 45-minute lessons, the kids were tested on a variety of tasks, including tests the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test and Raven Progressive Matrices (both used to measure IQ). The project was remarkably effective.

Compared to students in a control group, the kids given critical thinking lessons made substantial and statistically significant improvements in language comprehension, inventive thinking, and even IQ (Herrnstein et al 1986).

Teaching critical thinking in science class may help kids solve everyday problems

In another experimental study, researchers Anat Zohar and colleagues tested 678 seventh graders’ analytical skills. Then they randomly assigned some students to receive critical thinking lessons as part of their biology curriculum.

Students in the experimental group were explicitly trained to recognize logical fallacies, analyze arguments, test hypotheses, and distinguish between evidence and the interpretation of evidence.

Students in a control group learned biology from the same textbook but got no special coaching in critical thinking.

At the end of the program, students were tested again. The students with critical thinking training showed greater improvement in their analytical skills, and not just for biology problems. The kids trained in critical thinking also did a better job solving everyday problems (Zohar et al 1994).

Tips for teaching critical thinking: What should parents and teachers do?

The short answer is make the principles of rational and scientific thinking explicit.

Philip Abrami and colleagues analyzed 117 studies about teaching critical thinking. The teaching approach with the strongest empirical support was explicit instruction--i.e., teaching kids specific ways to reason and solve problems. In studies where teachers asked students to solve problems without giving them explicit instruction, students experienced little improvement (Abrami et al 2008).

So it seems that kids benefit most when they are taught formal principles of reasoning. And the experiments mentioned above suggest that middle school students aren't too young to learn about logic, rationality, and the scientific method.

If your school isn’t teaching your child these things, then it might be a good idea to find some educational materials and work on critical thinking skills at home.

I also wonder about the need to counteract the forces of irrationality. As I’ve complained elsewhere, TV, books, “educational" software, and misinformed authority figures can discourage critical thinking in children.

What else can we do?

Recent research suggests that our schools can improve critical thinking skills by teaching kids the art of debate.

And at home, parents may consider these recommendations made by Peter Facione and a panel of experts convened by the American Philosophical Association (Facione 1990).

The American Philosophical Association's tips for teaching critical thinking

Start early. Young children might not be ready for lessons in formal logic. But they can be taught to give reasons for their conclusions. And they can be taught to evaluate the reasons given by others. Wondering where to begin? If you have young child, check out these research-based tips for teaching critical thinking and scientific reasoning to preschoolers.

Avoid pushing dogma. When we tell kids to do things in a certain way, we should give reasons.

Encourage kids to ask questions. Parents and teachers should foster curiosity in children. If a rationale doesn’t make sense to a child, she should be encouraged to voice her objection or difficulty.

Ask kids to consider alternative explanations and solutions. It’s nice to get the right answer. But many problems yield themselves to more than one solution. When kids consider multiple solutions, they may become more flexible thinkers.

Get kids to clarify meaning. Kids should practice putting things in their own words (while keeping the meaning intact). And kids should be encouraged to make meaningful distinctions.

Talk about biases. Even grade school students can understand how emotions, motives--even our cravings--can influence our judgments.

Don’t confine critical thinking to purely factual or academic matters. Encourage kids to reason about ethical, moral, and public policy issues.

Get kids to write. This last recommendation doesn’t come from Facione or the APA, but it makes good sense. As many teachers know, the process of writing helps students clarify their explanations and sharpen their arguments. In a recent study, researchers assigned college biology students to one of two groups. The writing group had to turn in written explanations of their laboratory work. The control group had to answer brief quizzes instead. At the end of the term, the students in the writing group had increased their analytical skills significantly. Students in the control group had not (Quitadamo and Kurtz 2007).

More information

For more information about improving your child's problem-solving skills, be sure to check out my articles on intelligence in children and science education for kids.




References: Tips for teaching critical thinking to kids

Abrami PC, Bernard RM, Borokhovski E, Wadem A, Surkes M A, Tamim R, Zhang D. 2008. Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: a stage 1 meta-analysis. Rev. Educ. Res. 78:1102–1134.

DeHaan RL. 2009. Teaching creativity and inventive problem solving in science. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 8: 172-181.

Facione PA and the American Philosophical Association. 1990. Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. In: Research Findings and Recommendations, Millbrae, CA: Insight Assessment.

Herrnstein RJ, Nickerson RS, Sanchez M and Swets JA. 1986. Teaching thinking skills. American Psychologist 41: 1279-1289.

Quitadamo JJ, Faiola CL, Johnson JE and Kurtz MJ. 2008. Community-based inquiry improves critical thinking in general biology. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 7: 327-337.

Quitadamo IJ and Kurtz MJ. 2007. Learning to Improve: Using Writing to Increase Critical Thinking Performance in General Education Biology CBE Life Sci Educ 6(2): 140-154.

Zohar A, Weinberger Y and Tamir P. 1994. The effect of the biology critical thinking project on the development of critical thinking. Journal of Res. Sci. Teachiing 31(2): 183-196.

Content last modified 10/12

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