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Teaching Thinking Skills (Critical Thinking)

         Critical Thinking has been overused as a coverall term for many aspects of Thinking, which sometimes includes Creative or Applied Thinking, to the point that there exists a significant divide and misunderstanding on whether Critical Thinking is actually taught. Gormley (2017) observes that when employers refer to Critical Thinking, they are expecting the ability to solve practical problems. In the Education sphere, Critical Thinking is often regarded as textual analysis, while the larger society view Critical Thinking as the ability to evaluate truth and worth (Gormley, 2017). The origins and proliferation of Literary Criticism in academic domains is largely responsible for the misunderstanding of what Critical Thinking is in the Educational sphere, and as a humanist, I lean far closer to the views of the society-at-large. As such, I reiterate my definition of Critical Thinking from the earlier section: Critical Thinking is the making of informed decisions through the analysis and evaluation of ideas and situations in order to discover their truths, falsities and worth. Critical Thinking is not an exercise in intellectual vanity, and it is too powerful to be limited to the analysis of text alone. Having taken many courses on Literary Theory and Criticism, including one this semester as part of my involvement in the Fulbright programme, I greatly appreciate the value from the insights when analysing text and often, my knowledge and understanding from Psychology, Linguistics, and Economics resurface when performing Literary Criticism. However, the narrowness of thinking as a Literary Critic as opposed to thinking as a problem-solver or evaluator of truth and worth leads me to question if the transfer of learning from the “Critical Thinking” skills from Literary Criticism to that in the economic or social spheres is possible without expanding the repertoire of Thinking Skills needed. As such, I will argue that improved Critical Thinking requires a focus on the development of refined discrimination in the Convergent Thinking Processes of observation, analysis, inference and evaluation, which are exercised through these cognitive processes:

  • Idea Evaluation

  • Observing

  • Defining

  • Analysing

  • Substantiating through evidence

  • Selecting facts and evidence

  • Classifying, Categorising

  • Comparing, Contrasting

  • Sequencing

  • Summarizing, Generalising

  • Pattern-proving

  • Inferring, Interpreting

  • Elaborating, detailing a plan

  • Evaluating, assessing against articulated Criteria

  • Identifying and Evaluating Assumptions

  • Problem Clarification

  • Metacognitive Awareness

  • Identifying Bias and preconceptions

  • Issues in Ethics

         The sheer range of possible cognitive processes relevant to Critical Thinking are supplemented by what Watson and Glaser (1980) describe as an attitude of enquiry that involves an ability to recognise the existence and an acceptance of the general need for evidence in what is asserted to be true. Teaching Critical Thinking thus develops both skills such as the ability to analyse, evaluate and make inferences, and dispositions, which are the motivation, inclination and drive of the learner to utilise those skills while dealing with issues, making decisions and/or solving problems (Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo, 1996). Miri, David and Uri (2007) provides a graphical representation which succinctly represents the links between strategies and purposes of Critical Thinking to the dispositions and skills.

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         Teaching Critical Thinking in schools thus requires teachers to ensure that all the cognitive processes are covered and making that explicit by modelling. For example, the teacher should state clearly that he or she is presenting the definition of a concept or problem, and that defining is necessary and useful in order to ensure that the subsequent processes are valid. Also, the teacher needs to constantly check on the basis of any judgement or opinion that are present, including requesting for evidence and questioning if the evidence allows for the particular conclusion to be made or opinion to be formed. The common mantra of “Everyone has the right to an opinion but not every opinion is right” needs to be instilled as common classroom practice, and respect for facts and knowledge is of paramount importance. The nature of Critical Thinking is to seek for objective truth and establishing well-reasoned criteria that evaluate the worth of competing claims, and encouraging open-class discussions while constantly questioning the basis of points raised leads to the sharpening of the Critical Thinking process. Needless to say, this is no mean feat, but the arduous task has arguably greater impact on the learner with regards to their lives beyond the classroom than any of the other Thinking skills combined. Butler, Pentoney, & Bong’s (2017) examination of the correlation between Critical Thinking skills and life decisions revealed that participants with higher scores on a Critical Thinking assessment reported fewer negative life events, and was even a higher predictor than g or commonly-assessed intelligence. Zohar & Dori’s (2003) seminal work showed that even low-ability or low-track students gain substantially from Critical Thinking lessons, and in some cases, their progress may even exceed that of higher-ability or higher-track students, thus narrowing the achievement gap and creates a more equitable outcome for students. Developing Critical Thinking skills among less privileged students is even more important when one considers the findings by Noble, Norman and Farah (2004) which shows that lower Social Economic Status students, who are disproportionately represented in low-ability classes, have poorer prefrontal/executive functioning systems than middle class students in any track or ability grouping. Poorer executive functioning systems lead to poorer academic achievements, poorer decision-making in life, and poorer impulse control, all of which leads to far greater likelihood of negative life outcomes (Welsh, Pennington, & Groisser, 1991). Given the stakes, I have to reiterate that Critical Thinking cannot be an exercise in intellectual vanity, but the real chance to shape the students’ long-term wellbeing.

