What is meant by critical thinking and how can all children achieve it?

Sometimes we use terms such as critical thinking and creative thinking rather loosely. But if children are to be taught to think at higher levels like these, they deserve to know precisely what is meant by them. Today we will start with critical thinking.

We can go as far back as the late 1940s and 1950s to find a definition that has stood the test of time. In the United States at that time there was particular concern about the need to stretch students’ thinking and about how to measure their academic growth beyond the simple remembering of facts. Benjamin Bloom led a team of researchers that developed a ‘Taxonomy of Educational Objectives’.   Actually they developed three taxonomies but in this post I will refer only to the most commonly used, namely the one that describes different levels of thinking skills (the technical term for this is the ‘cognitive domain’).

What follows is a diagram illustrating Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking skills.

The diagram shows a revised version of the taxonomy, by L.W. Anderson and D.R. Krathwohl (editors) (2001)

Teachers and parents can use the taxonomy to stretch their children’s thinking upwards through the levels. What follows is a brief description of what each of the levels means:

Before going any further, I should point out two basic misunderstandings of Bloom’s taxonomy:

1.     Higher level thinking skills are not ‘better’ than lower order thinking skills. All types of thinking skills are needed. For example, Mozart studied and understood the composition skills of the great composers who came before him, before creating his own glorious music.

2.     We don’t need to take ourselves or our children up and down the taxonomy like steps on a ladder. Often, we use different types of thinking at the same time or on the same topic. The levels can also be used in different orders; there does not have to be a strict sequence.

One criticism of Bloom’s taxonomy is that it does not encompass all aspects of the way we humans think. My response to this is … of course it doesn’t! Nothing could ever do this! But it is a useful tool to help teachers and parents consider how they can enhance their children’s learning by asking different levels of questions and giving different levels of tasks.

Here is an example of some questions and tasks. They are intended for middle school or younger secondary school children who are studying water conservation:

  • Remembering: What are the three states of water?
  • Understanding: Explain the processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation and percolation.
  • Applying: In what ways will you use your knowledge of the above processes to use in your project on water conservation?
  • Analyzing: Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of three methods of water conservation we have studied.
  • Evaluating: Which of the methods of water conservation we have studied – or which possible combination of methods – is most likely to be effective in one arid region of the world?
  • Creating:  Design an effective water recycling system for a poor rural community in a region that has low rainfall and limited access to electricity.

Questions and instructions at different levels like those above can be asked in every subject area or across different subject areas. It is true for children of all ages; please do not think that the ‘higher’ levels can only be used by older children and adults!

Please note that many of the questions above are open-ended. Apart from the first ‘remembering’ question, they do not point the child towards one ‘correct’ answer.

Now, try thinking of some questions in a subject area and age level for your own child. Perhaps you should try it on yourself first!

I started this post by introducing the topic of ‘critical thinking’. What is it? The most straightforward response I can give is it that critical thinking represents the ‘analyzing’ and ‘evaluating’ levels of thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy. Some might include the ‘applying’ level too. Using the taxonomy, we cannot only understand what critical thinking means but also understand how it relates to other types of thinking.

The thinking skills required of a courtroom judge provide a useful illustration of what I mean. The judge must remember and understand all the evidence presented to her in court. She must then apply her knowledge in making an important decision. She therefore analyzes the evidence very carefully before she evaluates it and announces her verdict. (But the judge does not create new laws – that is for others to do).

In their future world our children will need higher level thinking skills for the kinds of jobs that will be available to them. They will also have to understand and use relevant data. Without all these skills their job options will be limited. Talk with your child’s teacher about the implications of all this, and please do try taking your child and yourself through the various levels of thinking. Remember that children of all ages from a few years onwards can think at all the different levels. It is their right to be taught how to do this.

There is a huge amount available on the Internet about thinking levels – just search for ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ and enjoy finding out more.

Thank you.

Next time: What is creative thinking and how can we teach our children to think creatively?


Why is it important for children to learn at a conceptual level, and not just remember facts?

