Implementing 4C’s Series: Critical Thinking


“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

This line as part of a commencement address by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 is the exact idea educators need to embrace today. Our world is changing at an exponential rate where no one knows what tomorrow will look like. If it feels like the education system is always playing “catchup”, that’s because it is. As a system, education looks out the window and strives to prepare students for “today”, unfortunately only a small percentage (approximately 2%*) are going into today’s workforce. As educators, we need to start to look to the future and be proactive in preparing students for a future that is unknown; and if we can’t see the future, we need to provide students skills which are critical in any future.

In what line of work is critical thinking not important? Almost every career path requires individuals to think on their feet and make decisions which can impact their work and success. No matter where you come from or where you are going in life, we all have seen the importance of critical thinking skills. In the Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum ranked critical thinking as the second most important skill for our workforce behind complex problem solving.

What does this mean for our classrooms and schools? It is time to shift the focus from ensuring our students have all the content knowledge possible, to ensuring our students understand content knowledge AND have the skills to apply the knowledge.

WorldEconomicForum FutureWorkSkills

Many educators believe they are building critical thinking in their students when they ask them to solve problems. However, a long-standing misconception is that critical thinking and problem solving are the same thing. Problem solving is something we do on a daily basis and involves using our own experiences to solve a problem. Critical thinking is looking beyond our own experiences and points of view, gathering multiple solutions, and determining the best pathway forward. Problem solving focuses on a single situation, critical thinking focuses on the broader impacts and circumstances leading and post the situation.

Five ways to build critical thinking into instruction:

  1. Ask students to find Multiple Solutions to problems. Instead of settling with the first “good” solution, ask students to keep brainstorming. Often a better solution presents itself after spring boarding off a good solution.
    • Example: Have students design three or four egg-drop challenge vehicles instead of settling on one. There may be some overlap, but there will also be a visible progression in their thinking. Often, they can tell you which one is going to be the best because they understood how their own thinking evolved! Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 12.17.30 PM
  2. Reflection has been proven to be vital to students building their understanding of content. Start a practice of “Critical Thinking Reflection” in your classroom where you take the last 2-3 minutes of the period and ask students to reflect upon connection questions.
    • Examples:
      • What was the most important thing you learned today?
      • How does what you learned apply to your own life?
      • Why is what we learned important to your community?
      • How would you have done something different?
      • Would this lesson be important if you lived somewhere else?
  3. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who is better known under his pen name Lewis Carroll, is credited with being the first to create “Logic Puzzles.” Logic puzzles give solvers the opportunity to apply knowledge to multiple problems at once. These logic puzzles were transformed over the years into logic grid puzzles which force critical thinking and complex problem solving to coexist in order to find the solution. A famous version called Einstein’s Puzzle, or the Zebra Puzzle, is said to be one of the most difficult as it pushes critical thinking to the limits. It is said (most likely a made-up fact) only 2% of the population could actually solve the puzzle. Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 11.49.00 AM
  4. At times, present Conflicting Points of View to students, asking them to make their own decisions. By giving them conflicting information, they must think their way through the information, analyze the why and how, and form their own ideas. This is great for social studies, ELA, and inquiry-based science.
    • Examples: 
      • The United States entered WWII at the right time/too late.
      • It is better to have love and lost or better to not have loved at all.
      • The best type of energy is solar power/electrical power.
  5. Project Zero from Harvard has been doing some amazing work at building thinking strategies to help students communicate and develop metacognition. Visible Thinking takes an approach emphasizing three core practices: thinking routines, the documentation of student thinking, and reflective professional practice. Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 11.47.25 AM

The key to each of these is to not use them randomly and without any context. Students need to know they are building their critical thinking skills. Explicitly calling out the skill helps students understand the “why” and see they can develop these skills. Many students have personal perception deficiencies when it comes to STEM. The “I’m not good at math” syndrome or “I’m not creative” idea needs to be wiped away. As students build this skill, they begin to see that they are good at it, building their self-confidence and understanding of their own future possibilities.


Author: Jonathan Gerlach

Global Consultant for STEM Education @STEMigo

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