Critical Thinking Skills Are Critical

In Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap, critical thinking and problem solving skills are listed among the main skills the 21st century learner needs to be a productive, successful member of society and to compete with students in a global world.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills  also lists critical thinking skills as one of the 4  essential components of learning and innovation.  Dr. Anjuli Ahooja in her TEDx video on What Makes A 21st Century Teacher  also addresses the importance on thinking critically.    In Art Costa’s work on the habits of mind  he discusses that intelligence is what you do to solve problems where there is no readily apparent answer.  An effective problem-solver posses habits of mind or dispositions such as the ability to: think critically, ask and pose questions, gather information, think flexibly, be creative, take risks, think interdependently, and make connections.  Based on the research, it’s clear that critical thinking skills are essential to developing the minds of learners who are to be productive and successful in the 21st century.

However, when I reflect on much of what is done in schools, I’m still seeing the scale tipped toward the acquisition of knowledge and rote memorization of information.  The acquisition of certain information and knowledge is obviolusly necessary in learning but that should not be the end in itself.  Knowledge and skills should be taught as a means to solving problems, understanding and applying, creating ones own knowledge, and innovating.  The ability to think critically, along with creativity, is key to this type of thought and learning. 

At the web site to think critically is defined as:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes.  

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills (“as an exercise”) without acceptance of their results.

Please note the type of learning that is in contrast to critical thinking.  I point this out because much of what is done in schools is this type of learning.  As educators we need to start having dialogue with our colleagues and reflect on our own practice with questions such as: How do you teach critical thinking skills and habits in your classroom?  Are knowledge and skills the main emphasis of the learning in your classroom?  Does most of your instruction center aroung the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy or Costa’s Level 1 questions?  Do students have opportunities to apply what they’ve learned for a meaningful purpose?  Is your classroom centered around learning information or discovering, applying, asking questions, solving problems, creating, and evaluating?  How do you balance the need for knowledge with higher-level thought opportunities?  How will you tip the scale toward more learning experiences that require your students to think critically? 

Dialogue with your colleagues, school, and district on this topic needs  a lot of reflection and deep conversation which as we all know takes time.  I encourage you to take this journey with your staff but in the mean time ask yourself this question: On Monday how will I restructure the learning in my classroom to foster critical thinking and deep learning?

Below are some resources of ideas and reading to start you and your staff along this path: 

 K-12 Instruction Strategies and Samples

Straegy List and K-12 Remodelled Lessons

Critical Thinking Videos For Young Students 

Teaching Tactics

Remodelled Lessons K-3

 Thinking Skills and Assessment

Art Costa’s Levels of Inquiry

Critical and Creative Thinking – Bloom’s Tazonomy

Prezi – Bloom’s Taxonomy

5 thoughts on “Critical Thinking Skills Are Critical

  1. Steph! Great article and resources. As I sit at my computer and plan lessons I am asking myself, how will I restructure the learning in my classroom to foster critical thinking and deep learning? Tough question! Dialogue and collaborating are so important to help foster and develop effective higher level goals and assessment in our classroom, but dialogue can be done with family and friends or people not connected to education as well as educators. They can share insights and connections to the community and world that educators may miss because we are to close to the curriculum and at times may have difficulty seeing different points of view. Our students also need to think beyond the classroom so that they skills and knowledge are used to solve real problems.

  2. Deb,

    I’m also thinking about how I structure activities and learning opportunites in my classroom. It’a big one. I think getting feedback from the community is very important and having opportunities to interact w other communities and globally to solve authentic problems is very meaningful and play right into thes ideas. I just found another link to critical thinking:


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