This month we review promising practices in the teaching of rationality and one of its primary components, critical thinking. Physical science can explain a great deal about our brains and the role played by genetics in determining all manner of human biological traits. But, important as the mental hardware we inherit may be, we need to learn how to formulate rational arguments—how to search for and examine evidence to justify conclusions. This is particularly important when people believe our claims and act on them, possibly causing harm to themselves or others. Herewith, some links to strategies and tips to help you teach critical/rational thinking.

  • Teaching critical thinking: An evidence-based guide – According to Parenting Science, supported by a scholarly bibliography, studies are showing that students who are actively taught critical-thinking skills “made substantial and statistically significant improvements in language comprehension, inventive thinking, and even IQ.” In short, these skills are beneficial beyond the classroom, helping students deal with everyday problems—and any age can benefit. Deflecting criticism that learning to think rationally/critically stifles creativity, Parenting Science argues that creativity depends on learning the basics of rational argument, on how to: “analyze analogies; create categories and classify items appropriately; identify relevant information; construct and recognize valid deductive arguments; test hypotheses; [and] recognize common reasoning fallacies distinguish between evidence and interpretations of evidence.” The site includes links to interactive lessons for teachers and parents.
  • What if we taught argument in every class?When is an argument a discussion? Argument is not always a negative, sometimes understood as heated shouting match: “You kids stop arguing!” Rather, an argument in the positive sense involves a necessary critical examination of the process and evidence supporting a claimed fact or “truth.” (In philosophy, we call these “truth claims.”) Writing for the website, “Cult of Pedagogy,” Kristy Louden asks, We work hard to help our students read, write, and speak, but how much do we actually teach them to think?” Not enough, in her view, but she feels help is at hand in the form of Eric Palmer’s book, “Good Thinking: Teaching, Argument, Persuasion and Reasoning,” which offers a range of ways to nurture “good thinking” in the classroom. These include: teaching basic terms, such as “evidence,” and “argument;” demanding evidence to prove points; and learning the difference between argument and persuasion. She concludes, “Good Thinking can help us prepare our students for the things that really do matter most.
  • Critical Thinking Lesson PlansCanadian teachers may be able to revise for their own classrooms the tips and lessons from Annabergclassroom, an American website dedicated to teaching “Excellent civics education.” Practical examples include actual public claims by politicians and other public figures, which are then used to teaching critical thinking skills. Students learn to distinguish beliefs about facts from beliefs about values, for example, and how to critically assess an entry in Wikipedia. In the lesson, “Building a better argument,” students will: “Discover the basic terminology of arguments; Learn strategies for reliably distinguishing between premises and conclusions; Explore the differences between arguments and explanations.”
  • 12 Strong Strategies for Effectively Teaching Critical Thinking SkillsA website from the Global Digital Citizen Foundation claims, “Teaching critical thinking skills doesn’t require hours of lesson planning. You don’t need special equipment or guest speakers either. In fact, all you need are curious minds and a few simple strategies.” These include, beginning with a question that does not have a yes or no answer; creating a “foundation,” by reviewing relevant information; learning when to discard or pursue available information; and positioning, “teaching critical thinking skills at the forefront of your lessons. Check understanding and offer room for discussion, even if such periods are brief. You’ll begin to see critical thinking as a culture rather than just an activity.”
  • 10 Tips for Teaching Kids to Be Awesome Critical ThinkersFinally, from the website, WeAreTeachers, ten tips, including: Slowing the pace by asking students to wait and think before answering a question; asking “why” five times, after each answer a student gives for a question such as, “Why didn’t the class do well on the spelling test?” One more: “Put a new spin on bell ringers by asking a Question of the Day. Use a questioning stem (e.g., create a riddle that uses the mathematics term “multiply” in one of the clues or write a letter to a classmate recommending this book) and put it on the board. Students can write answers in their critical-thinking journals. Then have a class discussion at the end of the day.”

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