Sometimes the toughest part of teaching can be to get students to explain “why.” In today’s pan-digital culture, many youth and teens want everything in snippets, sound bites, summaries, and blurbs. When crunched for time we often want just the facts, but over time this can be harmful as absence of context creates confusion and disconnection. How can we get students to think critically and learn “why” and “how,” and not just “what”? Being able to reinforce critical thinking in school is necessary to raise a generation that can innovate and help our society progress.
First, to get students to think critically you must force them to explain things. As a teacher, force your students to answer in complete sentences. By taking more time to answer a question, even a simple question, a student has more time to think. Allowing a teen to scribble a two-word answer means little or no thought aside from rote memory recall is going on. By making students slow down you have opened up the window for more thought.
Secondly, force students to pick a side in a debate. Utilizing formal debates as in-class teaching tools is an invaluable way to get students to question beliefs, both their own and those held by others. For maximum effect, a teacher should put students on the side of the debate they typically do not support, such as putting conservative teenagers on the liberal side of a debate. Though grumbling will ensue, the students might actually learn something thought-provoking by having to delve into unexplored waters. Keeping students out of their comfort zones forces critical thinking.
Another teaching tool for reinforcing critical thinking is first-person essay writing. Force the students to expound on how a situation affects them, or how they would react in a certain situation, generates lots of thinking. This can be a popular exercise because students, especially teenagers, often like to consider things from a first-person vantage point. Students may suddenly realize that they have much valuable information to learn from the subject material and may begin to pay more attention.
Fourth, do not shy away from challenges. Students may become exasperated by being asked to do so much writing and question the importance of such critical-thinking assignments. Telling students that their complaints are valid, so long as they can explain them in writing, can actually be just as valuable as the assignment itself in generating critical thinking. It is preferable for students to be writing down, in complete sentences, their complaints about critical thinking than to not be critically thinking at all. In the end, a healthy debate over critical thinking in the classroom has actually forced the student to do far more critical thinking than they thought!
Finally, offering extra credit for critical thinking is a great motivator. Though it may put more work on the teacher, it can lead to tremendous rewards to tell students that there is no limit for “going deeper” into the subject material. If a student wishes to write an extra credit paper over a subject, let them! While you do not have to let such critical thinking extra credit make up for incomplete or poorly-done work, even token rewards can keep a student motivated and thinking. As long as a teacher never closes the door, there is always the potential for great leaps and bounds to be made by even the most recalcitrant students.