04 March, 2009

Critical Thinking & Practical Strategies to Promote it in Classroom

By C. Radhakrishnan

Critical thinking has become a hot topic in education today. Even our national boards and state boards recognised its importance and initiated lot of efforts to inculcate critical thinking skills among the students. It is currently taught as an essential learning device for teachers in training at institutes of teacher education. The concept of critical thinking is applied in all subject areas. Dr. Peter Facione states, “Education is nothing more, nor less, than learning to think!”

All educators today agree to the fact that students must become critical thinkers in order to understand and accommodate information, thus becoming a true learner. The ideas and activities mentioned here will help elementary school students develop a variety of critical thinking skills in classes’ two to six. Teachers using these activities will encourage and promote critical thinking among their students.

It may be easier to understand the concepts of critical thinking as it is discussed in terms of student behaviour and performance. Sharon Ferrett in ‘Peak Performance: Success in College and Beyond’ proposes the following:

Attributes of a critical thinker

 asks pertinent questions
 assesses statements and arguments
 is able to admit a lack of understanding or information
 has a sense of curiosity
 is interested in finding new solutions
 is able to clearly define a set of criteria for analyzing ideas
 is willing to examine beliefs, assumptions, and opinions and weigh them against facts
 listens carefully to others and is able to give feedback
 sees that critical thinking is a lifelong process of self assessment
 suspends judgment until all facts have been gathered and considered
 looks for evidence to support assumption and beliefs
 is able to adjust opinions when new facts are found
 looks for proof
 examines problems closely
 is able to reject information that is incorrect or irrelevant


The term has become so widely used that critical thinking may mean different things depending on its context and application. Some useful definitions appear on the web site “Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum Project” Longview Community College; Definitions of Critical Thinking .

1. Critical thinking is the development of cohesive and logical reasoning patterns.

2. Critical thinking is deciding rationally what to or what not to believe.

3. The purpose of critical thinking is to achieve understanding, evaluate view points, and solve problems.

Since all three areas involve the asking of questions, we can say that
critical thinking is the questioning or inquiry we engage in when we seek to understand, evaluate, or resolve.

Critical thinkers distinguish between fact and opinion; ask questions; make detailed observations; uncover assumptions and define their terms; and make assertions based on sound logic and solid evidence.

No matter what definition the teacher wishes to use for critical thinking, the
underlying idea is that teachers can teach students to think.

Thinking is a skill ... it can be taught. (Project Zero)

Thirteen essential thinking skills:

Looking for Assumptions
Collecting and Organizing Data
Problem Solving
Decision Making
- Author Unknown

Bloom's Taxonomy

Finally, the teacher must understand Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. Bloom lists these “abilities” in ascending order:

1. Knowledge:
remembering of previously learned material; recall (facts or whole theories); bringing to mind.
2. Comprehension: grasping the meaning of material; interpreting
(explaining or summarizing); predicting outcome and effects.
3. Application: ability to use learned material in a new situation; apply rules, laws, methods, theories.
4. Analysis: breaking down into parts; understanding organization, clarifying, concluding.
5. Synthesis: ability to put parts together to form a new whole; unique communication; create abstract relations.
6. Evaluation: ability to judge value for purpose; base on criteria; support judgment with reason.

Techniques to Encourage Critical Thinking

Awards: Good Question - Good Thinking - I Found the Answer

Three techniques to improve critical thinking is by encouraging students to ask good questions, practice good thinking, and find answers using resources. You can create a small trophy and certificate for students who exhibit each of these positive critical thinking behaviours. These awards may be used in all subject areas and at anytime. For example, when a student asks a “Good Question”, the trophy goes on the student's desk/table for the day, or until another student gets it. You can even think of giving the student a paper certificate to be taken home.

Good Question Award

A “Good Question” is a question that shows the student is thinking about the
subject, concepts, or ideas under study. Generally, these questions are in the higher areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy; application (in the lower grades), analysis, synthesis, or evaluation. A “Good Question” may also show creativity.

Good Thinking Award

“Good Thinking” reveals that the student is entering the higher thought
processes; analysis, synthesis, or evaluation. “Good thinking” may also involve solving a multi-step problem or coming up with an original idea or creative way to solve a problem. Of course, the teacher must challenge the students with questions that require higher order reasoning.

I Found the Answer Award

The “I Found the Answer” award is given when a student has taken the initiative to look for and find an answer using a resource other than the text. This award will motivate students to find answers, rather than simply accepting “I Don't Know” as the answer. Students through application and practice will learn to use the dictionary, directory, encyclopaedia, index, glossary, maps, and the internet. Also, students should learn to ask people for answers. The best questions for research come out of daily classroom lessons and discussions in all subject areas. The teacher may also pose a “Question of the Day” to be researched.

In order to use these awards to their highest potential, the teacher must be
competent and comfortable in asking higher order questions, accepting more than one possible answer to a question, and practice not answering all student questions. Here adequate preparation and homework by the teacher is also very essential.

Games and Puzzles

Games can be a useful learning tool. While playing games students may apply
their knowledge and skills while interacting in a small group. Most games involve planning, observation, logic and reasoning, calculations of chance, observing, using information, and creating and testing possible solutions. All of these “game skills” are components of critical thinking.

