Empowering Today’s Students with Critical Thinking Skills

To help students become engaged learners, employees, and citizens, schools should start teaching this essential set of competencies as early as elementary school.

GUEST COLUMN | by Liz Collins

Critical thinking isn’t something human beings do instinctively. We’re naturally inclined to make decisions based on our emotions or best interest, rather than by analyzing information and then making an objective judgment. This kind of thinking is something we have to learn. In our information-saturated world, I believe that critical thinking skills are just as foundational as literacy skills, and that schools should begin teaching them as early as elementary school. Learning these skills not only prepares students for higher education and a career but gives them the mindset they need to become the creative problem-solvers and informed citizens we need for the future. 

‘Learning these skills not only prepares students for higher education and a career but gives them the mindset they need to become the creative problem-solvers and informed citizens we need for the future.’

When schools want to help their students become critical thinkers, they need to explicitly teach a set of skills that includes analysis, open-mindedness, problem-solving, creativity, and communication. Here are some thoughts on why schools should teach these skills—and two effective ways they can do it.

3 Reasons Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking

1) A growing number of states expect high school graduates to be critical thinkers. In order to prepare students for the 21st-century workplace, many states now define graduates’ success using broader criteria than grades or number of classes completed. According to recent research from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), 20 states have created their own “portrait of a graduate,” a document that provides what CASEL calls “a holistic look at the skills and competencies students need to master to thrive in work, postsecondary educational opportunities, community, and their personal lives.” According to CASEL’s report, critical thinking is the most commonly cited skill in all 20 states, which is good news for students, because…

2) Employers want to hire critical thinkers. According to America Succeeds, seven of 10 most requested skills were durable skills, and requested in job descriptions 4.7 times more than hard skills. Critical thinking is a transferable skill that can be applied to any job, which makes it enormously valuable in today’s rapidly changing workforce, where the average person will have 12 different jobs during their lifetime. Critical thinkers are sought-after employees in a variety of settings because they can work independently, be trusted to make good decisions, and adapt to change.

3) Critical thinkers become informed and engaged citizens. As digital natives, 21st-century students live much of their lives online, where they are bombarded with information, misinformation, and disinformation. According to a recent article from Gallup, the average American teenager spends 4.8 hours a day on social media. At an age when neuroscience says they’re emotionally vulnerable and impulsive, teens are making decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. If they have learned to question assumptions, identify bias in themselves and others, consider facts and differing perspectives, and make decisions based on evidence, they’ll be empowered to make choices that positively impact not just themselves but also society at large. To help them become savvy media consumers, engaged community members, and informed voters, schools need to provide them with as much practice as possible.

How Schools Can Teach Critical Thinking

The classroom is an ideal place for students to practice their critical thinking skills. It’s a safe environment where students can learn without their choices having consequences outside of school, and educators can set the stage by teaching them information literacy and exposing them to diverse perspectives. 

Information literacy (also called “media literacy”), at its core, is about questioning. The National Association for Media Literacy Education offers a comprehensive list of key questions to ask when analyzing media, covering topics including:

  • What does good information look like? 
  • How do you compare information from different sources? 
  • How does one type of media differ from another? 
  • How do you recognize that you need more information and where should you look for it?
  • How do different sources of information prioritize what you see? 

 

In elementary school, students can start their information literacy education by learning places they can look for information and how they differ. They may also learn how to tell the difference between a fact and an opinion. In high school, students might do in-depth comparisons of, for example, a deeply reported magazine article versus a YouTube or TikTok video on the same topic, considering who created each, what their sources of information were, and who their intended audience is. 

That same comparison could also inspire a discussion about diverse perspectives. Students will see the way the same set of facts might be experienced, interpreted, and communicated differently by different people. Studying and analyzing diverse viewpoints is the first step in building students’ confidence to use their critical thinking abilities to reach their own conclusions.

In today’s rapidly changing world, critical thinking is a cross-disciplinary skill that everyone needs to succeed as learners, professionals, and citizens. Forward-looking schools should find ways to embed it in traditional subject areas to create engaging, relevant learning experiences that prepare students for the society they will shape.

Liz Collins is a senior product manager for K-12 at Gale, part of the Cengage Group. She can be reached via LinkedIn.

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