Napoleon Hill, author of the best-selling book Think and Grow Rich, once said: "You have a brain and mind of your own. Use it, and reach your own decisions." That’s critical thinking in a nutshell. It’s the ability to analyze information (data, facts, observations and research findings) objectively and make a reasoned judgement. In terms of critical thinking in education, The Glossary of Education Reform shares this definition: “Critical thinking describes forms of learning, thought and analysis that go beyond the memorization and recall of information and facts.”

Why Critical Thinking Skills are Essential

The world is constantly changing. Jobs and skills that are in demand now may be obsolete within the next few years. Having critical thinking skills allows you to think quickly on your feet, assess problems and find the best solutions - particularly when you don’t know the answer right away. Not surprising, critical thinking abilities are also among the most sought-after skills in almost every industry and workplace.

As educators, it’s important to ensure students today develop critical thinking skills for future success. Below are a few tips for promoting this valuable skill in afterschool:

How to Get Students to Think Critically

1. Encourage Student-centered Learning

Naturally, student-centered learning reduces direct instruction from you - the teacher. This approach empowers students to think critically as they share in decisions and take the lead in their own learning. Examples of student-led learning include:

  • Creating K-W-L charts before, during or after a lesson
  • Cultivating thoughtful discussions
  • Fostering cooperative learning opportunities
  • Creating media to present an issue

When facilitating student-centered learning, you may avoid providing direct, step-by-step instructions or jumping in to help. For more instructional methods, check out these 28 Student-Centered Instructional Strategies from TeachThought.

2. Assign Group Work

Group activities and projects are perfect opportunities to strengthen students’ critical thinking skills. Not only can they learn to work through problems together. But they are also exposed to new ideas and thought processes. This allows them to understand how others think and to find ways to collaborate and combine ideas to create a single solution.

A great way to drive group, or collaborative learning, is through project-based learning (PBL). PBL projects are designed for students to work together as a team to solve real-world problems. In addition to learning to be a team player, they are also encouraged to take ownership of their work, to participate in in-depth inquiry and innovation and to use feedback to improve their process.

3. Provide Space to Think Out Loud

This may seem like a simple concept, but talking through your thought process can actually help you solve problems. In fact, one study found that we are far better at problem-solving when we think out loud, making 78% fewer errors than if we silently work things out in our heads.

Thinking aloud can also improve students’ mental ability. It helps them to process information and develop a deeper understanding, which will only strengthen their critical thinking abilities. To use this approach, provide time for brainstorming sessions, open-ended discussions and even private speech. In addition, it’s important to create a safe environment where students feel comfortable enough to share their opinions and take risks in order for this method to be successful.

4. Ask Questions

Critical thinking may not come easy for most students. Often they will need help as they reflect on their own thinking process. One way to provoke critical thinking is to ask productive questions that take their thinking to the next level. Some examples include:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  • How would you agree or disagree with this?
  • Where can this be improved?
  • How might you convince us that your way is the best way?

The goal is to help them to make their own discoveries as they work to solve a problem. For a more complete list of critical thinking questions, check out 50 Questions To Help Students Think About What They Think.

5. Try Problem-solving Activities

Finally, provide activities that require students to exercise their critical thinking skills. Consider playing mystery games and solving crime puzzles. These activities typically promote observation skills, reading comprehension and deductive and inductive thinking skills as they evaluate evidence - the heart of critical thinking.

Take a look at the following resources for activity ideas:

6. Teach Coding

Coding is another great way to reinforce critical thinking skills. It requires students to approach a problem from different angles and come up with various possible solutions. This step in coding is called iteration or troubleshooting, and it’s an opportunity to evaluate data, observations and feedback before deciding on a solution. To bring coding into your program, see 6 Tools to Teach Coding in After School.

Critical thinking is a necessary skill in today’s fast-changing society. You can prepare your students for success by helping them to think critically and solve problems they may face in school and in their future jobs.

What ways do you encourage critical thinking in your classroom or afterschool program? Share your ideas in the comments below!