Critical thinking – engaging pupils

I was disheartened to read this report in the Guardian that take up rates for critical thinking at A-level is declining. For all sorts of reasons, critical thinking skills are vital to us as individuals and as a society.

  • Why critical thinking is important

The ability to think independently, that is to assess information and evaluate it for accuracy and sense; to make connections; to understand hidden meaning; to unpick false premises and to know how to disagree with courtesy – just some of the armoury we need to cope with and make sense of the tsunami of information we encounter.

But for the health of society, rigorous thinking is itself critical, in order that we don’t become to prey to demagoguery or mob hysteria. Additionally, thinking that is critical and creative has the possibility of looking forward rather than deferring to authority or the mistaken beliefs of the past.

  • Freedom

I like Tagore’s take on this, linking critical thinking to a sense of freedom:      “Our mind does not gain true freedom by acquiring materials for knowledge and possessing other people’s ideas but by forming its own standards of judgement and producing its own thoughts.”

So what practical ideas are there for teaching the mechanics of critical thinking, especially in the earlier years? Over the next weeks I hope to blog on these. First up is this simple but incredibly effective activity.

  • “Odd one out” activity

Choose any 3 objects, the first to hand preferably, and ask pupils to choose, in their mind, the odd one out and to consider why. Take feedback, insisting on explanations. Of course, there is no one correct answer and pupils will quickly realise this as they hear the different answers. 

Example: paper – cup – computer

Answers: Paper because it’s made out of wood                                                                                           Cup because you can drink out of it                                                                                             Computer because it requires electricity

This exercise benefits from repetition because pupils get better at finding different and more interesting reasons why an item is the odd one out. After only a few days you will be amazed at how inventive and creative even small children can be.

This exercise, which you can extend in myriad ways, for instance by setting particular criteria (e.g. thinking about the environment which is the odd one out?) is quick to organise, enjoyed by pupils who like the fact there is no single correct answer and its deceptive simplicity masks important learning.

  • Benefits
  1.  Pupils learn to back up opinions with evidence, the cornerstone of rational thinking.
  2. With practice, pupils become increasingly creative in their thinking.
  3. Pupils acknowledge that different views can be held simultaneously and it’s not threatening.

To avoid a mindset where children only begin to identify differences, it’s worth varying the activity occasionally by asking pupils to find something that connects the items. Perhaps too often children are asked to identify differences, but particularly in the field of human relations it is as important for children to be able to find similarities.

I’d be really interested to find out how you get on with this or if you have similar activities to tell me about.

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