5 Questions to Spur Critical Thinking in the Classroom
Help students establish the skills to critically assess information throughout their lives.
Sort the Accurate Information from the Misleading
Okay, I admit it. I was watching a sitcom the other day and laughed out loud when one of the characters said this: “I know I'm gullible…because people tell me that, and I have no reason not to believe them.”
I’d just been thinking about this post, and kept coming back to the simplest of facts: Critical thinking skills are there to help us sort the accurate information from the misleading. And as students navigate a complicated world where a mix of reputable and untrustworthy information is presented to them non-stop, we can probably all agree: Evaluating information is becoming more important every day.
Evaluating Information is a Daily Task
You can probably recognize this scenario: You’re sitting somewhere and someone is talking at you. Not to you, but at you. Maybe it’s a realtor, maybe a salesperson, a lawyer, or a politician or talkshow host on TV. It could be almost anyone. Or maybe no one’s talking. Maybe you see an ad in your mailbox, or hear a barrage of ads on the radio, or read an opinion column in the newspaper. The world is throwing information at you so fast you couldn’t possibly fact-check it all, but you have a sense of which sources you should trust, and which sources you should be more skeptical of. Sound familiar?
Students encounter situations like this constantly. Their generation is at the bottom of an information waterfall, and they haven't necessarily learned how to analyze all the information they're presented with. And while it’s true that we can’t be there to help our students evaluate everything they hear, we can help them establish the skills to critically assess information throughout their lives.
Evaluating and Synthesizing Information in the Classroom
In every core subject, there are opportunities to practice analytical skills. Students can strengthen their abilities to evaluate information through discussions, questions, and experiments that are relevant to lesson topics.
- In Math Class: Prompts require students to argue for the best answer, thus requiring them to evaluate their mathematical thinking and process in addition to explaining their solution.
- In Science Class: Students performing an experiment will make observations and hypotheses, gather data, and use critical thinking skills to interpret it, draw conclusions, and use that information to make iterations on future tests.
- In Social Studies Class: Students might review historical sources, evidence, and interpretations, and evaluate events from multiple viewpoints, noting how interpretations of historical events can change based on perspective.
- In ELA Class: Upon reading a piece of literature, thoughtful discussion will almost always begin with an analysis of why certain plot elements unfolded, in addition to what the writer may have been hoping to convey to readers, and how/why/whether those tactics worked.
As educators, we all know that failing to distinguish accurate from misleading information will put our students at a distinct disadvantage throughout their lives. Students need critical thinking skills to sift through all the information they encounter. They need to know where information came from and why, and how it can be interpreted or misinterpreted.
To help students practice the critical thinking skills they can employ throughout their daily lives, consider weaving these questions into a classroom activity:
- Ask students to find the goal behind the information they’re being given. What is the summary of what they’re being told? What are they being asked to do, say, or believe? What is the big picture?
- Ask students to identify the logic being used. What are the specific reasons or supports being used to convince students to do, say, or believe a particular thing? Do these reasons and supports match up logically with the argument being made?
- Ask students to check — or account for — their emotions. We make a lot of decisions based on feelings, rather than logic. Developing a critical eye won’t necessarily curb our emotional reactions, but it can help us to slow down, observe the reaction, and think twice about what's happening. What emotions are being stirred up? Why? How? And are those emotions being used to someone else’s advantage?
- Ask students to evaluate the source. Who is doing the talking, writing, selling, or sending of information? Do students have information about the history or reliability of the source? Critical thinking skills help students evaluate not only information, but its sources, with healthy skepticism.
- Ask students to evaluate the motive. Does the source of information have something to gain or lose? If so, that could be an element of bias that students must take into account.
Continue your learning by watching the webinar, "Deconstructing Critical Thinking"
In this webinar, critical thinking experts discuss the research and applications of critical thinking in schools.
Molia Dumbleton began her career as a high school teacher at a school for students with unique learning profiles. Since then, she has developed support tools for educators and learners of all ages – from newborn to adult – in formal and informal settings. She is a writer, teacher, and editor who lives in Chicago.