As a child, I grew up in a world that was dominated by left-brained thinking. Both my parents were in professions that required in-depth analytical thinking. The “rule” in my house was: “If you break something, try to fix it. Only THEN come ask Dad for help.” Dad was an avionics engineer and had an incredible mechanical ability. He could fix anything, and he instilled within his children a desire to understand how things work and a hunger to ask questions that clarify thinking.

Looking back now, I realize something I never understood then — what he had instilled was an ability to think critically. Along with creativity, collaboration, and communication, critical thinking is one of the four components of learning in the 21st century. Unlike the other three, critical thinking is often difficult to reduce to bite-size pieces of understanding and challenging to teach to others.

Several months ago, as I was visiting one of our diocese schools, I was fascinated that a first grade teacher was actually teaching critical thinking to her students within a math lesson. The students had to create number sentences with the numerals of 5, 3, and 2. I was fascinated when she asked for volunteers (in pairs) to come to the whiteboard, write down their first sentence, and then, using manipulatives, prove that the sentence was correct. The other students “voted” whether or not the sentence was correct by either “a thumbs up” or “a thumbs down.”

The addition sentences were easy for the six and seven-year olds. The subtraction ones proved to be a bit challenging. Students could “phone a friend” or “ask for help.” If the partners still couldn’t solve the problem, the teacher intervened with some targeted questions and demonstrations using manipulatives. As I sat there in the back of the room, I was awed by the way the teacher got her students to think and work with one another!

Reflection, Reasons, Alternatives

Shortly after my classroom visit, I came across a website dedicated to teaching critical thinking. Upon diving deeper within the site, it was obvious why this is such a key component to 21st century learning. Robert H. Ennis, author of the site, suggests three underlying components to critical thinking: reflection, reasons and alternatives.

Reflection always includes stopping and thinking before making rash judgments about the topic at hand. I have personally witnessed deep reflection by many students as they comment and question both within their personal and/or class blogs and wikis and during face to face communication). The use of blogs and wikis make it possible for others within their learning community, not just their class, to question their thinking patterns, thus deepening their learning experience.

It never ceases to amaze me how deep the learning experience can become when ideas are critiqued by others. So many good teachers I’ve had the opportunity to observe understand this concept and invisibly incorporate this within their teaching style.

‘How do you know what you know?’ and ‘Why do you think that?’ are questions that are often voiced by teachers and students alike. This is the core of the reasoning part of critical thinking. Individual thought patterns can be the result of cultural experience and/or a lack of personal experience. Questions like the above, from members within a learning community, broaden perception and deepen understanding.

Today’s learners must be put into situations that help grow global awareness and insight in order to make good decisions personally, professionally, and politically.  These attributes heighten the awareness of the similarities and differences of individuals, thus creating depper insights into what being human is all about.

Finally, in today’s world, learners of all ages need to understand that there are many ways to arrive at a good answer to a problem. They need lots of practice exploring alternatives. I have often said, “There is more than one way of getting to 2 besides 1+1.” This is the creative side of critical thinking.  Students should be given time to delve into questions in order to explore every dimension of the problem or question. This is when authentic, sticky, deep learning occurs.

Overall, I must acknowledge that our schools are filled with examples of teachers doing an excellent job teaching our young people to think critically. As I travel and visit schools and classrooms, I am often awed at the excellence that I find. It’s “Absolutely Amazing!” and all too often unrecognized or underappreciated in a world where so many are quick to be critical of schools without doing much critical thinking themselves.

About the author
Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, is the Wide Area Network Coordinator for the Diocese of Harrisburg (PA). In her current position, she is responsible for Professional Development for teachers regarding “all things techy.” She has been a high school tech coordinator and graphics design teacher who's also taught middle grades math and science in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City.