The Critical Thinking Guide gives a clear definition of critical thinking.  There is a list of the characteristics as well as the following topics:

Critical Thinking Questions
Teaching Critical Thinking
Critical Reading
Prior Knowledge
Essential Strategies?
Final Word

Critical thinking is something that everyone uses every day.  Every time a person decides between two things they have to look at the pros and the cons.  After weighing both sides, they make a choice.

Sometimes the choice is based on what that person wants versus what might be best for others.  For instance a person needs to use some critical thinking skills when choosing to spend money on a new pair of shoes or choosing to take the family out to dinner.


What is critical thinking and how do we teach these essential skills?

Simply put, it is looking at both sides of an issue then weighing your position based on factual evidence you have gathered on the subject matter.

There are two components to teaching students how to think critically.

1)      Show the student a new way to think about a given subject.

2)     Giving the student an opportunity to practice the right type of thinking at the right time.

If we ask a student to do a math problem, he isn’t going to use the same problem solving strategy that he would use when trying to decide if he believes the Civil War was necessary. 

A person who is passionate about history will think differently from someone who takes science more seriously. Thus the sayings, "Think like a historian," or "e is thinking like a scientist."


What exactly are the critical thinking skills?  One or more of the following characteristics may be involved at one time:

Asking questions
Defining a problem
Examine evident and
   determine validity
Analyzing assumptions and
Avoid emotional reasoning and
   over simplification
Consider other interpretations
Tolerating ambiguity

Ethical reasoning
 – what actions will be a benefit
 - what actions may cause harm
Drawing conclusions
Find alternative solutions
Develop and defend a
   reasonable position
Find patterns, categorize,
   identify, and classify
Organize ideas


Building critical thinking skills is as important to comprehension skills as is background knowledge.  Here are some questions to ask that will help spur critical thinking in the student:

  • Why do I think that?
  • What would happen if?
  • How is that different than?
  • How can we solve this problem?
  • How are the 2 things alike?

Other things that can help spur critical thinking:

  • Compare and contrast 2 things
  • Retell a story in a different setting
  • Debate an issue and then debate the other side
  • Bring creativity into a project
  • Use graphs and labeling
  • Read mysteries and solve the mystery
  • Design experiments and make hypothesis


How do you teach critical thinking?  A homeschooling parent probably won’t be able to use quite as many strategies as a public or private school teacher because some strategies need more than one student.

For homeschooling parents I would use the workbooks and computer CD’s by The Critical Thinking Company.  Private schools and public schools usually have a Critical Thinking curriculum available.

Whether you are a homeschool parent or a teacher, the critical thinking skills need to be integrated into the curriculum on a daily basis.  These skills should not be taught separately.

A teacher needs to take every opportunity to insert questions that will stimulate thought.  Instead of assigning a teacher designated project give the student(s) a choice of projects so that they can choose the one that best fits their creativity ability.

When a student gets to choose their project, he will be more invested in the project.  Most students want to show what they know or what they have learned.  For instance, a male student chooses to build a prototype of robot instead of writing about how robots are used in the manufacturing field.

It's also important that teachers and parents not be so quick to give kids the answer.  When children get in a scuffle, parents and teachers can teach critical thinking strategies to students by asking them questions like, "What do you think would be the right thing to do?" or "Why do you think she did that?"

If students don't know an answer, then the parent or teacher should lead them to the answer by asking more questions.


Teach students to question what is happening while they are reading the passage.  A teacher can mentor how a student be asking themselves questions by reading out loud and asking the questions who, what, where, why, and how.  For instance the teacher would read,

A treasure hunter is going to explore a cave up on a hill near a beach. He suspected there might be many paths inside the cave so he was afraid he might get lost. Obviously, he did not have a map of the cave; all he had with him were some common items such as a flashlight and a bag. What could he do to make sure he did not get lost trying to get back out of the cave later?"

After reading the passage, the teacher would say to the student(s), “These are the questions I would ask myself;

  •  Who was exploring?
  •  Why was he in the cave?
  •  What was he missing?
  •  What did he have?

She could then tell the student(s) that she was going to brainstorm with them to figure out what the treasure hunter could do to make sure he didn’t get lost in the cave.

Another strategy to use to spur critical thinking during reading time is to read a story written in two different cultures.For instance, many Fairy Tales are rewritten in different ethnic groups.

Cinderella and The Three Pigs are two that come to mind.  Cinderella has been rewritten and has several themes like a cowgirl theme, a Cajun taste and an African bent. After reading two different versions, have the student(s) compare and contrast certain aspects of the story.


According to Daniel T. Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virgina,

“Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context.  It is a type of thought that even 3 year olds can engage in and even trained scientists can fail in.  And it is very much dependent on domain (prior) knowledge and practice.”

Students can be taught maxims (principles) how to think.  These are also known as metacognitive strategies.  However these strategies will only go so far in making informed decisions and intelligent opinions.

Prior knowledge (background knowledge) is needed when looking at all sides of an issue or a problem.  A 9th grader can’t make an opinion if he supports the Civil War if he doesn’t understand the circumstances that lead to the Succession of the Southern States from the Union.


So is learning critical thinking strategies essential?  If learning strategies will help a person make more informed decisions then critical thinking skills are very important.  If these thinking skills will help a student form a solid argument, then let’s teach them.

However, it is important to remember that every one of us is influenced by various behavior around us.  We are influenced by our:

ethnic group
personal philosophy of
religious beliefs
cultural practices
family history

work ethic
dreams and goals
intellect and how we use it
interest groups to which
    we belong


Learning critical thinking skills will only be as good as the teacher.  If the teacher invests time and effort to make sure every subject is challenging by asking probing questions and assigning creative projects which the students have to engage in, then students should come away with reasoning skills that will last them a lifetime.

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