How to develop students’ critical thinking skills

How to develop students’ critical thinking skills

Last year, the Federal Government pledged to bring the education system back to basics after a growing number of reports revealed that Australian students are not performing as well as their peers overseas.

Coinciding with this drive is a rapidly changing business landscape which has prompted governments and the private sector to rethink how to skill the next generation so they can qualify for the jobs of the future.

However, one skill in particular is being highlighted by many education experts as a way to ‘future-proof’ students – critical thinking.

In an article published in The Conversation, University of Queensland lecturer in critical thinking, Peter Ellerton, said that most employers look to a candidate’s capacity to not only communicate well but solve complex problems, and think critically.

Ellerton acknowledged that solving problems is often linked to critical thinking but pointed out that the ability to think critically is more about the quality of the process, rather than the difficulty of the problem.

While a number of educators make use of the Philosophy for Children which helps to teach reasoning and argumentative skills, Ellerton provided some tips on how teachers can further develop critical thinking among their students.

Citing one Brisbane school as an example, Ellerton said teachers can conduct critical thinking exercises which require students to form their own criteria and argue their case with their classmates to develop better and more widely-applicable criteria.

This way, students are made to question assumptions and look at problems from another angle. Thinking exercises like these also helps students make better arguments as they use other cognitive skills in the process.

A more visual approach involves teachers making use of argument mapping to help their students draw out logical structures to arrive at a conclusion.

“Argument maps are an important tool in making our reasoning available for analysis and evaluation,” Ellerton said.

 Why it matters

Citing a study by the US-based National Center for Biotechnology Information, Ellerton said developing critical thinking – or conducting philosophical inquiry for school children – can further improve academic outcomes in the succeeding years.

Students whose critical thinking skills were also developed were found to do better when it comes to subject-based exams and even standardised tests.

Ellerton, who also serves as the curriculum director at the UQ Critical Thinking Project, said this is what they found in their yet-to-be-published study which covered Years 3-9 students who took part in 12 one-hour lessons in critical thinking (these lessons are facilitated by teachers and delivered online).

Comparing these students were found to have shown “a significant increase in relative gains in NAPLAN test results – as measured against a control group and dafter control for other variables,” Ellerton said.

In a separate article also published in The Conversation, University of New South Wales scientia professor and educational psychology professor Andrew J. Martin wrote that incorporating more problem-solving activities in classrooms can further help in the goal to bring education back to basics.

A little guidance goes a long way

Professor Martin refers to his 2016 research on load reduction instruction, wherein teachers can improve student outcomes by reducing cognitive load. To do this, teachers employ explicit instruction to make sure students understand the basics before they go on to do more problem-solving.

To further foster problem-solving among students, teachers can then switch to guided inquiry-based learning.

Citing two studies the University conducted, Professor Martin said they found not only higher motivation and engagement among students in maths and science classes, but also better academic buoyancy and achievement.

“Back-to-basics and problem-solving should go hand in hand. The success of one is inextricably tied to the success of the other,” Professor Martin further said.