There's a Better Way to Teach Critical Thinking: 9 Rules of Thumb

September 13th, 2014 6 Comments Features

critical thinking

Critical thinking is the study of clear and unclear thinking. A simple definition, maybe, but that’s how it should be. The term was popularised long ago–by John Dewey, in the 1930s–but in recent years it has become less of an actionable technique and more of a trendy educational buzzword.

Our definition of “critical thinking” is sliding towards the obscure. Here’s the Australian Curriculum website’s take:

“Critical thinking is at the core of most intellectual activity that involves students in learning to recognise or develop an argument, use evidence in support of that argument, draw reasoned conclusions, and use information to solve problems. Examples of thinking skills are interpreting, analysing, evaluating, explaining, sequencing, reasoning, comparing, questioning, inferring, hypothesising, appraising, testing and generalising.”


From the Common Core Standards website:

“The Common Core asks students to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.”


What exactly is the difference between critical thinking and analysing, problem-solving, questioning, reasoning, etc? By stringing all these terms together we are diluting the power of each. What we need is precision. Teachers need it, and students need it. We all need to think critically about the meaning of critical thinking and come up with something that is actionable and distinct.

But first–it may be instructive to take a step backward and consider what critical thinking looked like before it became “critical thinking.”

Where Did the Concept Come From?

The Greeks, of course.

From the beginning, the concept included not only the examination of others but the constant cognitive monitoring of one’s own thinking as well. When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he meant it quite literally. So, the very earliest origins of critical thinking lie in self-examination.

But let’s take it a step further. It’s in the notion of self-correcting that the “critical” part starts to show. Thomas Aquinas was known to constantly test his thinking by systematically anticipating, considering, and answering every criticism of his ideas that he could conceive of. In so doing, he inspired others to appreciate a kind of systematic cross-examination of the self, which helped ensure rational and objective thinking.

Socrates, of course, established Socratic questioning, which we still use today. Rather than anticipating criticisms, it employs them: “I believe one should always be truthful. But what if telling a falsehood would save another person’s life? Is truth nobler than life?”

Later, Bacon and Descartes paved the way to the Age of Reason and Boyle and Newton challenged the existing definition of scientific proof. Quantifiable proof truly began to take hold in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the likes of Marx, Darwin, and Freud continued to challenge assumptions.

In 1906, William Graham Sumner published Folkways, which pointed to the dangers of social indoctrination in schools:

“School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe…The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations.”

Sumner supported critical thinking in life and in education, and believed that effective thinking is dependent on a mental habit and power.

Dewey is widely credited with sparking the contemporary critical thinking movement with his books How We Think (1910) and Democracy and Education (1916). Dewey popularised the words “reflective thinking” and “inquiry,” and solidified them as vital parts of critical thinking.

In the 1970s the term “metacognition,” literally defined as “thinking about thinking,” emerged, and critical thinking became a widely accepted educational virtue.

Still, when we hear the term “critical thinking” today, it reminds us more of Bloom’s Taxonomy than of Ancient Greek wisdom.

If we want our students to end up with critical thinking skills, we’re going to have to teach them what makes it distinct from other types of thinking. If we lump it in with deep thinking and analysing, we get a dizzying array of standards that are too obscure to meet. I think we’d all agree that today’s students, especially, need very concrete objectives in order to succeed in the workforce and beyond.

The problem is, sometimes we don’t know where to start to make this happen.

What Does the Term Really Mean?

A few years ago the Center for Critical Thinking was asked to conduct a study for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to determine the extent to which teacher preparation programs were preparing prospective teachers to teach for critical thinking. The study showed that although most faculty considered critical thinking to be of primary importance to instruction (89%), only 19% could adequately articulate what critical thinking is.

More than 75% of educators interviewed were unable to reconcile how to teach content while fostering critical thinking.

In addition, more than 75% of those interviewed were unable to reconcile how to teach content while fostering critical thinking.

“The reason teacher preparation programs fail to place critical thinking at the heart of the curriculum is two-fold,” says educational psychologist and critical thinking specialist Linda Elder. “First, faculty who control and teach the curriculum simply don’t know what critical thinking is. Second, they think they do.”

This is a problem, she says, not just with faculty in teacher preparation programs, but with faculty as a rule. Most teachers have never been explicitly taught the intellectual skills inherent in critical thinking. Many of them teach as if learning were equivalent to rote memorisation. Teachers tend to teach as they have been taught. Many confuse schooling with intellectual development.

