How to teach critical thinking skills through digital learning
It’s anyone’s guess what the workplace of tomorrow will look like, with cultural work norms changing in the wake of the pandemic and innovation happening faster than ever. But one thing is certain, K-12 educators are expected to prepare students to thrive in college and their future careers, whatever those may look like. That means, instead of preparing students to thrive in a certain type of role, teachers have to focus on preparing students for many future scenarios.
Considered one of the key elements of 21st-century learning, critical thinking — or thinking that is deliberately rational and evidence-based, rather than emotional or based on preconceived notions — is vital to helping students become resilient learners and problem solvers who can thrive in a variety of scenarios. Critical thinking skills include analysis, interpretation, inference, explanation, self-regulation, open-mindedness, and problem solving.
Research shows students’ aptitude in critical thinking and problem solving can have a direct and positive effect on school performance. According to Stanford’s Learning Policy Institute, hiring experienced teachers who emphasize critical thinking in lessons has helped school districts in the state of California close the decades-long student achievement gap.
But figuring out how to teach critical thinking to a class full of students from different backgrounds and skill levels can be challenging. Here’s a deeper look at what critical thinking is and how classroom management software can help teachers facilitate these lessons for students across the learning spectrum.
Understanding critical thinking
Teachers have been trying to teach students to think critically and independently for decades. In fact, critical thinking is an inherent part of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a gold standard for educational frameworks.
The phases of the pyramid call for students to justify their reasoning, draw connections from different ideas, use information in new situations, and explain ideas or concepts. All of these stages are hallmarks of good critical-thinking processes. Ideally, the seeds for good critical thinking should be planted throughout the K-12 years, when students’ minds are still in the formative phase.
According to educator and teacher trainer Brian Oshiro, in adult life, “we all have to deal with questions that are a lot more complicated than those found on a multiple-choice test,” he says in a TEDxXiguan talk. “We need to give students an opportunity to grapple with questions that don’t necessarily have one correct answer. This is more realistic of the types of situations that they’re likely to face when they get outside the classroom.”
Yet critical thinking has proven very difficult to teach. Research from Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, shows that students aren’t seeing long-term benefits from critical thinking exercises and games, and it’s difficult for students to apply critical thinking skills to new subject areas. This may result from students being conditioned to think there’s only one right answer to a question, lack of familiarity with a specific subject area, or from their preconceived notions of how something should be solved based on their past experiences.
Five strategies for teaching critical thinking
There are many ways teachers can fan the flames of critical thinking among their students. Here are five strategies:
- Mini research assignments
Teachers can assign students mini research papers that require students to look into the evidence and facts of a topic and make a persuasive argument for their case. Ideally, students will be assigned topics and asked to prove the opposite of what they actually think (e.g., the school year should be longer or the driving age should be raised to 18).
When conducting these types of assignments, it’s a good idea to use a classroom management software like LanSchool with web limiting capabilities to make sure students don’t veer off into undesirable websites as they research. Additional features such as Screen Monitoring and Messaging, may be used to monitor a student’s progress and discreetly steer them in a better direction.
After students have completed the assignments, educators should lead a discussion pointing out that facts can be used to prove any side of an argument. This will help students form a strategy for discerning between strong evidence and weak evidence, as well as credible and non-credible sources.
- Collaborative learning
Collaborative learning is another in-class activity that teaches students there can be multiple perspectives and approaches to the same challenge. Assign students a project goal that promotes conflicting points of view.
For example, before splitting students into groups, establish a common problem scenario (e.g., getting gum stuck in one’s hair or losing your keys) and challenge each student to come up with their own invention for solving the problem (silly answers are fine). Then, break students into groups to choose the best invention among all the options. Have students swap inventions and argue on behalf of another student’s idea. This will help students remove egos from the situation and examine ideas more objectively.
Once each group has chosen its best invention, reunite the class and have group leaders swap inventions and present one more time then conduct a poll to decide on the best one.
- Analyze a story
Reading and writing classes may have the upper hand here, but even science or math can use stories to teach critical thinking. Find a story about a historical figure from a relevant field and walk students through the process of analyzing his/her motivations, backstory, challenges, and a handful of “what if” scenarios related to the person’s success or failure.
Challenge students to think beyond the story on the page by introducing additional variables such as, what might have happened if this person had been born blind? What if he or she had a competitor who went to market first? What if he or she had been born in a different era?
Even younger children can begin thinking critically by using their imagination to examine why a story unfolded the way it did and how it might have turned out differently.
- Connect different ideas
A shorter exercise that can be just as effective is challenging students to connect the dots between two different ideas. Explain to students that critical thinking means looking beyond the face value of a situation and evaluating it in terms of the larger context.
For example, give students a verbal or writing prompt such as, “If you were a farmer, what are three external factors that could affect your success?” (e.g., weather, insects, soil conditions, competition, time of year, and popularity of a certain fruit or vegetable)
Those with questions or those struggling with the assignment can use LanSchool’s Raise Hand feature to privately ask for teach assistance
- Analyze an analogy
Another short exercise that is best completed individually, is to give each student an analogy and ask him or her to analyze what it means. For example, “What a child is to a mother, a song is to a singer.” Give the student five to seven minutes to explain what the analogy means and send explanations via direct message.
Teachers can use the LanSchool Snapshot feature to showcase the best analyses to the class to encourage further discussion.
Call critical thinking by name
With each of these strategies, it’s smart to explain to students that these exercises require critical thinking skills and these same skills should be applied to other projects, even when not prompted. After some training, educators should begin asking students to remember and share examples of moments they have found themselves using critical thinking in their daily lives.
Critical thinking is a skill that any child can learn, regardless of background or skill level. As students start to apply it to other spheres of learning and problem solving, it becomes a gift that keeps on giving.
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