In recent years (at least as long as I’ve been teaching), there has been a dedicated focus on teaching “critical thinking” to students. Any quick Google search will reveal a plethora of sites explaining the lack of critical thinking displayed in students. Another host of websites offer solutions in the form of this-or-that style program.
In my limited experience, the method taken by most schools is to get students to read and write more often. The thought goes: if they’re reading and thinking about what they’re reading, their critical thinking skills will improve. To be fair, I don’t think this approach is entirely wrong.
The main problem I see is that simply getting students to read and write more doesn’t, by itself, create better thinkers. Usually, it just seems to create students who are trying to rush through the reading they’ve been putting off for weeks. Instead, the solution needs to come in the form of your underlying methodology, not the practical implementation. If they know how to critically think before they read, they’ll be able to engage the content critically.
The solution I offer is straightforward: teach students logic and ask them hard questions.
Teach Them Logic
Formal logic is a powerful tool. Logic, in really brief form, could be thought of as “the language of arguments.” Here, “arguments” does not mean fighting with someone or people yelling at each other in disagreement. Instead, “arguments” means a set of propositions that lead to a point.
When students learn formal logic, they get to understand the form of how such arguments work. Doing this usually produces two results: 1) The students learn to hone their own discussion skills and 2) they learn to spot bad arguments. Rather than being slaves to everything that sounds “good,” students actually gain the tools to consider an argument and defend or critique that argument.
Ask Hard Questions
The second part of the strategy is to ask students so-called “hard” questions. This does not mean that the questions are difficult for the asker. Rather, the questions are such that they require the student to apply their critical thinking skills.
One of the easiest and most beneficial ways to do this is simply by asking the question, “Why?” The “why” question forces students to provide an argument for something they just said. Whenever a student says something like,
“I believe x…”
“I feel like y should be able to…”
“I think that z is….”
A great follow question to each of these questions is “why?” Instead of just reporting what they are thinking or feeling at a given moment, the “why” question forces the student to think critically about what they just said. When someone has to provide sophisticated reasons for some stated belief they can’t merely report their gut emotion.
Putting It Together
This style of question is the first part of developing the age-old “Socratic Method.” There are many other ways of asking “hard” questions, but the easiest way to start is simply to ask, “why?” When students are trained in logic, they can employ those tools to answer the “why” question. Implementing these two pieces won’t fix all critical thinking problems, but it certainly will get the ball rolling on the student side.
In the end, it may not be trendy, but it works in developing student thinking skills.