Want to Teach Critical Thinking? Forget Rote Learning

Gone are the days when school was only about “the three R’s”- reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Critical thinking is now a central educational goal, from the Common Core State Standards to employers’ demands for the future workforce. But students are apparently falling short of that goal.

According to a test viewed as the “Nation’s Report Card,” a third of America’s fourth graders fail to comprehend what they read or are unable to provide supporting evidence for their interpretation. A similar percentage struggle to draw conclusions from text. By 12th grade, a quarter of students are still lacking these basic comprehension skills. The problems may become most obvious after high school. How can a person develop the next great innovation if she doesn’t understand how existing technology works? How can a journalist or a lawyer ferret out corruption if he doesn’t know how to read between the lines?

The problem is that many educators and policymakers don’t understand how to help students understand, write researchers Karen Murphy, Carla Firetto, Liwei Wei, Mengyi Li, and Rachel Croninger. Developing critical thinking is more complicated than teaching basic arithmetic, and yet teachers receive little training in how to do it. In fact, much of American education is based on the mistaken belief that adults simply need to give knowledge to students who receive it, in the form of facts and information, say Murphy and colleagues. Students get more information at earlier ages than ever before, and are frequently tested to see if they have retained it. But neither strategy teaches them how to think and make connections.

The key to developing critical thinking in the classroom is small group discussion, suggests research reviewed by Murphy and her collaborators. Engaging in dialogue with teachers and a few classmates encourages students, even young ones, to be curious, consider different perspectives, and make connections with one’s life experiences and existing knowledge. There seems to be something about the intimacy or opportunity of small groups that makes them more worthwhile than whole-class discussions.

But not all small group discussions are effective. Simply asking a group of students to share their reaction to a text isn’t going to ensure they get it or learn anything from it. (Who doesn’t remember listening to a classmate tell a long personal story that made the text less interesting and maybe even less clear?) Teachers need to be thoughtful about what they do before, during, and after class discussions.

It is helpful if teachers “prime” their students to understand a text before they read it, for example by having an initial discussion about students’ lives or cultural experiences that connects to the text. That can help students make immediate connections between what they are reading and their existing knowledge, which makes it easier to both understand and remember information. Teachers can also prime students after reading but before discussion, for example by talking about how the text is structured or by asking them to generate their own questions. But, the researchers caution, students might need a lesson in crafting thoughtful questions, because, “Unfortunately, many students are wise in the ways of schooling and are more familiar with traditional forms of question and answering—questions that require low-level recall and basic comprehension of the text.”

Teachers then need to do a good job moderating the discussion, asking students to clarify their thinking and provide evidence for their ideas. Over time, they should hand over more and more control to students so that they are decreasing their own talk and encouraging students to increase theirs. (Many teachers aren’t well-versed in that strategy, as students can attest.) When a teacher starts to see students elaborating on each other’s thinking, that’s a sign that they are thinking critically.

Another piece that is sometimes overlooked is post-discussion debrief. When teachers give immediate feedback about the conversation process, it helps the whole class during the next discussion. And when the class sets goals for future discussions, it helps them reflect on what they’ve learned and encourages them to transfer it to other contexts. “Preparing students to think intensively and to make evidence-based, incisive decisions is a daunting, but not impossible, goal,” Murphy and colleagues write. The key, they counsel, is to spend less time on rote learning of information and “refocus” on what really makes students think.

Access the article, by Murphy, et al,”What REALLY Works: Optimizing Classroom Discussions to Promote Comprehension and Critical-Analytic Thinking” from Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.