Developing Critical Thinking in Students: 4 Strategies

The concept of critical thinking can seem vast and abstract. But one of the most meaningful ways you can start to tackle it is by rethinking the role of the teacher.

Prisma Staff
March 23, 2023

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Gathering, analyzing, interpreting, synthesizing, judging — essential skills in the era of information. But with kids in U.S. middle school and high schools using the word “bored” to describe themselves more frequently than any other adjective, it’s hard to imagine how students’ critical thinking can flourish.

The concept of critical thinking can seem vast and abstract. But one of the most meaningful ways you can start to tackle it is by rethinking the role of the teacher.

Instead of a leader who aims to teach students by spelling out the next steps and evaluates whether they were accurately completed, think of them as a coach who helps learners chart their own course. Just a like a sports coach can’t step out on the field and take the shot for their player, a learning coach gives tools, asks Socratic-style questions, encouraging students to explore — while cheerleading and offering feedback in real time.

Recentering the learner-coach relationship is an excellent way to lay the foundations for the development of critical thinking skills: It shows the learner that everything they do, from the sources they choose to examine to the way they construct their argument to the way they approach a brand new challenge, is a choice that they make.

But it’s not a win-lose situation: Learners get comfortable with making mistakes, encountering obstacles, getting regular feedback and course correcting as needed.

With that mindset, they’re already practicing critical thinking. Then, when it comes time to roll up their sleeves, they’ll feel more comfortable engaging with materials, evaluating different viewpoints, and developing their own opinions.

Here’s how to help learners become critical thinkers.

Emphasize curiosity

One outcome of critical thinking is judgment: Do I believe this source? How do these sources relate to one another and to my lived experience? Am I convinced by this argument? How would I go about solving this problem? Are there possibilities I am overlooking?

But there are a lot of steps that come before we can get to a place of confidence.

It starts with embracing curiosity as a value — modeling it ourselves and instilling it in our students.

One of our Prisma Powers, “applied curiosity,” is central to the project-based learning approach we take. In each theme, when we send our learners on “missions,” they’re presented with a series of open-ended questions to help guide them.

But we also practice how to engage with these questions in a productive way, giving the learners a set of guardrails that help them adjust into the new approach until, ultimately, they feel the intellectual mastery to forge forward on their own.

One way we do this is in our Collaborative Problem Solving Workshops, explained by Head of Learning Innovation, Emily Veno, in this way:

“The purpose of Collaborative Problem Solving Workshops is to create collaborative experiences related to the theme where learners build their discussion and teamwork skills in context of an interesting and relevant problem or a set of problems. Sometimes, they do this in a simulation, like when they had to solve a mystery of stolen eggs from a Zoo in the ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ theme and each week they had to vote on a suspect to eliminate, or in the ‘World of Wonder’ theme where they had to figure out how to power a city using a combination of resources.”


Pick relevant subjects

Curiosity implies a level of student engagement; a closed mind will never be a curious one. The most direct path to engagement is when we make it clear why a student is learning something, and that why is rooted in a real-life, hands on connection, whether it’s to them personally, to their community or to their broader interests.

Keep this approach in mind, and suddenly the sky’s the limit with possible ways to teach critical thinking skills. For example:

  1. Ask students to put their problem-solving skills in service of a challenge their community might face — for example, to develop a disaster-preparedness kit for their town, based on actual potential threats, as we did in our “Cities of the Future” theme.
  2. Teach decision-making skills in the context of everyday life — for example, in our Life Skills class, students make a weekly meal plan that is nutritious and within the family’s grocery budget.
  3. Ask students to describe a difficult situation they witnessed or experienced, and then workshop a solution. (This works best in a learning environment where trust has already been established.)
  4. Have learners gather materials that represent different points of view on a local matter (whether to develop green space to build affordable housing, the pros and cons of a sugar tax, how to increase bike ridership), synthesize the results, and write a letter to the mayor expressing their constructive solution.

Notice that these topics don’t neatly into a traditional academic subject. That’s part of what makes them so compelling: they reflect the interdisciplinary nature of real-world situations. Leena Williams, Lead Coach and Curriculum Designer in our high school, explains:

“21st century problems aren’t solved in neat subject-area boxes; they will be solved by doing the messy and creative work of bringing together disparate knowledge and experiences, combining them with strong values and ethical thinking, and having the courage to go out on a limb. Our curriculum puts learners in those positions and lets them experiment and think outside the box in low-stakes ways, now while they are young, so that they can build those foundations to draw upon as they reach higher education and the workforce. In short, we present things as complex and open-ended because they are — we don't tidy them up for kids because we trust that kids can handle it.”

Make space for self-reflection

A lot of critical thinking focuses outward — analyzing and judging the work of others. But in order to do that in a productive way, learners need to be comfortable analyzing their own thought processes, biases included.

Meta-cognition — thinking about your thinking — is one of the higher order thinking skills we emphasize throughout all phases of a learning cycle. You can incorporate this in your own teaching by building in opportunities — formal and spontaneous — for students to reflect on their growth and development.

  1. Celebrate when they learn something that causes them to change their mind.
  2. Model self-reflection, by underscoring when you learn something new.
  3. Ask them to find multiple solutions to the same problem, to see that there isn’t just one “right” answer.

James McManus, High School Coach & Curriculum Designer, suggests the value of challenging student preconceptions and debunking myths. One way he does this is by role-playing everyday scenarios suggested by the students — for example, how to get out of an awkward conversation — and then critiquing the possible solutions as a group. “When they critically re-examine their gut reaction to something,” McManus says, “they learn to re-train their brains.”

Cultivate relationships between peers

A healthy group dynamic is one of the most important ingredients for developing critical thinking skills. It’s one thing to encourage students to consider different perspectives held by anonymous strangers in distant publications; it’s another when you’re face-to-face with the person who disagrees with you.

Our coaches help students navigate these complex interpersonal relationships by normalizing the fact that we all have our unique viewpoints — but at the same time, the cohort feels comfortable challenging one another because they know that’s part of the process.

When we engage in creative problem solving together, each learner is invested in helping their fellow Prismarians find the best approach for them — and to respect that someone else’s solution will likely be vastly different than their own. At Prisma, we don’t teach kids what to think, we teach them how to think. In that sense, regardless of what specific opinion each learner holds, the community strengthens because everyone is working towards the same objective: to develop these important skills.

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