If you asked me today to recall even one-fourth of the concepts I learned at school, I would draw a complete blank. Sure I learnt at school, but none of that learning ever stayed with me because I never learnt to question beyond it.
I don’t think I can blame my teacher for it however. She had a syllabus to follow and a limited amount of time to finish it. Rote-learning served me and my classmates well when it came to exams but we sadly failed at amassing any critical thinking skills.
What are critical thinking skills?
It is the ability to make a clear and informed decision which has taken into account various kinds of evidence. Critical skills are what we use to navigate our way in the real world. Unfortunately however, we don’t seem to pay much attention to this in academics despite the fact that teaching critical thinking skills are an important aspect of a teacher’s job.
Student thinking about an answer
1. Ask them open-ended questions – When you ask a question, if the answer to the question is already visible in the question itself, then you aren’t giving your students an opportunity to think. The answer has already been presented to them and therefore your question has been made redundant. In order to push your students to think, you need to phrase your questions better. A question such as “When did World War I happen?” could be better phrased as “What were the circumstances which caused World War I to happen?” When confronted with the latter question, children instead of reeling off the year in which World War I happened will have to think about why it happened and what was the cause behind it.
2. Don’t focus on the right or wrong aspect of the answers – You ask a question, the child answers but the answer is wrong. That is okay. Instead of right away telling the child the right answer, your job is to guide them to the right answer. When they give you the wrong answer, ask for the reasoning behind the answer. Once they give you the reason behind this, you can ask them why not this way of reasoning. Eventually, the child will arrive at the answer you wanted.
Children with different answers
3. Push your students to critically evaluate questions – You ask your class an open-ended, well-phrased question. You get an answer which though correct does not really take into account the parameters of the question. Ask your class how they arrived at the answer. Once they let you know how they arrived at the answer, you can ask them why they thought that was an appropriate answer. This is the point at which your class might have dissenting opinions because each child has a different reason for why. They have begun to critically evaluate your question, the moment their personal opinions come into play.
4. Do your best to frame all your units on the basis of a single question – Time does not always allow it and it might not be possible to do this for all lessons throughout, but regardless, do your best to frame your lesson plans on the basis of a single question, which in turn branches off into other questions. This single question will help your remember the objective of the lesson, and it will also do the same for your students.
Waiting for a child’s answer
5. Ask them questions, but wait for their answer – One of the most common mistakes teachers make is that they ask the questions in class and they themselves provide the answers. By doing this, you are robbing children of the ability to develop critical thinking skills. Ask a question and then wait for the answer. It does not matter if you need to wait longer than 5 to 10 minutes. The idea is to give children the time to think, evaluate and then make a decision about what is the right answer.
6. Step back and let them take the lead – Give your class a question and then let them write down the answer. Specify what kind of answer you want and make sure you include the parameters in the question so that it is not too vague or too specific. You might feel like leaving them to their own devices and letting them figure it out is simply a waste of time because you don’t even know if they are learning, but this is something you need to do. The urge to spoon-feed the answer to them might be great but at the end of the day, if you keep handing information to them, they are never going to learn how to think and decide for themselves.
7. When in doubt, use the 5 W’s and 1 H – Some students might struggle with following a path of questioning, in order to make it easier for them you can ask them to use the 5 W’s and 1 H model of questioning. The 5 W’s and 1 H are the most basic questions one can ask in order to gather information. They are Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. When a student applies the 5 W’s and 1 H to a question asked by you, it helps get all the answers that you ideally want from them. You can read more about this model of questioning here.
8. Make in-depth group discussions a compulsory class activity – Group discussions, especially those which have grades riding on them are a great way of making children think, evaluate, and analyze concepts or situations. The grades factor also means that even children who don’t normally participate in class will be forced to participate.
Learning to evaluate concepts and situations
9. Ask students to evaluate concepts or situations like they would evaluate real-life situations – If students find it hard to evaluate hypothetical situations, use real-life examples to push them to evaluate concepts. Real-life examples are easier to evaluate because they hold value for the students.
10. Always encourage questions – Make your class an open to all questions zone. Questions are a vital component of critical thinking skills. Once a child thinks of a question, immediately two or three others come to mind. When you encourage questions in class, remember you are also encouraging your students think.