They believe that, because they are college graduates, they automatically think well. The fact is, teacher preparation programs seldom prepare teachers to foster critical thinking skills and dispositions.

So what is critical thinking? Or–maybe a better place to start–what isn’t it?

Here’s what we know critical thinking isn’t:

  • Simply mimicking other thinking
  • Simply agreeing with other thinking
  • Being biased towards one way of thinking
  • Being biased against one way of thinking
  • Drawing conclusions too quickly
  • Denying faults in one’s own thinking
  • Placing weight on insignificant details

Here’s what we know critical thinking is:

  • Questioning other thinking
  • Embracing other thinking
  • Emulating other thinking
  • Willingness to be wrong
  • Questioning one’s own thinking
  • Putting logic before bias
  • Recognising contradictions

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s at least a start at trying to define critical thinking in concrete terms. The next challenge, once you’ve defined it, is to teach it. If critical thinking is such an essential academic standard in our society, as the Australian Curriculum and Common Core websites suggest, then we need clear examples of how to help our students meet it.

Critical thinking can occur anywhere, at any time. But it most often shows up in three contexts: essay writing, class discussions, and assessment. Below are nine practical ways to hone your students’ critical thinking skills in these areas:

Rules of Thumb for Essays

The best arguments try desperately to prove themselves wrong

1. Discuss the phrasing of prompts.

Do your students know the difference between “analysing” and “assessing” something? Part of critical thinking is being discerning about terms, if only because the language we use affects the way we think. Obviously, this applies to more than just prompts–you could create an entire lesson on word choice and thought in the construction of essays.

2. There’s no argument without a counter-argument.

The best arguments try desperately to prove themselves wrong in order to gain their audience’s trust and lend greater credence to their own assertion. This is also the way good science works–the hypothesis is correct only when all attempts to prove it wrong have failed. A great lesson in critical thinking.

3. Good essayists admit when they don’t know the answer.

Just because a thesis statement should be clear doesn’t mean it has to be black or white. If there’s a limit or a condition to an argument, say so. The grey area is just as important a part of critical thinking as anything else.

Rules of Thumb for Discussions

1. Hold regular “written” discussions.

In-class discussions are essential, but they appeal to a certain type of learner. Written discussions appeal to another type of learner. With an online discussion forum added to your curriculum, you’ll meet the needs of students who think best verbally and students who think best while writing.

2. Highlight the mysterious.

Every outstanding educator I ever had managed to make his or her topic interesting not because of what was known about it but because of what was unknown about it. It’s important for students to learn the basics of a concept, but that’s what readings and lectures are for. Use discussions to show that your topic is still “alive” and very much up for interpretation.

3. Always refer to other disciplines.

If you’re teaching a lesson on the history of Troy, tie in information about The Iliad. If you’re discussing 19th century US politics, talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Collaborate with other instructors to see what material students will identify with if you bring it up in your class.

Rules of Thumb for Tests

1. Have students write their own test questions.

What better way to test a student’s understanding of a concept (and their critical thinking skills) than to have them write their own test questions on a topic? You can either end the exercise here, and have the questions themselves be turned in for grading, or you can have students take each other’s tests. Either way, it will be an effective assessment.

2. Include the “how” and “why” in MC questions.

If you’re going to administer Multiple Choice exams, don’t make them content-knowledge-exclusive. Add questions that test students’ knowledge of why events occurred and how concepts work. Short answer questions serve a similar purpose, but MC questions force students to be discerning and recognise the difference between similar concepts.

3. Hold oral exams.

It’s pretty astonishing that nearly all of our assessments are written. In the real world, isn’t it far more likely that a student will have to explain a concept orally than in writing? But who has time to test every student’s oral skills separately, you may ask. You do. If you have the time to grade 25 papers, you have time to meet with 25 students individually.

“There is a direct relationship between teacher practices and student development of critical thinking,” says Elder. “To the extent that teachers foster the development of thinking abilities through their practices, students will begin to develop these abilities. To the extent that teachers fail to foster critical thinking, students will fail to develop these abilities. As a rule, people will not develop these abilities on their own. And very few students will learn them at home.”

We’re still a long way from streamlining or even understanding the way we teach critical thinking. But we know that we have to start closing the distance–because no one else is going to.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

6 Responses

  1. Chris Reeve says:

    Hi, Saga!

