Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways To Teach Critical Thinking Skills

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 08, 2011 8 min read
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An educator who prefers to remain anonymous asked:

How do you go about teaching critical thinking skills?

I try to infuse critical thinking during much of my teaching, and have particularly found the “thinking routines” developed by Project Zero in Harvard useful. I describe in my latest book how I use two of their recommended questions: “What’s going on here?” and “What do you see that makes you say so?”

One other strategy I use is helping students understand the difference between opinion and judgment. It’s a perspective shared by many community organizers (I was one for nineteen years prior to becoming a high school teacher). An opinion is something you decide on your own, while judgment is a belief you develop after you share your opinion with others and hear theirs, too. It’s not always a good idea to change what you think, but all too often in our world people are unwilling to be open to listening and to change. In addition to explicitly teaching this critical thinking strategy, I regularly have students share their responses to provocative questions with each other and reflect on if they then want to change them. Invariably, there are at least a few who do....

I feel lucky today because three veteran educators have agreed to share their responses to this week’s question. Because of that great abundance, I’ll keep my comments short and, instead, encourage readers to explore further resources at The Best Resources On Teaching & Learning Critical Thinking In The Classroom.

Ron Ritchhart from Project Zero; teacher and author Todd Stanley; and Robert Swartz from The National Center for Teaching Thinking have all contributed guest responses today. In addition, there is an insightful comment from a reader.

Response from Ron Ritchhart

Ron Ritchhart is a well-known author and researcher for Harvard’s Project Zero. He is the Director of the Cultures of Thinking project at the Project.

Critical thinking has been floating around the world of education for years. However, it has often been treated as an add-on to the curriculum rather a core aspect of learning. In the past ten to fifteen years this has begun to change as schools attend more and more to developing students’ habits of mind, thinking disposition, and 21st century skills.

If we take seriously the notion that learning is a consequence of thinking, then thinking--in all its forms: critical, creative, and reflective--needs to be a part of every lesson we teach.

To make thinking more central in one’s teaching, begin by identifying the types of thinking one wants to promote. In the Cultures of Thinking project, we begin by focusing on the kinds of thinking needed to build understanding: making connections, looking at things from different perspectives, constructing explanations and interpretations, reasoning with evidence, wondering and asking questions, describing the parts and features of a thing, and forming conclusions. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it captures several high-leverage “thinking moves” around which teachers can build lessons, assignments, and questions. Many teachers like to post these moves in the classroom as a “map of understanding” that they and their students can refer to throughout the learning process.

It’s important to make the thinking you are after explicit in your teaching rather than expecting students to automatically think on their own. One way to do this is to use “thinking routines” to help structure and scaffold students’ thinking. For example, after watching a video or reading a text, ask students how the information connects to what the class has already studied about the topic, how does this new information extend their knowledge, and what challenges or questions emerge about the topic as a result. This routine, Connect-Extend-Challenge, scaffolds the active processing of new information by making the thinking involved visible and explicit to all. Other such routines can be found in the book, Making Thinking Visible, or on the website.

Response From Todd Stanley

Todd Stanley is a National Board Certified Teacher and has been a classroom teacher for the past 13 years. He is the co-author of Critical Thinking and Formative Assessments: Increasing the Rigor in Your Classroom.

Many times teaching critical thinking in the classroom comes in the form of the questions the teacher asks. If a teacher asks lower level questions, that is what he will receive. But if he asks questions that require more deeper thinking at the level of analysis, synthesis, or evaluation, then he will get answers that use critical thinking.

For example, when I am teaching history to students, I tell them we will not be spending most of our time looking at the what, where, when, and who. Those facts might be important but they are only the basic building blocks used to reach critical thinking. Instead I focus on questions that look at the why and how.

I remember one time I was writing an assessment with a very traditional Social Studies teacher and I suggested the question, “How would the United States be different had the British won the American Revolution?” He was flabbergasted by this and responded, “But I can’t prove or disprove their answer.” My response to him was, “That’s the point.” If students can back up their answer using the who, what, when, or where, then they have taken that learning to a higher level.

Critical thinking needs to become part of the classroom culture where students are seeing it in everything they do. This can come in the form of a daily question written on the board students write about, the questions you ask in a class discussion, or the questions you write on your assessments.

Response From Robert Swartz

Robert Swartz is the Director of The National Center for Teaching Thinking.

Let’s look at a lesson that is designed to infuse instruction in critical thinking into standard content instruction ....

In this case 9th grade students are studying the Revolutionary War and its origins. As they read their textbook they find a passage that describes the first “hot” fighting of this war: it says that British soldiers, on their way to Concord, Massachusetts to seize a store of arms that the colonists had accumulated, encountered a group of colonists on the village green in Lexington, Massachusetts, part of the way to Concord. They ordered them to disperse. But when they didn’t, it says, the British opened fire and killed some colonists (called “patriots” in the text and later “Minute Men”). The rest did, then, disperse.

This is the standard account found in many US textbooks.

The teacher, however, says to the students that last night he found another book that says just the opposite. He reads a passage to them that suggests that the colonists opened fire on the British, who then returned the fire to protect themselves. How can one find out which of these we should believe? He suggests that one way to do this is to ask which is a more reliable source?

He guides the students explicitly to figure out what they would want to find out about a source of information to judge it to be reliable, and then he guides them to develop two organized checklists of questions that they can use, one for secondary sources, and the other for primary sources (in this case eyewitnesses). These involve questions like “What is the background and credentials of the author?”, “What is the reputation of the publication (if published)?”, “How was the information obtained?”, and “Has anyone else corroborated what the author says?”. They agree that no one of these is definitive, but that a pattern in the evidence might show the likelihood that a source of information was reliable.

What do the students find when they do this? When they investigate they discover, in fact, that they can answer some of their questions, but that the evidence available is itself seriously conflicting. Their conclusion is that, based on this evidence, we can’t tell who fired the first shot, and they suggest that it would be better for these authors to say “To this day no one knows who fired that first shot” rather than to embellish their accounts, as they seem to do, with unsupported claims. These students are suggesting that after critical investigation the best answer is “We don’t know!” How many teachers would honor “I don’t know” as a right answer?

When the students reach their conclusions the teacher then finishes the lesson by asking them to reflect back on the strategy they used to make this judgment to see if they think it worked: Did they leave something important out, do they want to revise it in some way, or is it ok as it stands? In effect, they are guided to reflect critically on the standards they used to make their judgment about which source is the reliable one.

This is a rich lesson that not only leads to a deeper understanding of the content these students are learning, but arms these students with an explicit strategy for making similar critical-thinking-based judgments about the reliability of sources of information in their lives outside school.

Response From A Reader


1. Critical thinking looks different in different disciplines. Just think of the adults you know who clearly think critically about their main fields of interests or the work they do, but are completely at sea thinking critically about areas that they lack knowledge in, or are uninterested in.

2. Much of what it takes to develop critical thinking skills comes from being led by a skilled teacher through some of the processes involved.

3. The processes are both procedural and content-based. There is no such thing as thinking critically about an issue where you have no knowledge base. That knowledge base might be something that students bring with them to the classroom, having learned it earlier in their schooling or at home or out in the world. Or it might be a knowledge base tha has to be mastered in the present, at the same time as the procedureal skills are being learned.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks again to “Anonymous” for posing this week’s question and to Ron, Todd, Robert, and JEB for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.