Getting Real about Critical Thinking

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You probably see excerpts from the teacher manual that read, Strategies for Critical Thinking quite often. But, what does it mean?

The term critical thinking has become quite common in our society today. Critical thinking is the ability to analyze information critically, evaluate ideas, and draw conclusions. It is also known as metacognition or thinking about thinking. 

Because critical thinking is essential, strategies to support critical thinking are everywhere. From the Common Core Standards to the teacher's edition of your school curriculum, critical thinking skills are placed front and center for teachers to see. While these efforts to develop critical thinking are well-intentioned,  applying critical thinking in the classroom/microschool can be difficult. As teachers, sometimes we wonder- am I doing this right? 

This blog is going to answer that question. This article won't give you more strategies for integrating critical thinking into your classroom/microschool. Instead, this article will break down what critical thinking looks, sounds, and feels like when you are during a lesson. These descriptions will give you confidence and a toolbox to get feedback on the critical thinking strategies you use.  

What does critical thinking look like in the classroom or microschool?

Ask yourself these questions.

How are students physically learning?

A lot can be said about a learning space. To optimize critical thinking skill development, have students work in groups as much as possible. Whether it is a group project or a group discussion, look for indicators that show that students are being exposed to the thought process of their classmates. Intentional emphasis on the thought process demonstrates to students the many ways to approach and solve a problem.


How are students expressing themselves? 

Examine how the thoughts and ideas of your students are physically manifested. In a classroom/microschool that is optimizing critical thinking strategies, you will see a lot of creative expressions. Students will apply their learning by creating something new and unique to them. This can look like an art project, song, poem, game, or even an idea students independently thought up. It is a great sign your critical thinking strategies are working if applying knowledge leads to the act of creation in your classroom/microschool.

How are my students engaging?

Critical thinking skills are developed when a student reasons about what beliefs they hold or what actions to take next. These skills include observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, and explanation. None of these skills can occur in isolation; thought partners are often required to develop critical thinking skills. Use effective listening to gauge the success of critical thinking in your classroom/microschool. Observe your students to see if they are focused on the speaker and if they are taking notes or collecting information in some form. When engaged in effective listening, students often recognize assumptions and make connections between ideas, which could influence the follow-up questions they ask.

A microschool students smiling at the photographer

How are my students questioning?

If you have ever stood in front of a class only to hear crickets- you are not alone! It happens to the best of us but should occur less as our students build critical thinking skills. As these skills develop, students will ask more questions than the teacher. This is because students become deeply engaged in the content and begin to internalize the process of applying knowledge to new situations. You may not see a change overnight, so the questions students generate serve as a longitudinal indicator of critical thinking developed over time in your classroom/microschool.

How are my students guiding conversation?

Similar to questions, students should own the conversation. This means that teachers set back and empower their students to guide the conversation. Because critical thinking involves interpretation, analysis, and evaluation, students may begin to disagree with one another. This is a natural sign that students are developing critical thinking skills. When this occurs, teachers should be mindful to observe and guide the formulation of opposing viewpoints. Surface-level opinions do not reflect the breadth of critical thinking, so watch for students who dig deep to form their opinion. 

How has reasoning changed?

Another great longitudinal indicator of critical thinking is student reasoning. As students develop critical thinking skills, they will be pushed to go beyond a Google Search or Alexa response. Each answer should lead to another question. Because of that, students will demonstrate flexibility in their reasoning. Watch for beliefs and opinions to change once new information is presented. Students will also begin to use words of reasoning in their dialogue. Vocabulary words that clarify positions or clarify uncertain statements will soon come to life.

A Prenda student presenting

How are my students taking action?

As students develop, evidence, and defend their beliefs, ideas, concerns, and opinions, they naturally want to make their voices heard. Their motivation will be palpable! Students will begin thinking about ways they can impact their surroundings to take action. This action will take different forms, including participation, advocacy, entrepreneurship, and lifestyle choices. Teachers should be mindful that this action may look small and feel grassroots. That is okay. The most important thing is that taking action shows that students have developed critical thinking skills.

How do students treat one another?

A feeling of fairness pulses throughout a critical thinking classroom/microschool. Every student contributes to a discussion over time. Opinions are shared logically and separated from emotion. No student believes their thoughts are more or less worthy or that an idea is not subject to scrutiny or affirmation. This classroom/microschool is a welcoming space for all students, even those who do not see themselves as critical thinkers. 

How do students show they want more?

Students who develop critical thinking skills want more than the standard curriculum. At times, this feels like a deep curiosity radiating from students. At other times, students can seem to abruptly disengage from classroom material. When a teacher observes these indicators of critical thinking development, project-based learning can be used to push students. Adding elements like authentic learning, sustained inquiry, and a public product are excellent ways to satisfy students who want more.

Let’s tie it all together

These questions guide teachers to engage in critical thinking themselves. Using skills like observation and interpretation, teachers can monitor their classroom/microschool and get instant and long-term feedback. This feedback can be analyzed and evaluated as teachers chart how their classes engage, develop, and apply critical thinking skills.

These questions bring the strategies found on paper to life and help your class transform into a vibrant, thoughtful community.