What is Critical Thinking, and How Do I Teach It?

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Welcome back to my focused series of blog posts where we are exploring how to teach students through the six “C’s” of deep learning; citizenship, character, creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking. In my previous two posts I discussed how to teach our students about Character, and shared some of my favourite rich texts. In this post we will dive into the what and how of Critical Thinking, share some favourite resources and  follow up with a post on how we might assess for Critical Thinking.

According to New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, Critical Thinking is described as, “critically evaluating information and arguments, seeing patterns and connections, constructing meaningful knowledge, and applying it in the real world.” And while Critical Thinking is a stand alone category on our (Manitoba) provincial reports cards in Early Years and Middle Years, it is important to remember that Critical Thinking is a skill that does not exist in isolation.  Critical Thinking piggy backs on communication skills like reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and representing. It is also important to remember that we limit our evidence of learning if we only ever ask students to illustrate their critical thinking through written products.  My experience with Critical Thinking is that it is a skill that is often best surfaced (taught, demonstrated and assessed) through discussion- both first and primarily.  It is with this in mind, that I wanted to focus today’s post on some of my favourite strategies to develop Critical Thinking through speaking and listening.

Critical Thinking-  Pictorial Definitions

As I covered in a previous post, it’s important to clarify with students what Critical Thinking actually is.  And truthfully, critical thinking is a whole bunch of “things” which includes, but is not limited to: inferencing, seeing patterns, connecting ideas, solving problems, and evaluating perspectives.  That’s a whole lotta things!! So I recommend zooming in, and using student friendly language.  I was recently in a Kindergarten classroom where we were focusing on Critical Thinking.  Here’s the pictorial definition we used:

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After a week of intentional teaching, the Kinders able to independently state that Critical Thinking is using your brain muscles to solve puzzles.  While not a extensive definition, that’s pretty darn good for 5 and 6 year olds! For older students you might use a more detailed pictorial definition like the one below, and intentionally zoom in on various aspects of it.

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As we move onto some of my favourite teaching strategies for Critical Thinking, keep the dimensions of these pictorial definitions in mind . . . Critical thinking is connecting ideas, problem solving and inferring.

Which One Doesn’t Belong

One of my favourite mathematical discussion starters is the book Which One Doesn’t Belong by Christopher Danielson. The premise behind WODB is that four objects are thoughtfully curated together, based on elements of potential similarity.

As students begin to tackle the question “which one doesn’t belong” it becomes evident that there is no one right answer. The focus of conversation moves away from closed ended, right or wrong answers and instead becomes anchored in open ended discussion using the characteristics of the objects as evidence to support your perspective. This is a perfect discussion strategy to surface Critical Thinking skills as students end up speaking and listening in order to connect ideas, problem solve and infer.

Traditionally WODB has been anchored in mathematical concepts (as seen here on this co-created teacher website) but I’ve become obsessed with idea of using WODB in other contexts. In a previous blog post, I shared this example as a provocation for a picture book:


Did you say the house cat in the christmas tree? As it’s the only domestic animal? Or maybe you said that the Polar bear is the odd one out, because it’s the only animal in it’s natural habitat. But then what about that house cat, it sure looks like she’s in her “natural habitat”. . . Or perhaps you’d say the Geese don’t belong because they’re the only animal that has feathers? Or that the Tiger doesn’t belong, because it looks to be the only animal living in captivity?

What I love about WODB is that all these answers require evidence of support. It also invites further discussion and exploration of so many topics: habitat (natural and man made), human encroachment in nature, conservation, the characteristics and needs of animals.

In a high school Canadian History class, I used the WODB below. It focuses in on the historically significant Hudson’s Bay Building here in downtown Winnipeg. All four photos show the same building in different times (and galaxies 😉 )

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This particular WODB inspired a classroom conversation that was rich with Critical Thinking as  students listened to each other and supported their argument with evidence from the four photos. Critical thinking also surfaced as students debated the authenticity of the second photograph. Once we had a shared experience of WODB, the students in the Canadian History class worked in groups to examine a second set of four historical images. As a team, they had to debate which of the four photos didn’t belong, infer a theme that connected all the photos (ie. education, housing, government) and discuss historical continuity and change (an essential understanding of the History curriculum) A further extension would have been to have student design their own WODB as connected to curricular themes, topics, understandings. 

Flexible for almost any subject area, Which One Doesn’t Belong is an excellent strategy to surface Critical Thinking through class discussion. WODB provides an ideal “low floor, high ceiling” experience for all learners to show what they know and students that struggle to put ideas on a paper are still able to communicate their critical thinking through conversation.

And remember that pictorial definition of Critical Thinking we discussed earlier? Inferencing? Check. Connecting ideas? Check. Problem solving? Check. 

Visible Thinking Strategies- Zoom In

Many of my previous blog posts on provocations dive into using Visible Thinking strategies, and those still only scratch the surface of this powerful tool.  To learn more about Visible Thinking Routines I highly recommend the book “Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners” by Richhart, Church and Morrison as well as  the Visible Thinking website. Many of the visible thinking strategies create conditions for classroom conversations, ripe with Critical Thinking. One of my more recent favourites is “Zoom In” a routine that “asks learners to observe a portion of an image closely and develop a hypothesis. New visual information is presented, and the learner is asked to look again closely and reassess his or her initial interpretation in light of the new information.”

Here’s an example of the Zoom In strategy in action, constructed in Google Slides, through a series of slow builds that reveal an art piece by Kent Monkman.

This video is sped up for the sake of brevity. But in a classroom, each piece of artwork that is revealed would be followed up by a conversation around the things that students are noticing and wondering. Students use the visual cues provided to infer the greater message of the artwork, connect new information to their previous hypothesizes, and problem solve when they need to reinterpret what they see. See below for a “low tech option” where grade 3/4 students explore photographs of playgrounds around the world, revealing the photograph one square at a time.

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Just like Which One Doesn’t Belong, the Zoom In strategy can be used in a variety of subject areas.  A recent Math/Science example shown below, “zooms in” on the visual information of a graph, and them gradually adds in more information. Eventually the graph is launched in it’s original context, on the website GapMinder


As with my previous video, things have been sped up for brevity. However, in a classroom setting, students would be pausing as each new layer of information is revealed. Through discussion they would  infer what might happen next, connect new ideas and problem solve for a clearer understanding. And remember that pictorial definition of Critical Thinking we discussed earlier? Check, check and check.

Critical Thinking as Classroom Culture

Like the rest of the 6 Cs, Critical Thinking needs to be woven into the culture of a classroom, My favourite thing about the Critical Thinking strategies and examples I’ve shared in this post is that they can easily be built into any subject area, any grade, and any curriculum.  They are easily implementable as daily routines, can scaffold in new content, or be used to check for/extend understanding.  If implemented on a regular basis, they can be used to create a classroom culture where all students have an opportunity to build, and share their critical thinking.

Up Next- posts “Rich Texts for Critical Thinking” and “Critical Thinking- How the Heck Do I Assess It?”

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