Teaching Critical Thinking

Research into critical thinking is clear that the skill can be taught and that it can be taught to young students as well. For CTL’s Postsecondary Success Skills Model, we use Robert H. Ennis’ (Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois and author of several books on critical thinking) definition, “reasonable reflective thinking focused on […]

Written By rodaniel

On December 5, 2022

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Teaching Critical ThinkingResearch into critical thinking is clear that the skill can be taught and that it can be taught to young students as well. For CTL’s Postsecondary Success Skills Model, we use Robert H. Ennis’ (Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois and author of several books on critical thinking) definition, “reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.” While this definition has some constraints it situates critical thinking as a process that can be applied in multiple contexts and settings. It is a process that can be applied in decision-making and or problem solving situations across all content areas. 

It is also a process that can be taught to young students. There are critical thinking activities that students can employ to assist them in flexibly thinking about a topic like: 

  • Asking questions- Asking open-ended and/or clarifying questions gives students a chance to apply what they have learned, to expand on their initial ideas, and encourages communication
  • Incorporate different points of view: A major tenant of critical thinking is exploring different ideas to make sure that all thinking has a strong foundation. This characteristic is important not only to critical thinking, but to collaboration and creativity as well. 
  • Connect different ideas/concepts: Using tools like mind maps and brainstorming strategies, helps students create a larger set of ideas to utilize as part of the thinking process to ensure better solutions or decisions. Using multiple representations also helps students make connections that may be less obvious initially
  • Create something different with existing ideas: The act of trying to create something new or find a different use for an already existing object helps students see potential that they may not have been able to see before. 

These activities can be applied to any and all content areas and are examples of explicit strategy instruction around critical thinking that when paired with specific applications enables students to practice and apply the behaviors to learn the content more effectively. The practice of looking at a problem from multiple perspectives before advancing a solution process helps students be more flexible in their thinking and when coupled with practices like questioning help students form stronger rationale and communicate ideas more effectively. 

The coupling of explicit strategy instruction and content area applications provide a strong foundation to build critical thinking skills and when coupled with metacognitive reflection on the processes used can help students deepen their understanding and application of the skill. There are several ways to prompt reflection for students beginning with teacher modeling and think-alouds. Think-alouds making direct connections to the characteristics of critical thinking help students envision how they can perform the process. Having students reflect on their own behavior is another way to engage them in reflection. We recommend a simple yes/no (smiley face/frowny face) reflection initially as students learn the process along with evidence they can share verbally with their classmates or their teachers. The teacher can ask for groups to share examples of their brainstorming and idea captures. This reflection may start off very simply for elementary students but as they progress the reflection processes provide opportunities for students to see the same processes in different contents to make those processes explicit. 

Reflection should not come just at the end of the process either. As students are in the middle of solving a problem or making a decision, have them think about how well they have done with specific tasks like multiple representations or mapping of ideas. Including reflection during the process adds value to both the reflection process as well as the critical thinking process. 

General Critical Thinking Routines


  • The teacher plans questions to use during instruction that address the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) rather than just the lower levels. The teacher anticipates areas where students may be challenged with content or tasks and plans questions to support them rather than dictating answers to them.
  • The teacher uses Wait Time I and Wait Time II  effectively allowing 8-12 seconds for responses that require critical thinking (Snyder and Snyder, 2008).
  • Rather than allow “call outs” the teacher attempts to engage all students in responding by calling on non-volunteers.  The teacher may incorporate a method for randomly calling on students.
  • The teacher may employ a strategy such as Think-Pair-Share or Turn and Talk during the classroom discussion and questioning to support students in preparing quality responses and building confidence in their responses.  The teacher may support students by providing them with a list of sentence starters for phrasing responses.  The list may include:  I agree with _______ because _____, I think that_____ because _______, I disagree with what ________ said because _________.
  • As the teacher models asking good questions, students should also develop skills for asking questions.  To assist them in doing so, the teacher may provide them with a list of question stems. 


  • Students may be intentionally paired by the teacher for some length of time, may choose a random partner when asked to do so, or may be instructed to turn and talk to a designated peer.
  • The teacher must provide students with prompts that require deep levels of thinking.
  • The teacher must “train” students in the process of using T/P/S so that the more confident or louder students do not dominate responses and discussion.
  • While students are paired together, the teacher circulates eaves dropping on discussions.  He/She selects student pairs to share based on the discussions he/she heard.  Both partners should have opportunities to speak.
  • T/P/S should be used for more than just sharing routine answers.  It should be used to share student thinking, reactions to others’ thinking, conjectures, justifications, etc.  When appropriate, students should be asked to use evidence to support their claims.

Thinking Modeled by the Teacher (Think Aloud)

  • The teacher does a Think Aloud to model good thinking strategies in the context of reading, solving problems, etc.
  • In the teacher’s explanation of a Think Aloud, he/she should emphasize that the thinking process is more important than merely sharing the answer and be sure his/her modeling demonstrates this belief.
  • After an appropriate amount of modeling by the teacher, students are required to use Think Alouds.  They should be supported by practice and feedback on the Think Aloud process.

Non-linguistic Representations

  • Teacher uses appropriate representations to help students develop, refine, and demonstrate their thinking.
  • When appropriate, teachers should plan for the use of manipulatives and physical models to help students develop conceptual understanding. 
  • Teachers should always model use of a representation before expecting students to use it.  As the teacher creates the model, he/she should think aloud to make thinking visible to students.
  • Students should be provided opportunities to analyze data in the form of tables and graphs to make inferences, find relationships, and make predictions using evidence from the data to support their claims.
  • Teachers may have students create concept maps to show relationships. 

Student-Centered (Discovery)

  • Teachers allow students to engage in activities to discover relationships and concepts as an alternative to the traditional method of lecture and note-taking
  • Teachers choose appropriate content and design experiences for students to interact with content in line with the standards (Reading, Writing, Speaking, & Listening, Mathematical Practice Standards, and the Science and Engineering Practices).
  • It may be appropriate for students to work in collaboration with a partner while completing the work. 
  • Discourse is an important part of this process as students work with partners, but also during whole group discussions to synthesize the learning.  While the teacher monitors students working, he/she can select and sequence which students will share and in what order so that main ideas and connections are emphasized.