    I very much enjoyed your article. I have a design in hand for a scientific social network based upon 8 years of engaging people in online scientific debate on behalf of an against-the-mainstream scientific theory. The three most serious impediments to critical thinking in online debate are the university, scientific & science journalism communities. The physics education researchers seem to be treated like a cancerous tumor. Scientists think they can do good science without recourse to any critical, historical or philosophical perspective. And the focus online is exclusively upon the eradication of pseudoscience, to the detriment of any mention of dogma at all. The very word “dogma” is out of style today. The existence of complex technologies has led most people to imagine that science is entirely free of any errors.

    The most important modern text on this subject today which deserves to be on your list of critical thinkers is that of Jeff Schmidt’s _Disciplined Minds_. If you have not read this text, you need to. He blew the whistle back in 2000 on how the graduate programs are using rote memorization to create ideologically disciplined professionals who will work on assigned problems. That text not only reveals the inner workings of these graduate programs, but is also sufficiently detailed that it can also be used as a basis for conjuring reforms.

    From Schmidt’s text, it becomes apparent that there is some important utility to rote memorization in the sciences. And what I would suggest as a useful perspective is to view science education as being in a state of tension: We train scientists to be professionals in order to make the teams efficient. It is this efficiency which has led to our technologies. But, it simultaneously blocks other ideas & technologies. If we switched entirely over to training scientists to be independent mavericks, these teams (aka Big Science) would lose their cohesion because they wouldn’t be able to agree on their assumptions. This leads me to think that the short-term solution to the problem will be to supplement what is happening in the traditional educational systems, but on a track which is free from interference from the scientific or university communities, and which puts the spotlight onto the problems inherent to science journalism. The reforms happening within programming education with the coding academies will probably turn out to be a useful template for how to reform science education — and possibly even other niches. Take a look at General Assembly & Hack Reactor, if you’ve not heard of them yet.

    I’d really like to go into more detail on how I think critical thinking will ultimately be better introduced into the sciences, but I’d prefer to do it with concept map annotations on G+. So, I’ll try to follow up there in the next few days.

    Thank you for the article.

  2. Saga Briggs says:


    Thanks so much for your comment. Critical thinking in the sciences certainly deserves an entire article of its own. Relieving that “tension” is key. I see it existing in general education as well, in the way we train students to be efficient–but not necessarily original–contributors to society. We should always be questioning our own methods, and science should be a shining example of why it’s important. Thanks, too, for the recommended reading. Always welcome.

  3. Natarajan Balan says:

    Wonderful article. The last but one paragraph which states that your teacher is the only person who can imbibe this skill in you and that you cannot acquire this skill at home got me thinking how I acquired this skill to whatever level it is now. At school till the age of 16 it was rote memorisation that was rewarded and didn’t even realise that I could question any of the concepts that were taught. But I was fortunate to join a technical college where my fellow classmates were selected based on tests which possibly included testing ones creativity and critical thinking.. So I grew up with a bunch of bright kids, who were not allowed to voice any difference of opinion in the lecture hall but were totally free to discuss and dissect whatever we learnt in the class room in our dormitories. The college had wisely insisted that all students must compulsorily reside in the campus. The evaluation tests that we had to undergo periodically were designed to test our critical thinking skill in the written format. So I got my critical thinking skills in the oral format from my peers ( to whom I am grateful) and not from any specific teacher that I can remember. From my experience it appears that the environment in which you grow is far more significant/important than any individual teacher/s. That is not to downplay the teacher’s role/ contribution to developing the student’s critical thinking skills. I am just sharing my personal experience.

  4. James Taylor says:

    Critical Thinking is very important for the overall true understanding of self and environment, no doubt. I just wish educational institutions, especially universities, would make it a priority to explain “critical thinking” and it’ significance at the earliest opportunity (undergraduate studies) so that students embrace and are aware, forming a well rounded perspective on self/life.

    In reflection, it seems to me that leaning to think properly (critical thinking), at it’s beginning, is just a byproduct of being exposed to higher educational ideas/knowledge, with no real emphases on explaining proper thinking techniques in relation to questioning self and ideas.

    That is, school education should deliberately explain to students the importance of learning critical thinking skills in terms of self-reflection (metacognition) and constant questioning, rather than lecturing on various topics, and having student memorize and and write tests, which really is not true teaching.

  5. Jess says:

    Interesting article. Please note, however, that “rule of thumb” comes from old law that allowed men to beat their wives with a weapon, as long as it was not bigger than their (the man’s) thumb. Perhaps best to find another term.

    • Jan Pender says:

      Though this is a bit off topic, the origin or original meaning of a word often has little or nothing to do with its current meaning and usage. Word meanings change over time. I do not believe that anyone currently uses the term Rule of Thumb to denote the size of a stick to be used to beat someone.

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