Critical Thinking Should Not Be a Luxury: 3 Strategies for Unleashing the Potential of Every Student

I read “The Scarlet Letter” in high school, and we sat in our rows and went through the same old exercises. We read it, summarized it and had all of the same class discussions we had on every book: analyzing the characters, the themes, the moral of the story, etc. But then I had a chance to visit a friend at a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school, where they were reading the same book. One of these things was not like the other. At his boarding school, a class of 12 people sat at a roundtable, making comparisons between wearing the scarlet letter for adultery during the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthyism. It wasn’t until much later in life I realized that what they were doing was what most standards for education reform have been pushing for over the past decade: teaching critical thinking.

Critical Thinking: Only 1 out of 10 Teachers Teach It

Critical thinking is one of most important 21st-century learning skills, teachers and scholars agree that it is key to college- and career-readiness, and it’s even been linked to more positive life outcomes. But as important as critical thinking is, it is still a luxury good: only 1 out of 10 educators teach it, and that teacher usually teaches at a selective school or only teaches critical thinking to a select group of students. This is unacceptable. But fortunately, so many of our students are actually coming to school with enormous critical thinking potential, especially students from historically marginalized backgrounds, living in poverty and facing serious life challenges. Operating under constraints, stretching limited resources and having uncanny abilities to assess credibility are just some of the most powerful critical thinking skill-based assets they bring to the table. The problem is that critical thinking requires more than just skills. You also need to have the critical thinking disposition, or the habits and mindsets that allow you to consistently apply these skills throughout your academic career, professional and personal life. But when we focus on the deficit-based view that tells us that our students are “low,” don’t know how to think and are not motivated to learn, we miss out on the tremendous opportunity we have to help them unleash their inherent critical thinking potential.

Three Practical Strategies to Activate Critical Thinking

So here are three practical strategies educators can help students activate their innate critical thinking abilities: 1. Explicitly teach critical thinking at least once a week.   Too many educators believe that they have to focus on just skill development because their students are too far behind. These educators are missing the tremendous opportunity to motivate students by asking them the rigorous questions that will force them to exceed your expectations and actually apply these skills. Try to start every week with a big question, and have students use critical thinking to answer it by the end of the week. 2. Love mistakes, and help students love them, too.   Mistakes are huge learning opportunities, and often are part of the innovation and design process, yet so many of our students are paralyzed by fear of mistakes. We can change this by helping students practice metacognition, or “thinking about their thinking” by asking questions like:
  • How do you know that’s correct?
  • How does that tie into what we’ve learned before?
  • What do you think (incorrect student) was thinking when he gave that answer?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your argument?
3. Embrace and encourage conflict. Breaking news: Students love to argue. Maybe this isn’t breaking news, but educators have amazing opportunities to create powerful learning experiences by finding natural spaces for classroom debate. Using textual evidence to rank characters in a novel from best to worst, using mathematical reasoning to argue what method is the best to solve quadratic equations and putting historical figures on trial for their misdeeds are just some ideas on how to do this. This is just a small sample of strategies you can use to help all of our students develop the critical thinking skills, mindsets and habits, to help them live the highly successful lives they are fully capable of earning. But once you commit to valuing the potential our students are already bringing to the table, you are already on the right track!
Colin Seale
Colin Seale is the founder/CEO of thinkLaw, an award-winning resource that helps educators teach critical thinking to all students using real-life legal cases and the president of the Charter School Association of Nevada. His new book

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