ERIC Identifier: ED385606 Publication Date: 1994-02-00
Author: Potts, Bonnie Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Assessment and Evaluation Washington DC.
Strategies for Teaching Critical Thinking. ERIC/AE Digest.
Critical thinking skills figure prominently among the goals for education,
whether one asks developers of curricula, educational researchers, parents, or
employers. Although there are some quite diverse definitions of critical
thinking, nearly all emphasize the ability and tendency to gather, evaluate, and
use information effectively (Beyer, 1985).
In this digest, we discuss skills related to critical thinking and three
specific strategies for teaching these skills: 1) Building Categories, 2)
Finding Problems, and 3) Enhancing the Environment.
SKILLS RELATED TO CRITICAL THINKING
Across subject areas
and levels, educational research has identified several discrete skills related
to an overall ability for critical thinking. These are:
* Finding analogies and other kinds of relationships between pieces of
* Determining the relevance and validity of information that could be used
for structuring and solving problems
* Finding and evaluating solutions or alternative ways of treating problems
Just as there are similarities among the definitions of critical thinking
across subject areas and levels, there are several generally recognized
"hallmarks" of teaching for critical thinking (see, for example, Beyer, 1985;
Costa, 1985). These include:
* Promoting interaction among students as they learn - Learning in a group
setting often helps each member achieve more.
* Asking open-ended questions that do not assume the "one right answer" -
Critical thinking is often exemplified best when the problems are inherently
ill-defined and do not have a "right" answer. Open-ended questions also
encourage students to think and respond creatively, without fear of giving the
* Allowing sufficient time for students to reflect on the questions asked or
problems posed - Critical thinking seldom involves snap judgments; therefore,
posing questions and allowing adequate time before soliciting responses helps
students understand that they are expected to deliberate and to ponder, and that
the immediate response is not always the best response.
* Teaching for transfer - The skills for critical thinking should "travel
well." They generally will do so only if teachers provide opportunities for
students to see how a newly acquired skill can apply to other situations and to
the student's own experience.
BUILDING CATEGORIES (after Seiger-Ehrenberg, 1985)
Students often are given (and asked to memorize) explicit rules for
classifying information. For example, there is a set of criteria for determining
whether a word is being used as a noun or as a verb. The Building Categories
strategy, however, is an inductive reasoning tool that helps students categorize
information by discovering the rules rather than merely memorizing them. Such
active learning typically results in better understanding and better retention
of the concepts and related material than is possible with a more directive
Example: Distinguishing animals from plants. Students work in two groups
(Animal Group and Plant Group). Worksheets prepared in advance ask for
information about life span, energy sources, motility, anatomy, etc., of several
different animals and plants. Once the information is collected, it is compiled
into large wall charts (one for Animals, one for Plants).
At this point, some questions can be posed to both groups at once: What are
the similarities among the members of each group? What are the differences
between the two groups? How could the following statement be completed: "An
animal is different from a plant because..." The teacher provides appropriate
feedback throughout, using open-ended questions to help students identify
inadequate or inaccurate categorization rules.
Finally, the students are allowed to test the generalizability of their
proposed rules by looking at new instances and placing them in the appropriate
The strategy is described here in the context of a science problem, but can
work equally well in other disciplines and with more abstract categories. For
example, students in Social Studies can learn the rules for "discoveries" versus
"inventions," and students of jurisprudence can discover the differences between
"felonies" and "misdemeanors."
Many students and teachers alike have
lamented that the format of problems in the classroom (particularly in math and
science) bears little resemblance to the way problems look in real life. In
fact, one of the most important practical thinking skills one can acquire is
knowing how to identify a problem. The Finding Problems strategy is a way of
framing tasks so that students use skills similar to those needed for the
ill-defined problems they will encounter in life. Tasks developed with this
strategy are sufficiently defined as to be solvable, but do not state explicitly
which variable or aspect of the problem will constitute or enable a solution.
Consider the following physics problem (adapted from Harvie, 1987):
"Brian, all 72 kg of him, bungee-jumps from a 100-m tower toward the river
below. He falls 35 m before the bungee cord starts to stretch. This cord can
stretch 40% of its length and has a breaking strength of 7000 N. Will this
become a "free fall" for Brian, or will he "bounce back"?
Consider an alternate version of this problem, in which the last sentence is
replaced by the following: "When the bungee cord has reached its maximum length,
does the tension exceed the cord's breaking strength?" Several aspects of the
first version make it more effective for encouraging students to think rather
than simply to look for the appropriate quantities to "plug in" to a formula.
The first version does not specify what must be calculated; therefore, it
requires students to decide for themselves just what the problem is and how
their knowledge of Physics can be used to solve it. Teachers can help students
learn to solve problems of this type by first providing them with a set of
general questions, such as: How are the objects and situations in the problem
similar to any objects or situations that were discussed in Physics? Which
variables are already in Physics terms and which can be converted to Physics
terms? Are all of the pieces of information in the problem relevant to its
Problem-finding is an excellent group activity, particularly if two or more
groups work on the same task independently and then come together to compare
strategies. In this way, each student has the benefit of exposure to several
ways of solving the problem.
ENHANCING THE ENVIRONMENT (after Keefe & Walberg, 1992)
Critical thinking in the classroom is facilitated by a physical and
intellectual environment that encourages a spirit of discovery. Regarding the
physical layout of the classroom, two suggestions can be offered. First, if
seating is arranged so that students share the "stage" with the teacher and all
can see and interact with each other, this helps to minimize the passive,
receptive mode many students adopt when all are facing the teacher. Second,
visual aids in the classroom can encourage ongoing attention to critical thought
processes, e.g., posting signs that say, "Why do I think that?" "Is it fact or
opinion?" "How are these two things alike?" "What would happen if...?"
Suggestions below each question can remind students how they should go about
answering them. Most importantly, as the students move through the curriculum in
a given subject, their attention can be directed periodically to the signs as
appropriate. In this way, the signs emphasize the idea of transfer by showing
that many of the same thinking strategies and skills apply to different topics
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
Beyer, B.K. (1985).
Critical thinking: What is it? "Social Education," 49, 270-276.
Costa, A.L. (Ed.)(1985). "Developing minds: A resource book for teaching
thinking." Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum
French, J.N., & Rhoder, C. (1992). "Teaching thinking skills: Theory and
practice." New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.
Keefe, J.W., & Walberg, H.J. (Eds.)(1992). "Teaching for thinking."
Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principles.
Pauker, R.A. (1987). "Teaching thinking and reasoning skills: Problems and
solutions." Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.
Seiger-Ehrenberg, S. (1985). Concept development. In A.L. Costa (Ed.),
"Developing minds: A resource book for teaching thinking." Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.