Training Critical Thinking

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In all fields and at every educational level, trainers and instructors can teach in a way that results in measurable and meaningful gains in students’ critical thinking skills and habits of mind. Regardless of the subject, content, or the age of the trainee, programs that explicitly identify, target, and assess critical thinking skills and habits of mind have been shown to be demonstrably more successful than those that only talk about critical thinking.[1]

Training for thinking is not the same as teaching about thinking. There is no need to trade away training time to talk about critical thinking. Training for thinking means structuring sessions and courses so that trainees must engage and apply their critical thinking constantly to whatever subject content we are promoting or practicing.

Training for thinking means that trainees:

  • Execute purposeful, reflective judgments in authentic scenarios and real-life situations.
  • Strengthen their critical thinking skills by practicing them independently and in collaboration with others: interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, numeracy, and reflective self-monitoring.
  • Engage their critical thinking mindset by habitually becoming truth-seeking, open minded, systematic, inquisitive, foresightful, and flexible about the possible need to reconsider previously made judgments or strongly held beliefs.
  • Expand the use of their thinking skills and thinking mindset to novel contexts and creative opportunities.
  • Be willing to consider complex systems and problems that might require the development of multiple perspectives or imperfect solutions.
  • Receive formative feedback to augment and validate their self-monitoring, self-correction, and self-confidence.

To train strong critical thinkers, use the key strategies described below, modifying them to fit your individual training environments, and walk alongside your trainees as they practice these behaviors.

Effective instructional techniques for promoting strong critical thinking:

  • A group of people sitting in a room Description automatically generated Use critical thinking language when asking questions to reinforce understanding of the language of thinking. Use the names of the reasoning skills and the thinking mindset attributes that characterize strong critical thinking. For examples: “What is your reason for that claim?” “Let’s interpret this statement,” “What inferences can we reasonably draw from these facts?” and “Let’s be systematic in our analysis.”
  • Pose a question that requires analyzing a complex idea or an unfamiliar situation, and intentionally pause for 10–15 seconds of silence before acknowledging anyone for a response or comment. The first time you do this, tell your trainees in advance that you know the question will require some thought, and that you will provide that time. Be sure to allow at least 10 seconds even if it feels like a long time to you. Cognitive research shows that a pause of this length is needed to process a question and formulate a reasoned response.
  • Work from examples to arrive at the main ideas. Discuss examples first, and then draw out the concepts they teach. This technique exercises trainees’ inductive reasoning skills.
  • Acknowledge when trainees use critical thinking. Use phrases such as: “The claim you are making….” “The fair-minded truth-seeking of this group was evident when…” “I agree with your interpretation of…” and “In your analysis of….”
  • Avoid dropping the thinking level with imprecise expressions such as: “What is your view of this?” and “What did you think of this?”
  • If you want trainees to analyze their emotional responses, ask “If you feel emotional about this, what are you feeling and why do you feel that way?” “What is making you feel this way?”

  • Engage trainees in dynamic activities that promote independent thinking or exposure to the thinking of others. Suggested activities include maintaining a reflective journal; simulations; role playing; fishbowl activities; small team creative sessions, brainstorming exercises; case study analyses; argument mapping; asynchronous bulletin boards.

Author: Carol Gittens, PhD, Dean of the Karamazov School of Education at St. Mary’s University, strategic planning consultant, cognitive scientist in training and assessing critical thinking and numeracy (Measured Reasons).

  1. Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R., Borokhovski, E., Waddington, D., Wade, C. A., & Persson, T. (2015). Strategies for teaching students to think critically: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85, 275–314. Page 275. And Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. A. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage one meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78, 1102–1134. Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R., Borokhovski, E., Waddington, D., Wade, C. A., & Persson, T. (2015). Strategies for teaching students to think critically: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85, 275–314.