Why we run critical thinking lessons - and how to do it

Critical thinking is a skill that lasts a lifetime so it's worth finding time in the curriculum to teach it at all ages - here's how

Kevin Goggins

Brain Editorial

In the past, the emphasis in classrooms was on imparting information and content — the times tables or European capitals, for example.

But over the years, the focus of educators has shifted from simply passing information to students, to teaching students how to access accurate information and critically analyse it.

A big part of this has been a move toward teaching critical thinking – a skill that elevates thinking beyond memorisation into the realm of analysis and logic.

Critical thinking lessons develop a set of transferable skills, including deeper thinking, reasoning and problem-solving, that students can apply across a wide range of subjects and complex real-world issues. 

Research suggests that explicit teaching in critical thinking may make children smarter, more independent and more creative, while also preparing them for an uncertain future where 65 per cent of the jobs they will end up doing don’t yet exist.

Wondering where to start?

This sounds great, but perhaps also daunting. After all, how can you teach skills that are not so easily measured as, say, times tables? To start with, it's about creating an environment where critical thinking is actively encouraged.

Here are six ways we do that from primary school:

1. Start young

Young children might not be ready for lessons in formal logic. But they can be taught to give reasons for their conclusions. And they can be taught to evaluate the reasons given by others.

At Skt. Josef’s International School in Denmark, we use the Cambridge Global Perspectives program to consider global issues from different perspectives but also to apply critical thinking skills to our students' work, life and the world around them.

2. Encourage children to ask questions

Curiosity is the mother of all knowledge and should be nurtured by teachers and parents. If a justification doesn’t make sense to a child, they should be encouraged to question it.

3. Invite children to consider alternative explanations

Yes, it is nice to get the right answer, but many problems have more than one method and more than one solution. When children consider multiple methods and solutions, they may become more flexible thinkers.

4. Discuss biases

Even primary children can understand how emotions, intentions and even our aspirations can influence our judgments.

5. Get children to clarify meanings

Children should practise putting things in their own words and should be encouraged to make meaningful distinctions.

6. Don’t confine critical thinking to academic problems

Encourage children to reason about ethical, moral and political matters, too.

Taking it further

In addition to Global Perspectives, secondary students have critical thinking lessons scheduled into their timetable for 90 minutes a week based on two key areas: psychology, and philosophy and logic.

Term 1: Psychology

The autumn term is devoted to the study of psychology. Students expand their social and emotional intelligence through a study of the mind and human behaviour.

Our study is focused through the lens of the personality and, with this aim in mind, we survey theories on childhood development, personality types and motivation, as well as anxiety and depression.

In the course, we are introduced to the main features of several traditions: psychoanalysis, behaviourism, humanism and biopsychology.

The course is structured in such a way that we begin by studying key texts and then explore the ideas presented through a variety of mediums, such as art, contemporary film and politics.

Assessment takes place through presentations and research papers, as well as through projects that analyse the use of psychology in product marketing and the methods used by popular magicians/illusionists.

Additionally, students interview family members to analyse their own childhood development in reference to the theories and methods studied in class. 

Term 2: Philosophy and logic

The spring term is devoted to the study of philosophy and logic.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fundamental questions in the history of philosophy can be immediately understood as having great personal significance and urgency for students – for example, free will and social conditioning.

The ability to identify truth from opinion, analyse and construct rational arguments, and develop rigorous methods of thinking are all transferable skills that can be successfully applied to all other academic subjects.

This course is organised around the topic of human nature, and it approaches the study of philosophy and logic in a twofold way.

First, our study involves reading selections from classic philosophical texts and identifying the methods and approaches that people have used to solve fundamental questions/problems.

Second, we learn to apply what we have learned by constructing our own arguments.

Opportunities for application are given in a range of tasks and projects, including: group presentations; preparing and leading discussions of texts; writing argumentative essays on contemporary social issues; and identifying and labelling logical fallacies committed in comments on social media.

The students, who can often be somewhat sceptical at first of taking these subjects, usually end them with a far greater understanding of the world and how they learn. They actively enjoy what they have studied.

As one Year 11 student puts it: “Critical thinking has been a very interesting and informative subject. I have learned a lot from this course, and I would recommend it for other schools because it makes you think about how the mind subconsciously affects all of your actions.”

Or as another puts it: It is really interesting to learn theories about how the mind works…it applies to everyday life and it is a really interesting subject.”

I couldn't agree more.

Kevin Goggins is deputy head – international school at Skt Josefs Skole in Denmark

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