Critical Thinking 101: Setting the Question

If you want to get me talking for hours, ask me about critical thinking in the classroom.

Before I begin this blog I have to give full credit to the Critical Thinking Consortium and specifically to Sharon Lampard for all my ideas.  As a school we’ve been working with Sharon and TC2 for a year now and my personal journey with TC2 began nearly 5 years ago when the new Alberta Social Studies Curriculum was first introduced.  I love these people.  If they were ever looking to hire, I would work for them in a heartbeat.  That’s how powerful they are.

As the AISI leader in our school I’ve been leading the development of Critical Thinking in our school.  From kindergarten to Grade 12 we’ve been on a journey to see how this fits into our everyday lives as teachers.

Common questions I’m asked about Critical Thinking:

1.  What exactly is it?   In a narrow sense, critical thinking has been described as “the correct assessing of statements.”[2] It has also been described popularly and narrowly as “thinking about thinking.”  Says Wikipedia.  I prefer to explain it as a way of asking questions that have no right or wrong answers.

2.  How can you do this with lower elementary?  This is beyond them, isn’t it?   Absolutely not!  My daughter (who was 5 at the time) asked me if pudding was a healthy snack.  This is an example of a critical thinking question.  And more important was her reasoning in the answer (I’ll explain more later).

3.  But if there are no right or wrong answers, how do you assess it?  Quite easily actually.  Because your assessment doesn’t come from the answer to the question, it comes from assessing the support the student gives with the answer.

We typically ask three types of questions in our class, according to TC2.  And let me be clear that they all serve a specific function.

TYPE ONE:  Basic Recall

These are questions that don’t require much thought in answering.  Or if you don’t know the answer it can be figured out quickly.  How many calories are in one scoop of Rocky Road ice cream?  What year to Christopher Columbus sail to North America?  What does DNA stand for?  They also have a clearly correct answer and millions of possible incorrect answers…..They function very well to assess knowledge.

TYPE TWO:  Personal Opinion

These questions are all about how you feel.  It can’t be wrong because no one can challenge you with your answer.  What is your favorite ice cream?  What do you love best about your town?  Who was your favorite character?  These are great motivators for discussion because kids know that they are safe in their answers.  They can’t be wrong about their own opinion.

TYPE THREE:  Critical Response

These questions not only require a judgement of some kind, they are also going to require support for that judgement if you are to be taken serious in your response.  What’s really important to understand is that in order to have a TRUE CRITICAL THINKING question, the question itself cannot have a pre-determined “correct answer”.

What are some examples?  Let’s see if I can come up with some in all subject areas….

1)  Did Romeo and Juliet experience true love? (ELA)

2)  Who was a more influential Renaissance character:  Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo? (SS)

3)  Which historical disease had the most devasting impact on humanity? (SCI)

4)  Given two products at different prices, on sale for different amount, located in different areas of the city….which location provides you with the best economic choice?  (Math)

And I have dozens more…..(mostly related to Grade 8 since that’s what I teach).

To sum up:

In order to have a critical thinking question you need to have the following elements

1.  There is no correct answer.  You cannot say that “No, Romeo and Juliet did not experience true love,” and be wrong.  The idea is that you pick a side based on criteria that was set as to what “true love” really is.  (More about that in Critical Thinking 202:  Determining Criteria)

2.  Each question needs an element that will require a set of criteria to be established first before you can answer it.  What is true love?  What does it mean to be influential?  What constitutes a devastating impact?  What goes into an economic decision?

3.  The final answer must be JUSTIFIED according to the criteria that was set out to come to an appropriate conclusion.  You can’t just say, “Yes Romeo and Juliet were truly in love,” and leave it at that.  You have to explain WHY you think that based on the criteria.

My daughter’s story…..

I told my daughter she could have a snack, but only if it was healthy.  Kaity then asked me if chocolate pudding was a healthy snack.  I blinked for a second and then said, “I don’t know.  What do you think?”

She thought for a moment and then came up with the following response:

“Well, it’s made with chocolate and that’s not healthy.  But it has lots of milk in it, and that IS healthy.  Plus you let me drink chocolate milk and both you and the TV say that it’s healthy too.  So yes, chocolate pudding is a healthy snack.”

There you have it.  I could have gone on about sugar content but why bother?  She came up with a reasonable argument.  And justified it according to the criteria that it’s made mostly from milk and milk is healthy.

Yes, I let her eat the pudding.

Coming soon…..Critical Thinking 202:  Criteria Setting


The Critical Thinking Consortium (click on “The Thinking Teacher on the left hand side to find a great video to explain what critical thinking is to parents/teachers)

The Critical Thinking Community


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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3 Responses to Critical Thinking 101: Setting the Question

  1. Jen (@jenclevette) says:

    Love TC2 and love creating powerful questions….and so do students. Here is a template we use that Wally D from TC2 helped our Social Studies Div 3 PLC createb

  2. Pingback: Critical Thinking 202: Setting Criteria | Teaching on Purpose

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