About Daisy Filler

Mrs. Filler, or Savage Fill to her students, has been teaching high school English for a decade. In addition to the standard core English class, she has taught inclusion, honors, accelerated honors, and AP Language and Composition. Sometimes, she teaches creative writing and reading intervention. Her love of teaching comes second to her love of family.
courtesy the Digital Notebook

courtesy the Digital Notebook

Critical thinking skills. What are they, anyway? How do teachers apply them in the classroom? There are just as many answers as there are questions. This article will attempt to simplify the answers as well as offer tips on how you can encourage critical thinking from your students.


There are a myriad of definitions for critical thinking. Listed below are three definitions that capture the essence of this skill.

Glaser, who wrote in length about developing critical thinking, defines it as “( 1 ) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods” (qtd. in “Defining Critical Thinking”). In other words, one exhibits critical thinking by carefully considering situations one encounters through use of sound, logical reasoning. The conclusion or decision is not arrived at quickly.

According to the Center for Critical Thinking, “Critical thinking is thinking that assesses itself” (qtd. in Adsit). Critical thinkers not only think more deliberately, but they evaluate their own thinking. For example, perhaps you meet someone for the first time and find yourself mentally criticizing that person. You might put the brakes on your thinking and catch yourself, evaluating whether you are being fair, if your judgment is based on a bias (we all have them, but that is another story for another time), or if your criticism is relevant or necessary to the situation.

Finally, Beyer wrote that critical thinking occurs when the individual makes rational decisions and conclusions (cited in Adsit). Adsit goes on to further clarify by stating that one engages in critical thinking when one uses “criteria to judge the quality of something, from cooking to a conclusion of a research paper” (“Teaching Critical Thinking Skills”).

Helping Students Apply Critical Thinking in the Classroom

Now that you have a better understanding about what critical thinking is, how can you apply it in the classroom? For this answer, I turned to Grant Tilus’s blog entitled “6 Critical Thinking Skills You Need to Master Now.” In this entry, Tilus breaks down six essential critical thinking skills that was originally based off Dr. Peter A. Facione’s work. Tilus blog was aimed at college students in order to empower them in their career pursuits. I have paraphrased Tilus’s definitions of the skills and added examples of activities that can be incorporated in elementary or secondary classrooms (You can read the original article here.)

#1 Interpretation

Not only should we teach our students how to interpret, but we as educators must be able to interpret as well. First, we have to understand the material we are to teach. Then, we must restate our understanding.

How do we get our students to demonstrate this skill? You can have them use the Cornell note-taking method in which they must summarize what they have learned after each session; the goal is to have them put your notes into their own words. They can also write longer pieces in an attempt to interpret their learning.

#2 Analysis

Analyzing is looking at smaller bits of information, usually by breaking down more complicated items, and understanding the overall or intended message.

Students can analyze in a number of ways. From an English teacher’s perspective, the most obvious example is an analysis paper. The writer looks at a piece of literature and analyzes its different components, whether it is paragraph-by-paragraph or element-by-element, like all the individual figurative language devices. This can also be done with persuasive or informational text; students instead look for rhetorical devices. In math class, students might analyze a complex formula by looking at one variable at a time or one step at a time. Tilus offered a simpler method by suggesting that one looks at proverbs and tries to explain the significance behind each.

#3 Inference

To infer is to gather evidence (or pieces of information) and reach a conclusion that is not obviously stated. In some cases, one must gather more information than what was initially given.

Logic puzzles and mysteries are wonderful exercises to teach inference. Tilus also recommends to actively watch crime shows will help develop this skill, so long as the audience tries to solve the mystery before the shows reveals the answer. (This would be more appropriate in certain high school classes, of course. However, I am sure there are kid-oriented mysteries for elementary rooms.) You can also use short stories. In my class, I like to ask students to draw conclusions about characters based on their descriptions. The key to this method is to get students to back up their suppositions with evidence. A student simply cannot say that one character is nice and another is a jerk without explaining what text in the story made him or her think that way.

Click here for reasons number 4 through 6.

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