Developing critical thinking in your 21st-century STEM classroom

Being a critical thinker and problem solver is one of the most essential skills for students to be successful 21st century learners and find their place in the global workforce. Employers are looking for students that can solve problems in innovative ways and, unfortunately, many students are not ready for this task. STEM subjects are the perfect vehicles to develop these skills that can be used later in life, whether students pursue a career within or outside of a STEM field. But how can we turn our passive students into critical thinkers and problem solvers?

Essential Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking often gets a bad reputation since students link this phrase to solving those dreaded word problems. As STEM educators, it is our job to show students that being a critical thinker is much more than that! Critical thinking is active, full of arguments, creativity, and the gratifying “ah-ha” moments. The Framework for 21st Century Learning has broken down critical thinking and problem solving into four essential skills.

Reason Effectively

– Use inductive and deductive reasoning appropriately

Use Systems Thinking

– Understand how parts interact with each other to make a whole
– Analyze parts of complex systems

Make Judgments and Decisions

– Evaluate and make arguments based on evidence
– Analyze many points of view
– Make connections between sources of information
– Draw conclusions
– Reflect on experiences

Solve Problems

– Apply skills to alternative problems
– Ask questions to clarify
– Create solutions that are innovative

Critical ThinkingClassroom Strategies to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Teaching these critical thinking skills can be a challenge because they are not always embedded in traditional classroom materials. It is a misconception that it will be time consuming, but that is not the case! See how you can bring critical thinking into your classroom today by following these simple tips.

Model critical thinking with questions

One easy way to start your students thinking critically is to ask more questions! By asking guiding and probing questions, you are modeling how to analyze and consider various sources of information. Effective questioning creates ways for your students to formulate their own arguments and support themselves with evidence. Use open-ended questions during classroom discussion and play the devil’s advocate. Soon your students will be doing the same.

Provide real-world scenarios and problems to solve

Problem- and project-based learning are great ways to integrate critical thinking into the classroom. In PBL, you present a problem that students need to solve through the creation of a product or an investigation. The best PBLs capture student interest from the start and provide opportunities for students to apply their knowledge in alternative ways. Check out these examples of project-based learning to find out more – and download our free guide to project-based learning to get started!

Hold classroom debates

Find controversial or interesting topics of discussion that surround the content you are teaching. Try to stick to current events or local issues to keep things relevant to the student. Hold a traditional debate, team debate, or small group debates to challenge students to consider alternate points of view. I like to end debates with a vote on the issue, and remind students that it is OK to switch sides if they have been presented with convincing evidence. If debates are too stressful for your introverted students, try persuasive writing instead.

Provide opportunities for students to reflect

Taking the time to reflect on an experience or activity is an important step of critical thinking that is often missed. Ask your students to journal or free write at the conclusion of a lab or hands-on learning experience. This will allow students to explore ideas, expand thoughts, and make connections. If we don’t give students an opportunity to synthesize their learning, we are preventing them from taking the next step on their journey to critical thinking.

Use performance-based assessments

Critical thinking it tricky to assess. Performance-based assessments are best to ensure that you are observing critical thinking skills in action. Performance-based assessments can include portfolios, demonstrations, group projects, speeches, debates, and investigations. The common feature is that the student is active, not taking a test. This will allow you to gather information not only about what they have mastered, but what they may still be lacking.

Integrating critical thinking can be a challenge, so start small. First try one of these strategies in your classroom to introduce the skill to your students. As their comfort level increases, so will their confidence, and you can try more. By the end of the school year, you will have a classroom full of inventive critical thinkers!

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