“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”
― Thomas A. Edison
In a recent training I delivered, I emphasized my researched and experienced belief that critical thinking is a skill like driving (which can be very difficult to learn for some of us); essentially, if we need our pupils to give us high-quality answers, then we need to teach them the skill to think critically.
I have seen my classes matured from a sea of ‘I don’t know’ and minimum participation to eager hands being thrust in the air by even the shyest student, and when I am using ‘no hands up’ a vast majority of students are obviously itching to raise their hands or clearly hoping I would select them.
You may be wondering what magic potion I cooked up or if I promised them something nice or maybe more realistically – did I have the principal or visitors in my classroom. Well, if you are wondering any of that, the answer is yes to some of the questions, I normally start the New Year or term by promising my kids that they can only win when they participate in my lessons. Now, I am by no means saying that the ‘I don’t know’ have disappeared, they are just no longer the norm. Furthermore, when I do get students saying they have no idea, I would get another student to help by answering a part of the question (or I may provide some help if this is not working ) and then I go back to the student who said that he didn’t know what to do. This is explored in Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov and is referred to as ‘no opt-out’, which has helped them to see that they will still have to give an answer and a plausible one.
So what else has changed? How did I get the vast majority of my pupils to be more engaged, focused, and eager to try, and give sensible answers?
Well, over the years I have been consistently using at least three features of critical thinking skills to foster this very important ability of my students to think critically; BE WARNED it takes TIME for this to become the normal routine for the students, but it is worth it.
1. Giving students time to think.
Doug Lemov describes this in his book Teach Like a Champion as Wait Time. According to Lemov, a typical teacher allows about one to one and a half seconds of wait time before taking an answer. He points out that allowing 3 to 5 seconds of wait time after a question can increase the quality of the responses given by students.
2. Asking more effective questions:
How did you work that out?
How did you get that?
How do you know you need the area and not the length?
How did you get your answer? How do you know or how can you check that it is correct?
Why did you do that?
Why did you do it that way?
Why is it squared cm and not simply cm?
Why do you multiply instead of add?
Why is the negative answer not suitable for length?
Asking what if
What if I changed the area of the room, what effect would this have on the amount of money needed to tile the floor?
Another question I truly love is asking if something is always, sometimes or never true. And, asking students to explain to another student how to solve a problem.
Now, while these are really simple questions, you will be amazed at how rich the responses become. Secondly, as well as allowing students to take responsibility for their own thinking, you are creating the environment for students to not just learn content, but to learn how to think and how to make real connections between concepts. Moreover, oftentimes these and similar questions either highlight or clarify common misconceptions. After a while, students start to ask similar questions of each other and they may surprise you by asking you wonderful thought-provoking questions that you did not even think of.
I have uploaded a set of critical thinking sentence starters that can be used for any subject. It is produced by nrich.com and the link below has a cheat sheet of critical thinking starters.
Finally, since we are teachers of more than just content, why not take a look and see how you can teach your kids, by modelling through questioning, how to think critically.
Perhaps you are already very good at fostering critical thinking skills in your pupils, we would welcome your knowledge in this and other teaching and learning tips, so why not use this space to share your ideas so that we too can better our best.