Encouraging Critical Thinking
Critical thinking has varied definitions, from the simple “making reasoned judgments that are logical and well-thought-out” to the more complex “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
By seeing critical thinking as a set of skills that we impart to students or other audiences, we remove the question of whether we provide content worth critically thinking about. By putting the onus of critical thought upon the student, reader, or audience member, we effectively absolve ourselves of being part of the process. Our role should go beyond that initial teaching of the concept; we should integrate and encourage critical thinking in all of the work we offer to our audiences.
Throughout their education, many students learn that information will be provided to them, that they should accept and acknowledge this information as true, and that their value as learners will be measured by their ability to remember and repeat this information. If they are never encouraged to evaluate this process of receiving knowledge—or, even more importantly, to assess variables such as the source, completeness, or objectivity of this knowledge—they are likely to continue the same approach into adulthood. Such a process does not encourage questioning or deconstructing information, and it is counterintuitive to see critical thinking as its own, separate concept to be taught.
We can and should promote critical thinking skills through all the information we provide to those we influence. Instead of thinking ourselves experts imparting wisdom, we can consider ourselves innovative thinkers with the privilege of broadening conversations and bringing more diverse perspectives to the table, especially as we present our own work.
We should ask ourselves
How can I present this information in a compelling and thought-provoking way and, more importantly, in a way that will encourage my audience to ask questions?
How can I challenge my audience to think more deeply about this topic, long beyond my presentation of it?
Transforming the way we think about how we present information will encourage our audiences to broaden how they approach and conceive it. Learners can actively seek deeper or more accurate information instead of passively receiving stories, data, or arguments. They can be inspired to find data or sources that challenge their thoughts and understanding. Perhaps most importantly, they can begin to ask questions that lead them to a more complete understanding and to a perspective wrought from their own analysis and consideration.
We can foster critical thinking skills by weaving these deeper considerations and perspectives into everything we present. As we bring information to our audiences—whether they are students, readers, colleagues, or the larger public—we should consider questions like the ones below and include the information and conversations that answer them:
How does this fit into the bigger picture?
What else does this influence?
How does this connect to other theories, experiences, or perspectives?
What other questions emerge from this?
These questions apply to any field or area of expertise, and in fact they can help make interdisciplinary connections that lead to better and expanded questions.
Critical thinking is a key 21st-century skill, yet it is also a timeless, essential faculty for understanding issues, considering multiple perspectives, and establishing fruitful human connection. As educators and thought leaders, we have an ongoing charge to nurture critical thought and to move beyond the simple sharing of facts or conclusions to a more enlightened discourse.
Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP) is Senior Education Researcher at QIP and Adjunct Professor at George Mason University. Her work focuses on early childhood policy and translating research for multiple audiences.