Puzzles come in a wide variety of types from purely academic, which rely on knowledge or reasoning skills, to those which require acute observation, such as a jigsaw puzzle. No matter what the puzzle, the one commonality of all puzzles is they require critical thinking.

Why jigsaw puzzles? In order to complete a jigsaw puzzle students must observe and compare size, shape, colour, and patterns; use trial and error to complete the task; and develop visual memory. Students experience working together towards a common goal, and participate in an activity that requires days or weeks to complete.

Encourages Creativity

SCAMPER is an excellent classroom activity which encourages students to think creatively. In this activity the student looks at an object and develops original ideas about the object and different uses of the object. SCAMPER is an acronym which helps direct students in this process.

Substitute some aspect of it
Combine elements with something else
Adapt or Alter an aspect of it
Minify or Magnify an aspect of it
Put some part of it to other uses
Eliminate an aspect of it
Reverse an aspect of it

Scamper may be used as an independent, small group, or whole class activity.
Students must be allowed to brainstorm ideas, making it clear that all ideas must be accepted. You can have the students work independently for 5 - 7 minutes, and then share their ideas with the class. Teachers may use small groups and develop a scoring system, giving a point for each idea that no other group has written.

What Do They Have in Common?

A simple activity that promotes critical thinking and creativity is listing two words and asking “What do they have in common?” While students may easily see differences among items, finding similarities will be much more challenging. This activity also promotes oral communication and explaining your answer. This may be done individually, with a partner, small groups, or even as a whole class brainstorming session. This activity can be part of your students’ first assignments as they come in the morning. Students can be asked to write an answer and then you can discuss their responses as a whole class.

Teachers should accept any answer that may be explained as a commonality,
being sure students only deal with the attributes of the items and not what they could be or do. For example, for “bell and whistle” I would accept both are “made of metal” and “make a sound” but would not allow “I have both of them.”
For a real challenge, have students write names of objects on a small piece of
paper and put them all in a bag. Each day select a pair of words and challenge the students to recognize “What do they have in common?”

Word Chains

Words Chains is an oral language game that encourages critical thinking by
requiring students to think about items and classify items into categories. The teacher gives a category, and selects a volunteer for the first word. Then each next word must start with the ending letter of the preceding word.

Category - Things found in the ocean
fisH > HerrinG > Ghost craB > BasS > SanD > Darkness

To speed the game along, change the category once either group is unable to quickly answer. Words Chains may be played in a variety of ways: one vs. one, small group vs. small group, half of class vs. half of class, or whole group.

Scoring: If you wish to keep score:
1 Point - correct response
-1 Point - incorrect or repeated response or unable to answer

Words Chains encourages creativity as students try to connect words they know into a classification. You can use Word Chains as short filler when the class is waiting in line and as a whole group thinking activity.

Word Chains Category Ideas

Something you would find in (at) a (n)
school grocery store garage carnival mall doctor’s office laboratory hospital kitchen sports stadium restaurant campsite beach television station barber shop desert skating rink art class purse computer toy store library car post office amusement park arcade museum cruise ship National Park fire station rodeo zoo
things made of: glass, plastic, metal, wood, cloth
things that are soft, hard, fragile, strong, bendable, smooth, heavy, light
things that are bigger than ..., smaller than ..., heavier than ...
things that are connected with a holiday
subject area or the topic under study
geographic names people’s jobs cars plants
electronic devices transportation furniture clothing
things you wear inventions names plants
capitalised words games/toys music/songs animal

Words with Multiple Meanings

A critical thinker looks at words and realises many words may be used in
different ways. Introducing this skill to students will improve their reading and writing. When discussing word meanings the concepts of literal and figurative meanings must be taught.

Classroom Use

Word A Day - Put a new word on the board each morning. Allow students time to think about or look up the word. Discuss later in the day.

Spelling or Vocabulary Lists - Look at the list (word) and ask students what words could have more than one meaning.

New Words - As new words are encountered in class, list them on the blackboard. When you have that extra minute ask students if they remember the meanings or can use them in a sentence. Keep this ongoing list in a corner of the blackboard. Do not erase the words daily. Erase the “old” words when the list becomes more than 5 - 7 words. As the “old” words come down you may add them to a Word Wall, a writing bulletin board, or make a small card for each and put them in a box for future use.


“Acronyms” is a linguistic critical thinking activity which requires some
creativity. Students must create their own meanings for common acronyms. Acronyms are words made up of the initial letters of its meaning, such as SCUBA, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus and SNAFU, situation normal all fouled up. Acronyms may be pronounced letter by letter, such as CPR. Initialism is the term for an abbreviation pronounced as the names of the individual letters. These abbreviations are everywhere and are part of our everyday life. They are businesses (TTL, IBM, TCS), government agencies (NASA, DRDO, ISRO), television networks (BBC, CNN, ESPN), organizations (NATO, UN, SAARC), items (BMW, DVD, VCR), and in cricket (LBW).

Web References:

Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts
Foundation for Critical Thinking