In my last post I explained that in order to prepare our children for an uncertain future, it is necessary for schools to help children develop the key attributes and skills that will enable them to be successful whatever life may bring. Schools should move from a narrow focus on teaching facts and formulae for tests and examinations towards providing children with the intellectual capacity to thrive in the rapidly changing economic and social environment of the future.

To start with, every child deserves to be taught the skills of conceptual thinking. This the ability to understand the ‘big picture’ not just the simple facts (another term for ‘simple facts’ is ‘information’) or isolated topics. Many schools are already doing this, but others are lagging behind. Here are a couple of examples of the difference between topics and concepts:

Examples of topics from geography:

  1. Many large cities have coastal locations.
  2. Canadian cities are mostly found near the American border.
  3. Central Australia has a low population density.

An example of a concept that subsumes (contains) the above topics or facts:

Population distribution is directly related to identifiable physical and economic factors.

Here are some more examples of isolated topics or facts, this time from science:

  1. Human babies develop in their mother’s womb.
  2. Chickens hatch from eggs.
  3. Farmers plant seeds to grow crops.

An example of a concept that subsumes the above topics or facts:

There are similarities in the development of living things

These are examples of the kinds of concepts (also called ‘big ideas’ or ‘enduring understandings’) that can be taught in all subjects and also across different subjects at all age levels from elementary school upwards.

Teaching at a conceptual level is important for many reasons, including the following:

  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables teachers to personalize their teaching for the learning needs and interests of different children and according to the resources that are available. For example, it’s possible to teach the concept of ‘human progress has unintended consequences’ using different examples of topics such as the Second World War, the North Atlantic Slave Trade, the invention of the steam engine and countless others. Teachers cannot meaningfully personalize learning for their students when they only teach isolated topics such as ‘the D-Day landings’ or ‘the Triangular Trade’ or ‘the development of railways in the nineteenth century’.
  •  Teaching at a conceptual level raises academic expectations for all children. The underlying principle is that all children are capable of understanding concepts (‘big ideas’). How the teacher helps the child come to this conceptual understanding may vary from child to child and class to class, but it means that the teacher does not place limitations on how deeply a child may think. If you are a parent of a schoolchild, it is vital that you know this.
  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables the child to make connections between what they are learning in one subject and what they are learning in other subjects or what they have learned in the past. Children who are taught at a conceptual level frequently have a ‘light bulb’ or ‘aha!’ moments when they make these connections! For the teacher and the parent these are magical moments.
  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables children to think creatively. Children who are limited to learning topics and facts are not likely to develop the intellectual capacity to think at a creative level. As I will explain in a future post, creative thinking is possible in all subject areas and at all age levels. It is also the right of every child to learn to think at this level.
  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables children to apply their knowledge in new and different ways. Young children whose teachers help them develop ‘number sense’ rather than just the simple mechanics of addition and division are more likely to be able to apply their mathematical knowledge in real life problem solving.
  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables children to develop their aesthetic sense. Children who can identify the big pictures and patterns that underlie what they are learning in school are more likely to appreciate, for example, the miracle of evolving life forms or the beauty of mathematics.

None of the ideas in this post are new, but many schools around the world are limiting the potential of their students by not applying them in the classroom.

What are the implications for the parent? Here are some suggestions:

1.     Ask your child’s teacher how she enables her students to think at a conceptual level. Hopefully she will explain how she does this. However, if the response is negative (for example by saying “Your child is too young” or “Not all children are capable of thinking in this way” or “It doesn’t fit with our curriculum”) then there may a problem and I suggest you persist with your questions about this…

2.     When talking with your child about schoolwork, help her to think conceptually by asking challenging*, open-ended questions such as the following:

  • Can you think of ways in which this connects with other subjects you are learning?
  • In what ways could you use this knowledge to solve a problem in (x)?
  • What are some other things this reminds you of?
  • In what ways might this apply in other subjects/ countries/historical times?
  • That sounds really interesting; how could you teach this to your father/younger sister/friend?

The more you can do to take your child’s thinking from the specific fact to the broader understanding, the greater you will help her to be ready for the uncertainties and wonders of her later years.

Thank you.

*Children who learn conceptually are typically excited by being challenged. They see challenge as the opposite of boredom!

Next time: What is meant by critical thinking and how can all children achieve it?