         Stories rank among the best approaches when introducing Critical Thinking to students, with Matthew Lipman, a pioneer in teaching Critical Thinking and Philosophy to children, strongly advocating the use of stories as entry points for children into the world of deep philosophical thinking (Lipman, 1976). More than 25 years later, he continues to implore teachers of Critical Thinking to “call upon their (children’s) imaginative powers and have recourse to the magic of fiction [emphasis mine] (Lipman, 2003).” Lipman’s advice was something I took to heart upon undergoing Lipman’s Philosophy for Children (P4C) training in 2006 and piloting them in my classroom prior to the design of my Thinking Programme. While the specific techniques learnt in P4C came and went, what stuck when I designed the schoolwide Thinking Programme was the emphasis on the use of stories to trigger Critical Thinking. The first version of the Thinking Programme was built entirely around stories, with three books taking centre stage: Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories by Reinhardt Jung; The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart; and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Shorter stories like The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes and The Three Little Pigs (the original, Jon Scieszka, and even a version written in Singlish, a contact language between English and local languages in Singapore) were used to explore Critical Thinking. Without a doubt, the early success of the programme and popularity among the students were largely due to the magic of fiction and its ability to provide a frame of reference and high interest value to the students. As any good storyteller would, embellishing the stories and even tweaking the content to stir up opportunities for Critical Thinking questions to take place is compulsory to maximise the learning opportunity. For example, The Eye in the Sea, one of the stories in Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories, talks about an Irish boy who rescues a whale, which had been previously rescued by the boy’s grandfather almost a century (!) ago. However, the boy’s grandfather was harshly punished by his parents and fellow villagers for rescuing it. While this story alone is rich in content as it is, maximising the Critical Thinking potential meant that I embellished the timeframe of the story by resituating the grandfather’s act to the period of the Great Irish Famine. As such, the story becomes even richer, allowing for the discussion on whether noble acts were appropriate in times of great human suffering, and whether compassion for lesser beings or animals should be suppressed during the course of personal suffering. Furthermore, I changed the ending by stating that the boy was also punished by his father (who was unemployed) and this led to questions as to whether the father’s actions reflected that he did not share his own father’s ethics, and whether that was a universal truth or only circumstantial.

         Perhaps the most obvious exponents of Critical Thinking in public life are lawyers. They demonstrate evidential-based reasoning, making inferences and evaluations, take on different perspectives, apply the criteria set by laws, and ask key questions to probe at the truth. For older students, they act as great models of Critical Thinking and mock trials are key activities that allow students to explore and demonstrate Critical Thinking in action. I will illustrate the process by enhancing a Social Studies lesson series provided by a retired teacher from the Indiana School District with his permission. The teacher designed and wrote an excellent 30-lesson series on “Assassinations which changed the United States”, examining the successful and failed assassination attempts on major public figures like Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Every single lesson was well-researched and illustrated with authentic photographs, investigation reports and articles from books and media. While there will no doubt be rich discussion during each lesson, the learning activities were mostly factual response tasks, or a Reader’s Theatre task where students were asked to read parts from a play written about the Blood Feud. How Critical Thinking could be developed following the acquisition of knowledge would be to create an unscripted student-developed re-enactment of the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Students will be assigned into roles such as the Prosecutor, Defence Attorney, Oswald, Jackie Kennedy, witnesses, law enforcement officers, jury members and journalists. The teacher will then act as the judge to monitor the proceedings and question the logic of the lawyers while also providing valuable guiding points to the jury. The potential for learning the varied skills in Critical Thinking in this context is massive. The lawyers would have to use research, evidence and questioning to pursue the truth. The defendant would have to explore ways to mitigate his supposed guilt and deal with the dilemma of lying to save himself or admitting to the truth and seeking mercy. The witnesses would have to appeal to the jury either through facts or emotions, and their reliability may be called into question due to consistency issues in witness statements or their credibility as a witness (and asking themselves what are the criteria of a credible witness). The law enforcement officers will have to present relevant factual data to the court, selecting the most significant elements while forgoing the less significant ones. The jurors’ role is to decide if the evidence presented is sufficient and if they could determine if the reasoning or supposed facts are erroneous, and then decide on what is the appropriate punishment and the criteria in which they selected the punishment. The journalists are commissioned to report objectively the proceedings of the court and have to show no traces of bias or leanings in their writings, and to meta-analyse their own writings in order to detect hints or even overt biases. However, perhaps some could be even be assigned to editorialise their news report from particular angles, such as conspiracy theorists, pro-JFK supporter. This activity will not only develop the Critical Thinking skills and its corresponding cognitive processes, but it will also allow the students to critically examine each person’s dispositions towards Thinking and the biases they hold or fallacies they make. As an extension exercise using the other aspects of Thinking, the students may be tasked to design a car which would allow JFK to remain visible and open to the public while keeping him safe from assassins. A further extension using Critical Reasoning might be to hold a debate on gun rights in the immediate aftermath of a shooting and examine if the evidence for or against gun ownership is strengthened due to contexts, or to write a hypothetical essay on the likely changes to JFK’s political decisions had he survived the assassination attempt and why he may or may not change some of his views and leanings.

 Activities to foster Critical Thinking

  1. Debates have been used over millennia to allow opposing points of view to engage in civilised intellectual discussion over issues which are not easily resolved.

  2. Fallacies and biases exercises. A whole range of fallacies and biases from the field of psychology and philosophy are available at and can be used to allow students to reflect on whether they have committed such fallacies and biases in their own personal lives. It can also be delivered through:

  3. Social Science experiments on sociological or psychological phenomenon. Simple ones like the Stroop Effect test and the Gorilla selective attention tests can reveal the peculiarities of the brain, while famous empathy, conformity and obedience “experiments” can be discussed or re-enacted to verify if key findings from early psychological and sociological research still hold true in modern society. Be careful with regards to the ethics of research and the well-being of the students when conducting such experiments and re-enactments!


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