Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
How to Teach Critical Thinking
A few months ago some tadpoles fell into my lap, figuratively and literally at times! I had reservations initially, but thought, well, this would be a good learning experience for my kiddos. I'm an experiential educator afterall. I am attuned to opportunities that get children involved, and this would do just that.
My kids observed the frogs' life cycle, learned how to keep a tadpole alive and problem-solved when unprecedented events inevitably arose. When their solutions failed, they tried something else. They observed tadpole behaviors, asked questions, designed and conducted experiments. They interpreted unexpected behaviors, hashed out possible explanations, talked with a variety of experts, and drew conclusions from their experiences and research.
My five and two year olds did this. Of course their observations and questions may have been slightly different than that of a high schooler, and their research and experimentation would look different for my kids than it would for a teenager. I mean, my 5 and 2-year-olds can't read or leave the house without a parent, and they have a pretty narrow worldview. But they can critically think. They can problem-solve, evaluate, speculate, analyze, reflect, consider alternatives to the obvious, make predictions, examine deviations from what is expected. Their solutions might not be completely rational, and their analysis may only touch the surface, but skill in those areas will come with time, brain-development, and practice.
I would love to give my high school students this same learning experience. I know lecture, note-taking, textbook reading, and worksheets have their place in some of your classrooms. I'm sure you can even justify them. But that is not what this post is about. This post is about critical thinking, and none of those teaching methods will help your learners transition into adulthood as competent critical thinkers. If you value critical thinking and/or expect your learners to critically think, you'll have to set the stage for success. There are many ways to do that. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
5 Ways to Engage Students in Critical Thinking
1. Organize Learning Experiences that Promote Critical Thinking:
Offer activities, such as our tadpole project, that challenge learners to observe, analyze, create, fail, evaluate, problems-solve, reflect, interpret, and more. There are many learning activities that involve critical thinking by nature, such as STEM/STEAM, activities that use design thinking such as maker projects, inquiry-based learning, place-based learning, project-based learning, and yes, play. If you are working with young children unstructured play might be the best thing you can do to encourage critical thinking. You too, kindergarten teachers!
One of my favorite activities for critical thinking is problem-based learning. In problem-based learning students are asked to identify complex real-world problems. Solutions aren't always clear, or there may not be just one, thus costs and benefits must be analyzed and weighed. A variety of perspectives are examined and considered when coming to the most effective solution(s).
For a variety of resources that promote critical thinking, head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT. There you can find problem-based learning, project-based learning, and inquiry-based learning toolkits. You can even find a project specific to 21st-century skill building called 21st-Century Skills Portfolio.
2. Questions, Questions, and More Questions:
Encourage your students to ask questions! Inspire students to ask questions that are open-ended, those that don't always have a clear answer. Give your students the confidence to ask deep questions by inviting those questions, pushing learners to dig deeper, and by answering their questions with another question, such as "what do you already know about that?", "how could you find out?", "what do you notice if you look at it from this perspective?".
To empower learners to ask their own questions, create a learning environment that gives them the space, time, resources, and encouragement to do so. Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are great learning tools for this.
3. Observations, Observations, and More Observations:
Observations more often than not give rise to questions. My children observed that our tadpoles rarely moved. They were surprisingly lethargic all of the time. This one observation generated a plethora of questions such as whether this behavior is normal, if tadpoles are this immobile in the wild, if they were hungry at the time, if they were going through a specific phase of their life cycle that required more energy than others. Making observations, asking questions, exploring those questions, experimenting and analyzing results is critical thinking. Student-directed open-inquiry is a great way to practice using these skills, and open-inquiry starts with observations.
Examining and evaluating others' work is one way to practice making consequential observations such as dissecting current events, perusing scientific publications, interpreting music lyrics, analyzing debates, and even conducting peer evaluations. Project-based learning is one such learning tool that promotes peer feedback. By teaching learners to make observations they are in turn building critical thinking skills.
4. Allow Students to Direct Their Own Learning Experiences:
When given choice and autonomy, learners make decisions for themselves, which in itself requires critical thinking. To design a project, for example, students need to evaluate their skills, consider their interests, ask relevant questions, find sources and analyze credibility. Throughout the project process learners reflect on their experiences and plan accordingly. In contrast, when learners are given a specific task that is put together for them, a task that has a right/wrong/yes/no answer, critical thinking is not at play. Teach students how to critically think by giving them the tools to think for themselves. One of those tools is choice.
Look back at posts from my student-directed learning series for help getting started. It can seem a daunting transition to go from teacher-centered to student-directed, but it's not so bad if you have direction and support.
5. Establish a Culture of Critical Thinkers
Show your students that you value critical thinking by establishing a learning environment that promotes it. If critical thinking is the expectation, if you vocalize it's value, if it becomes a part of your every day lexicon, if you provide experiences for learners that endorse critical thinking, and if you uphold its importance by demonstrating critical thinking yourself, you are engaging your learners in this very critical 21st-century skill.
These are just six of many ways you can engage your students in critical thinking. All educators should be making 21st-century skills a priority, not just advisors, career counselors, and life skills instructors. I'm a science teacher. It is my responsibility to teach the content, yes, but content and 21st-century skills are not mutually exclusive. Learners can have it all.
Okay, this is no longer a rhetorical question. How are you engaging your students in critical thinking? I'd love you all to share some strategies that have been effective, and even those that have not. Let's share!
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.