critical thinking

There's No Excuse for Not Teaching Critical Thinking

It was an engineer at Lockheed Skunkworks who coined the design principal of “Keep it simple, stupid.” His belief that complexity should be avoided, and that simplicity should always be the goal, has become a time-tested principle in design, business, and other endeavors.

Education, it seems, often ignores this concept. From elaborate teaching frameworks that emphasize complicated hand signals to complex policies and programs that grow into “Bermuda Triangles,” education often feels a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine.

This over complexity is evident when it comes to teaching young people how to think critically (if they’re taught this at all). Entire books and courses have been developed on the topic. I’ve long thought this was the wrong approach, and that we should strive to “keep it simple.”

Recently, the Reboot Foundation collaborated with researchers from Indiana University to test this theory to determine whether critical thinking skills can be developed through simple, quick classroom techniques and exercises. The results were, in the words of the lead researcher, “really spectacular.”

The research found that educators and others can support and hone their students’ critical thinking skills using a simple method – small amounts of critical thinking practice, employing basic exercises like multiple choice quizzes and analogies. The best part is that this method is easy to implement by virtually any teacher and can be used across diverse groups of students.

And it works.

When compared against a control group, the students who engaged in these critical thinking exercises scored three times higher than the control group on an open-ended critical thinking test.

There is no better time than now for these findings to emerge. Misinformation continues to run rampant online and across social media. Reboot surveys the American public annually, and every year an overwhelming majority — about 95% of respondents — agree that critical thinking skills are important in today’s world and should be taught in schools.

How Can Teachers Support Critical Thinking in Their Students?

The question of “how” to teach these skills has proven to be elusive, especially in this era of standardized curriculum and test-driven accountability for schools. How can teachers also ensure they’re supporting critical thinking in their students? It turns out they can do this by adding one simple step in their daily routine – a critical thinking challenge or query to kickstart students’ brains and encourage them to better analyze the information before them. 

In the Indiana study, teachers presented students with short scenarios in which an individual makes a claim based on some evidence or observations. The students were asked to determine, in a multiple-choice response, if the claim was faulty, invalid, or was based on an unsound argument.

Imagine students starting the day with the typical routine of greetings and announcements. Then, add in a short multiple choice quiz that spurs students to really think, consider, and assess all the information presented.

The implications from the research, by professors Ben Motz and Emily Fyfe at Indiana’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, are significant for educators from kindergarten to college. Their findings provide an easy-to-follow, scalable blueprint on how to achieve better, more robust thinking.

Dr. Motz put it this way on Twitter:


Prior to the pandemic, I spoke to an association of school superintendents in North Carolina, and I asked them how many of their schools taught critical thinking skills. Only a handful of hands went up. Today’s children need more. Their parents want more. And while Reboot offers critical thinking guides for parents and resources for educators, the Indiana study points to a spectacularly simple solution: A low-key but consistent investment of time and effort to flex our critical thinking muscles. It is an efficient and affordable investment.

Helen Lee Bouygues is an experienced corporate director and senior executive with expertise in digital transformation, innovation and turnarounds. She has intervened in over 25 companies as interim CEO, CFO or as advisor. She is currently writing a book on critical thinking in this new digital world. She is also creating a site for parents of children ages 7-14 to access material on how to ...

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