Build Success Beyond the Classroom: How to Teach Critical Thinking

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How to teach critical thinking

Christina Cavage is a teacher, Pearson author, and teacher trainer. In this post, she explains what critical thinking is and how you can start to incorporate it in your classes – with lots of practical ideas. You might also like to watch Christina’s webinar on the same topic: Build success beyond the classroom: How to teach critical thinking

Critical thinking is a term we often throw around the teacher’s lounge. You often hear, “Of course, teaching critical thinking is essential.” However, in that same space, we may also hear the question, “But how?”

Teaching students to think critically involves helping them to develop a critical mindset. What exactly does that mean, and how can we do that?

What does it mean to think critically?

Critical thinking is a complex process that involves students reflecting, analyzing and evaluating ideas. Building a community of critical thinkers in our classrooms involves going beyond the cognitive domains and building the affective domains as well. 

The cognitive domain concerns subject knowledge and intellectual skills, whereas the affective domain involves emotional engagement with an idea or learning material.

Let’s take a look at an example:

We want to teach students to listen and understand the structure of a radio show clip. At the same time, we want them to be able to engage fully in it. As a result, we encourage the students to respond appropriately and evaluate what has been said or how it was said. This engages both intellectual and emotional domains.

In essence, this deliberate teaching of critical thinking needs to be part of our teaching toolkit. We need to develop a mindset around it in and out of our classrooms. 

How can teachers develop a critical thinking mindset? 

Consider all the questions we pose to students during our classes. Do we simply expect a yes or no answer, or have we established a classroom environment where students offer considered reasons for their responses?

By following some guiding principles, we can get into the practice of naturally expecting deeper answers:

  1. Students need to engage in critical thinking tasks/activities at all levels.
  2. Teachers need to provide space/time in the classroom to build critical thinking learning opportunities.
  3. Practicing critical thinking must be incorporated throughout the course, increasing complexity as students improve their critical thinking ability. 
  4. Students must be given opportunities to practice transferring critical thinking skills to other contexts. 

How can you foster critical thinking in the classroom?

Activity/Strategy #1: Categorizing

Provide a set of vocabulary terms or grammatical structures on the board (or pictures for true beginners). Ask your students to gather in pairs or small groups and have them categorize the list. Ask them to be creative and see how diverse the categories can be.

Example: Desk, computer, pencil, stove, dishes, forks, novel, cookbook, sink, shelf

  • Made from trees: Pencil, novel, cookbook, desk
  • Made from metal: fork, stove, sink, etc. 

Activity/Strategy #2: What’s the Problem?

Provide students with a short reading or listening and have you students define a problem they read or hear. 

Tomas ran up the steps into Building A. The door was closed, but he opened it up. He was very late. He took his seat feeling out of breath. 

Example questions:

  • Determine why Tomas was late.
  • Underline verbs in the past tense.
  • Create a beginning or ending to the story

Activity/Strategy #3: Circles of Possibility

Present a problem or situation. Consider the problem presented in strategy #2 above: Ask the students to evaluate the situation from Tomas’ point of view, then, from the teacher’s point of view, and then from his classmate’s point of view. 

This activity generates a lot of conversation, and even more critical thinking than you can imagine!

Activity/Strategy #4: Draw Connections

Provide students a list of topics or themes they have studied, or have an interest in. Place one in the center, and ask them to draw connections between each one. 

Afterward, they should explain their ideas. For example:

“Energy and environment are affected by sports. Most sports do not harm the environment, but if you think about auto racing, it uses a lot of fuel. It can negatively impact the environment.”

Activity/Strategy #5: What’s the Rule?

Play students an audio clip or provide them with a reading text. Draw students’ attention to a particular grammatical structure and ask them to deduce the rules. For example:

In the text above, students might note that all the verbs in the past simple have an -ed ending. 

Activity/Strategy #5: Establishing Context

Show your class and image and put your students in small groups. Give each group a task. For example:

  • If this were in a movie, what would the movie be about?
  • If this were an advertisement, what would it be advertising?
  • If this were a book, what would the book be about?

There are many other wonderful strategies that can help build a classroom of critical thinkers. Getting your students accustomed to these types of tasks can not only increase their linguistic and affective competencies but their critical thinking. In addition to these on-the-spot activities, consider building in project-based learning. 

How can you incorporate project-based learning to your classroom?

Project-based learning often begins with a challenge or problem. Students explore and find answers over an extended period of time. These projects focus on building 21st Century Skills: Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking. 

They also represent what students are likely to encounter when they leave our English language classes. 

An example project

Consider this project: Our cafeteria is outdated. It does not allow for food variety, or for guests to sit in groups of their desired size and activity level. Survey students who use the cafeteria. Follow up the survey with interviews. Determine how your group can reimagine the cafeteria. Prepare a proposal. Present your proposal

You can imagine the amount of language students will use working on this project, while, at the same time, building a critical mindset. 

Teaching critical thinking is all about building activities and strategies that become part of your teaching toolkit, and your students’ regular approach to problem solving.

Want to learn more about how to teach critical thinking? Watch a recording of Christina’s webinar:

Discover more about how to teach critical thinking

If you found this article interesting, check out Christina’s first article: Build Success Beyond the Classroom: An Introduction to Critical Thinking or listen to her Pearson English Podcast episode

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