5 Tips to Teach Critical Thinking in Existing Lessons

There are many ways to embed critical thinking into existing lessons while deepening student engagement with the content they need to master. These five tips can help teachers cultivate curiosity and promote inquiry to create a culture of critical thinking in any classroom.


Tip 1 - Encourage active questioning

“The important thing,” said Albert Einstein, “is to not stop questioning.” Ask students questions that go beyond information recall and require students to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, or apply information. Questions like “What do we know?” and “How do we know it?” ask students to think about what is fact, what is belief and to consider the credibility of sources. Asking “What don’t we know?” and “How can we find out?” encourage active problem-solving and creative thinking.

Questions such as “What does this mean? What else could it mean?” and “How might someone else see this?” encourage students to consider alternative possibilities by getting them to see claims (information, evidence, and so on) as not necessarily having only one (or a very limited number of) meaning(s). This kind of questioning also has the value of showing students that, through asking questions, there can be dialogue, which has been shown to play a very important role in the development and reinforcement of critical thinking.

Active questioning is the foundation for the rest of these tips. 

Tip 2 - Require students to justify their position

The question “Why?” can very usefully be asked many times in many ways: “Why do you think that? Why is one position stronger or weaker than another one? Why do you think this will happen next?” Asking why encourages students to consider their reasoning and weigh the effectiveness of their argument. It also helps students see how others build and justify their positions and practise their analysis skills. This fits with the very valuable exercise of “thinking aloud,” which helps students develop clarity and coherence in what they think and how they express those thoughts.

Tip 3 - Show students the value of reflection in and on their thinking

Reflection is a central part of critical thinking. Questions such as “What makes you think that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” ask students to think critically about their own positions and the thought processes that led them there. The value of students thinking about their thinking is considerable, as it helps students understand their thinking, recognize weaknesses in their critical thinking skills, and build upon their strengths.

Tip 4 - Encourage students to collaborate in their learning

There is considerable evidence that working collaboratively can contribute significantly to the development of critical thinking skills. In terms of active questioning, this means encouraging students to question each other, giving them the opportunity to both consider other positions and defend their own. In a classroom that regularly practises active questioning, students will have a model for engaging in rich discussions, whether they are debating each other or working together to analyze the arguments of others.

Tip 5 - Encourage students to use critical thinking skills in all their subjects

Teachers of any subject should see how critical thinking fits into it, such that students are always being encouraged to use these skills in learning and using material. In this way, students will see critical thinking as skills that aren’t just for a critical thinking class or for only a few subjects. Different subjects might use different types of reasoning and evidence, and this can be a great starting point for questions—especially questions about interpretation, problem solving, and the reasoning process. (For example, students should see that, in a subject like maths, conclusions [or answers] are likely to be certain, whereas in other subjects [such as literature], conclusions [or answers] are likely to be less certain.) Teachers can usefully ask students to make connections about how things in different disciplines might relate, for example, or how processes and approaches are similar or different.

Resources for critical thinking lessons

Teachers looking for ways to run engaging, full-length critical thinking lessons can explore Macat’s extensive library of critical thinking resource packs. Part of the Macat Critical Thinking Academy, these generic and subject-specific packs provide teachers of 11-18-year-olds with teacher notes, exercises, handouts, and given learning outcomes to be used on their own or to supplement existing lessons. Each pack provides an explanation of how using a critical thinking focus in the lesson will benefit the students’ learning in the subject-area/topic being covered.