A teacher and I were casually talking about how our classes were going and she bravely  mentioned that she hadn’t done as much critical thinking as she’d like with her students. It’s this type of honesty that allows teachers to grow. Like all of us, there are a million formulas, parts of speech, or definitions to memorize. Among teachers’ greatest challenges is finding time to fit every important lesson in their curriculum.

Critical thinking is one of the hardest yet one of the most engaging, powerful and enduring skills to teach a student. The Common Core Initiative realized this when they made it a national expectation. Equipping our students with these skills enables them for great success regardless of the professional endeavors they pursue.

Critical thinking doesn’t just happen in a classroom. Here’s my secret sauce:

1. Ask the right questions

Low-level questions lead to low-level responses. High-level questions lead to high-level thinking. Low-level questioning is about getting the right answer and high-level questioning is about understanding why, forming an opinion, and promoting a more robust and comprehensive learning process.

2. Mistakes are part of the learning process

Critical thinking isn’t about getting the right answer. It’s about building off of each other. Let students know that the goal is to listen to each other and discuss. They won’t be used to this. Teach your class to validate any point, underlining that there are no wrong answers with critical thinking. Essentially, the only wrong response is the one not given voice. Remember, this is a process, and it will require repetition to fully take root.

3. Start small to build big confidence.

Start your critical thinking lessons by practicing with smaller audiences. After some initial practice, you’ll then grow the size of your practice audiences, smaller groups to whole-class discussions, gradually building confidence. As with any lesson, the most effective learning avoids early feelings of discouragement. Start by partnering the students, asking a question, letting them think, writing out an answer, and then discussing. Then build it to groups of four or five. Then, you could have the two groups talk and discuss with each other and then build to a class discussion. Critical thinking isn’t about the size of the group. It’s about the quality and thought of the words shared.

4. Base questions off text or information perplexing enough to promote critical thinking. 

5. Relate the questions to the real world and the bigger picture rather than just their lives.

6. Use texts that are two-sided and promote thought.

7. Check your lesson plans for the week and make sure you have built up to critical thinking, writing, and discussion every week. Carve out that time.

8. Ask students to critique and evaluate each other in smaller settings. That pushes high-level thinking.

9. Let students invent, plan, or design in partnerships or groups in your class, building towards that highest level of thinking.

Use a question that gets students thinking. If there’s one, indisputably correct answer it probably won’t foster critical thinking. Use a question that could have multiple acceptable answers (such as our many global issues), and encourage students to discuss thoroughly enough that they uncover and consider those multiple answers. Critical thinking will build confidence, lead to more engaged learners, and help extinguish behavioral issues.

Here are some questions and resources for you to use when you are planning. You want to focus on the last two categories, inference and evaluate, to promote critical thought.


Your turn: Think back to the last month in your class. When were the students asked to think critically?