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Developing Critical Thinkers
By: Sandra L. Love

Everyone thinks! The key is to cultivate quality of thought. Critical thinking is a skill that is essential for future problem solvers, our students of today. Thinking skills are viewed as a crucial issue in education. The ability to engage in careful, reflective thought is viewed as paramount. Teaching students to become skilled thinkers is a goal of education in this fast-paced and competitive world. Students must be able to acquire and process information since the world is changing so quickly.

Some studies purport that students exhibit an insufficient level of skill in critical thinking. Most students do not score well on tests that measure ability to recognize assumptions, evaluate controversy, and scrutinize inferences. High-quality learning and thinking require more than the transmission of facts. We cannot assume that students will pick up critical thinking skills without explicit instruction.

Research indicates that thinking skills instruction makes a positive difference in the achievement levels of students. Studies that reflect achievement over time show students can learn to think better and that learning gains can be accelerated. These results indicate that the teaching of thinking skills can enhance the academic achievement of participating students, and while it is possible to teach critical thinking as a separate skill, these skills are developed and used best when learned in connection with content knowledge. To develop competency in critical thinking, students must use these skills across the disciplines.

Students not only need to learn facts, concepts, and principles, they also must be able to effectively think about this knowledge in a variety of increasingly, complex ways. When a student needs to think through an idea or issue or to rethink anything, questions must be asked to stimulate thought. When answers are given, sometimes thinking stops completely. When an answer generates another question, then thought continues. Connections in the brain can be made between new and previously learned information when questions are asked. Questions must be asked by students of themselves, by students of their peers, and by teachers of students. Too often, only questions that require memorization have dominated the teaching of content. Helping students learn how to process information at various levels of thinking is imperative in our schools today.

If we, as educators, want students to think critically, we must stimulate and cultivate thinking with questions. Teachers need to ask questions of students to turn on their intellectual thinking engines. The questions should be asked purposefully to require students to use the thinking skills that the teacher is trying to develop. Students can generate questions from teachersí questions to get their thinking to move forward. Thinking is of no use unless it goes somewhere, and, again, the questions we ask determine where our thinking goes. At the lower levels of thought, some questions imply the desire not to think but merely to recall information from memory. Although it is essential to build a solid knowledge base by using questions at the lower levels, questions at higher levels must be asked to drive studentsí thinking to a deeper level and lead them to deal with complexity, rather than just search through text to find an answer.

Studies suggest that the classroom environment can be arranged to be conducive to high-level thinking. Teachers need to plan for the type of cognitive processing they wish to foster and develop learning experiences accordingly. The teacherís role is to provide stimulating and supporting activities that engage learners in critical thinking. With consistent modeling and encouragement by the teacher in a risk-free environment, students increasingly take responsibility for asking questions of themselves and of their peers.

Students improve their thinking skills by learning how to ask questions that enable them to process information. While many students might learn how to ask questions naturally, others need to be taught the questions that help them learn how to think. A focus of schools must be on developing students who value knowledge and learning, who can and will think for themselves, who know how to ask questions when more information is needed, and who know how to evaluate the value of ideas, products, or situations.

With the integration of critical thinking skills into instruction, students gain a deeper understanding of the content they are learning, resulting in meaningful and transferable knowledge. The emphasis on critical thinking leads to students who can learn to critically interact with content, think independently, make decisions, solve problems, and yet remain intellectually proficient. Critical thinking helps students form meaningful connections with what they learn and is recognized as an important element for success in life.

Sandra L. Love, Ed.D., is educational consultant at Mentoring Minds in Tyler, Texas, www.mentoringminds.com.

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