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Why is critical thinking so difficult to teach and what are the solutions?

Cambridge University conducted a survey that found that whilst 93% of teachers agreed that it’s imperative to develop students’ critical thinking skills, only 21% felt that they have all the materials they need to develop these skills. As critical thinking quickly becomes one of the most necessary assets for school leavers, we look at why it is so important and how we can help students become better critical thinkers.

A student with good critical thinking skills is someone who can see both sides of an issue and be open to new evidence that challenges their ideas. They also need to be emotionally intelligent, demand that claims be backed by facts, deduce and infer conclusions from evidence and solve problems. In addition, they need to engage in independent and reflective thought, form their own opinion and make better choices. Specific subjects also require students to think critically in order deliver a higher level of academic achievement and present more well-rounded responses. Whether we are encouraging students to “think like a geographer/historian/scientist, etc.” or think critically in a more general way, we are asking a lot of our students, so it is no wonder it’s notoriously hard to teach.

A survey conducted by the Times Education Supplement asked more than 1,000 teachers from around the world to rank the skills needed for success in higher education and 92% identified critical thinking as one of the most important, and for good reason. Whether students progress from school to university or the world of work, they will need to use their critical thinking skills every day. The need to enhance these skills in students extends beyond their ability to get the highest grades, stand out against their peers and get promoted quickly. Whilst critical thinking does open all those doors, the situation is bit more, dare we say it, critical than that. Perhaps best summed up by the late Alvin Toffler, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write. It will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Technology such as Artificial Intelligence and Big Data has carved the way for a new wave of job role, where simply remembering and repeating facts is nowhere near enough. Students no longer have to stand out against their peers in order to get a job; they have to stand out against a computer.

Plus, it’s not just in negotiating their career in the new world of work that these skills are vital. Ofcom have reported that half of all adults in the UK now get their news from social media. They reported that “social media platforms tend to be rated least favourably on these measures [quality, accuracy, trustworthiness and impartiality]. For example, only 37% of people who use social media for news said they thought it was impartial, compared to 78% of users of magazines, 62% for TV, 61% for radio and 58% for print newspapers.” In short, we are having to digest more and more “fake news” and think critically to analyse each news story.

There is not an aspect of students’ futures that will not require a deep emotional intelligence and a comprehensive critical thinking skill set, so the developing of these has to start in the classroom.

There are many different strategies and ideas that can help develop these skills, whether that is in a specific subject or as an extra or cross-curricular project. However, it could be argued that all ways to teach critical thinking starts with a question.

Depending on the context of your lesson, challenging students through questioning them can be a really simple, but effective way of initiating critical thinking skills. Asking “Why do you think that?” “What does it imply?” “Could someone else view it differently, and why?” or many other open ended questions, allow students to critically assess their own thinking and consider how others may perceive things and alternative explanations. The notion that there is no right or wrong answer is important to advocate; the conclusion is acceptable as long as there is logical reasoning behind it.

Allowing students to assess their own thinking and learning is vital. We asked Educational Psychologist and programme director at Critical Thinkers, Vicky Heath, about this. She discussed the use of Metacognition and self-regulation approaches which encourage pupils to think about their own learning more explicitly, by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning. She says “using a metacognitive approach is a great way to approach teaching critical thinking, as there is strong evidence which suggests it improves students’ analytical and independent thinking skills. It is split into two components: awareness and action. If the teacher explains the skill (e.g. distinguishing fact from fiction), models the cognitive process involved in executing the skill, the students gain a deeper understanding of an ‘awareness’ of the skill they are learning. Next, the student models the same task under the guidance of the teacher, explaining their thinking processes. It is through this modelling that students have an opportunity to externalise their inner dialogue and verbalise the questions they are asking themselves. Research tells us that students learn both skills and subject matter if they are taught concurrently.”

There are many practical activities to help, which are evaluated in our free, CPD Certified webinar; How to improve students’ critical thinking skills within your classroom, including the pose, pause, pounce, bounce approach, the PEE strategy (point, evidence, explanation) and many more.

From January 2022, we will also be offering our comprehensive award scheme, which aims to help students with the development of these skills, as well as becoming better equipped to deal with the various stresses and challenges we all face during our lifetimes. There is a Bronze, Silver and Gold award, which targets different years or key stages, but each covers the units; Inquiry, Worldview and Emotional Intelligence. The awards can be delivered in many ways and in a wide range of settings. You can map it to your existing activity or use it to start something brand new. Award delivery can also happen in curriculum time, or through extra-curricular and enrichment programmes.

Finally, we know that there are so many theories, ideas and practises out there about teaching critical thinking skills that it can feel a bit overwhelming. We have created the Critical Thinkers Community Facebook Group, which is a place for teachers to share resources, make suggestions and discuss ideas. If you haven’t already, feel free to join the group and join hundreds of other like-minded teachers in the collective mission of helping to develop the next generation of Critical Thinkers.

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