A major debate that has been taking place in the world of education over the past thirty to fifty years is the question of whether or not critical thinking is an important skill to teach students in the classroom. There, at least in my opinion, is no question. The goal of education, in a vast majority of educators’ minds, is to prepare students to solve the problems of the world that do not even exist yet. The only true way to do this is to teach students how to think and learn, not how to pass a History test, or their SAT. This is an odd concept, teachers allowing students to learn how to learn. That sentence in and of itself is a little confusing, but its meaning is what many educators think needs to be at the heart of education all over the world.
So, what does it mean to think critically? The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines it as, “that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it” (“Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking”). They go on to emphasize that critical thinking is an incredibly intrinsically motivated skill, and relies heavily on the thinker wanting to become a better, more thoroughly educated person (“Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking”). But what does this formal definition mean? It means that in order for someone to think critically, she must first accept that her thinking has been tainted and prejudiced. Without her knowing it, her thinking has been molded, and almost barricaded, by her experience. In order to begin thinking critically, she must break down these walls, and look inward, to try and rid her thoughts of these stains and prejudices. After she has done this, she can look out into the world and begin to evaluate the actions and thinking of those around her, and evaluate what is true, and what has been said without validation. Many view critical thinkers as skeptics, not willing to accept anything as true, forever hoping to prove someone wrong. This is the exact opposite of the goal of critical thinking. Because of her ability to fairly evaluate every situation, the critical thinker has an incredibly open mind, and is willing to accept truths that counter her beliefs. She is able to look at the world in its true form, and benefit greatly from this higher level thought process.
So, how do we teach students to critically think? A huge responsibility is placed on teachers for this to happen. In the 1980’s, teachers attempted to implement critical thinking as its own entity into their curriculum, and found that it needs to be interwoven into pre-existing curricula to be taught successfully. Due to the malleability of critical thinking, teachers need to be creative in weaving in critical thinking into their everyday lessons. That being said, there are multiple ways to do this. In Vera Schneider’s article, “Critical Thinking in the Elementary Classroom: Problems and Solutions,” she shares some methods of implementing critical thinking into the classroom that have worked. These include: “Do not readily find solutions for students… Always seek opportunities for brainstorming… Compare and Contrast anything and everything… Categorize… Encourage Creativity… [and] Teach students to think critically across the curriculum” (Schneider).
I would like to touch on the first of these methods with an analogy. This idea of not revealing the solution to students immediately is much like the scenario where a driver is lost and asking for directions. Would it be more effective to tell the driver that she should drive to her destination, or tell her which roads to follow to get to her destination? Now, back in the classroom setting, for students to be able to solve future problems, it is almost unimportant that they know the exact solution to that singular problem. What is more important is that they understand how to look at the problem, and know how to approach it.
Think of some of the problems that may arise in the future, or problems that already exist in today’s society. Would the issue of alternative energy still be a problem if we knew how to solve the crisis? Do we know how to participate in digital warfare? Do we know how to truly reverse the effects of Global Warming? Do we know an equation to describe all prime numbers? The answer to all of these questions is no. So, education must prepare students to answer these problems that do not yet have solutions. How can this be done? By teaching students how to think critically.