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1.  Encouraging critical thinking skills

As educators, one of the (numerous) goals we strive to attain is to create learners who can think critically and solve problems that life throws at them on their own. Unfortunately, this is a daunting process that does not happen overnight and something that we need to deliberately and tediously TEACH our students on a daily basis.

The generation of today is used to having instant access to everything; from information, entertainment, food, social media and news. Some people generally and comically refer to them as the instant generation. Everything they want and need is within the reach of their very-nimble-and-tech-savvy-fingertips; from Uber Eats, ChatGBT to playing Fortnite throughout the night, 24/7 online news broadcasts, social media updates and all this without ever needing to leave the comfort of their own homes.

From an educational standpoint (not even touching upon the social- or emotional aspects) this holds various concerns for the learners of today`s day and age; one being that they are not able to think critically. One of the consequences of information and knowledge being so readily available and dished up in bite-sized chunks, results in learners not developing the critical thinking skills needed to adequately process and interact with information.

2.  Why is critical thinking important?

In a century that is so dramatically different - we need to teach different skills than what we are used to - and this includes ones that involve higher-order thinking skills like critical thinking. We live in a world that is more demanding and competitive than it was in the past and possessing information is clearly not enough anymore. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we teach learners critical thinking skills that will enable them to make effective decisions, stir curiosity and allow them to think deeply to effectively solve problems in both their personal and (hopefully one day) their professional lives as well.

3.  What is critical thinking?

As teachers we often hear that we should teach critical thinking skills - but what exactly does this entail? Critical thinking summed up is the following:

  • A mental habit of thinking twice about information

  • Thinking about thinking - Metacognition

  • Thinking outside of the box and not inside normal, given parameters

  • Reflecting on processes - beforehand and afterward

  • Asking questions to solve problems

  • Analyzing situations/data

  • Making decisions through rational thinking

  • Changing knowledge into action / Problem solving / Applying knowledge

  • Determining the credibility of newly gained information

  • Drawing conclusions from gained knowledge / Synthetizing / Evaluating

4.  Barriers to critical thinking

Nowadays; teaching critical skills is the norm - but there are numerous factors that contribute to teachers avoiding teaching critical thinking skills:

  • Time constraints

  • Lack of training

  • Limited recourses

  • Trend to standardise curricula and focus on test scores

  • Teaching to the test

  • Emphasis on the content

  • Pre-conceptions

5. How to teach and encourage critical thinking in the classroom

Teaching a higher-order thinking skill like critical thinking in the classroom, is not a simple or easy endeavor. For many teachers, there is a certain type of vagueness involved when it comes to the expectancy of actively teaching critical thinking skills.

The key to teaching critical thinking effectively, is to always keep in mind that the goal is to teach learners HOW to think and not necessarily WHAT to think. Yes - curriculum content does play an important role but the process of HOW to learn is equally important and is considered a lifelong skill.

Critical thinking is a learned skill (this entails that it won't develop by chance or as a byproduct of something else) and it must be developed and practiced like any other skill. Critical thinking should also be purposefully integrated into the curriculum and taught to learners.

6.  Teachers should do the following to teach critical thinking:

When teaching:

  • Model the process of critical thinking during class.

  • Allow learners the opportunity to deal with social, scientific and practical problems.

  • Use open-ended questions that encourages critical thinking.

  • Guide the process of critical thinking by asking the right questions at the right time. The focus should be to prompt and stimulate learning. Ask questions like Why do you think that? or What is your viewpoint?

  • Make use of an instruction method that uses questioning that requires analysis, synthesis, evaluation and problem-solving skills.

  • AVOID self-answering the questions you ask in class - remember who the grown-up is - endure the awkward silence - wait for a response from the learners - let them THINK.

  • Allow learners to investigate situations and probe alternatives than what the curriculum states.

7.  When it comes to assignments and/or assessing:

  • Use project based / collaborative activities that encourages higher-order thinking.

  • A variety of assessment techniques should be used to provide students with an intellectual challenge rather than just straightforward memory recall.

  • When learners get frustrated with themselves whilst completing tasks they learn how to think critically - thus when setting assignments do not overlook the fact that a certain level of frustration is healthy and part of promoting higher order thinking.

  • Create graded assignments/quizzes/tests that serve as intellectual challenges and not only as memory recall exercises.

  • Make use of essays and case studies that entail applying knowledge to new situations.

  • When setting short multiple-choice questions; higher order thinking should be tested and not only memory recall.

  • Incorporate the higher order thinking levels of Bloom`s taxonomy by setting questions that require learners to use the information given to synthesize, evaluate and create.

Aristotle said: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it" and surely, we want the next generation to be able to make sober and well though through decisions with the information at their disposal. As teachers, the responsibility to hone the much-needed critical thinking skills lies with us.

Ms Willemien Strydom
SAOU: Professional Advisor: Independent Schools