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Developing Critical Thinking Skills in Middle School & High School Students

by Catherine Donges, studioD

Students can be taught to think critically using a mix of explicit instruction and providing ample opportunities to practice skills within the context of content learning, according to Pearson Learning. Despite this knowledge, researchers Lisa Marin and Diane Halpern note that very little specific curriculum for explicit critical thinking instruction is available for secondary students, and teacher preparation programs rarely mention how to teach critical thinking. In fact, although most teachers identify it as necessary, few can articulate a good definition of it, and far fewer can identify strategies to teach it.

Thinking Critically

Partnership for 21st Century Skills defines critical thinking as having the ability to reason effectively, to view people and things as parts of complex systems, to make effective and logical judgments and decisions based on a thorough analysis of information obtained from individuals with varying points of view and to solve problems using both conventional and innovative methods. This definition clearly reflects the global nature of critical thinking, but Katie Kirkpatrick, dean of instruction at KIPP King Collegiate High School, describes it more simply in terms of learning content. In teaching fellow teachers how to teach critical thinking, Kirkpatrick says that critical thinking makes learning more relevant because it allows students to analyze, evaluate and use content in their everyday lives.

Explicit Instruction Strategies for Middle School

Evaluating websites helps students become critical thinkers.

Explicit instruction of critical thinking skills can be accomplished in teaching Internet literacy. On the middle school level, Microsoft Education author Mary Lane Potter suggests there are a number of things middle school students should be taught, including persuasive vocabulary connotations, reputable sources and how to recognize faulty arguments. Rather than telling them, however, teachers should guide them through the process and help them discover what you want them to understand by asking probing questions. For example, when helping students determine what are reputable sites have the ask whether the author is attempting to inform or trying to persuade the reader to do or buy something? In verifying an author's credibility, students need to ask what makes the author an authority on the subject? In other words, how does the author know what he claims to be true?

Explicit Instruction in High School

By the time they are in high school students should be using metacognitive strategies. In other words, they should be thinking about world views and how differences affect how they and others think. Learning on this level, according to Potter, should be project-based. For example, they should be able to create a checklist to guide peers by asking the same types of questions a teacher might when evaluating a website as an authority or as an advertisement or hoax. Another project could be to have them do research on different positions on a topic and create a PowerPoint presentation that analyzes the differences between the sides deciding which are disagreements of facts and which are disagreements of values. This is an essential understanding because disagreements of fact can be resolved scientifically, while disagreements of value cannot.

Critical Thinking in the Curriculum

Teachers have an ethical responsibility to teach from different perspectives, according to Professor Claudette Thompson at St. Bonaventure University. Critical evaluation and logic should be embedded within language arts instruction on reading and writing. Teachers need to develop the ability to ask good open-ended questions that stimulate critical thought. They should resist the urge to tell and should encourage hands-on learning. They should consider using role-playing activities that allow students to act like researchers, mathematicians, scientists, historians and archaeologists that engage in problem-based learning.

About the Author

Based just outside of Harrisburg, Pa., Catherine Donges teaches adjudicated adolescents in a residential treatment facility in York, Pa. Donges earned both her Master of Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Wilkes University and a Master of Science in education from Capella University and has written both a women's fiction and a young adult novel.

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