Questions are conversation starters. Door openers. But they can also be launchpads for critical thinking, one of the most important tools your students need to develop.
The metacognitive aspects of critical thinking demand a certain level of questioning. It’s the process of understanding how or why we reach a certain conclusion with an eye toward improvement that helps students deepen their thinking. The only way a student becomes a better thinker is by assessing how they solved a problem to determine if there’s a better way to approach it.
Asking Probing Questions
As a teacher for many years, I grew up understanding that one of the best ways to help my students think more deeply about what I was teaching was to ask them critical-thinking questions. Instead of a more traditional, lecture-driven approach, asking probing questions encouraged my students to take an active role in their learning, expand their thought processes, and explore unorthodox avenues for problem solving.
One year I flipped my US history instruction approach. Instead of teaching in a chronological sequence, I started at Reconstruction and asked my students, “Why?” Why did the country have to reconstruct? What was it reconstructing from, etc.? It was the best year of teaching history ever because it was so much more interesting for my students and such a cool way to get their brains going.
As Dr. Charles C. Bonwell wrote in Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, having students simply sit and try to rapidly soak up knowledge doesn't allow them to take an active interest in the meaning of what they are learning or the implications of that information. Asking questions is a great way to increase student interest and focus. I had a sign in my classroom that said, “Question Authority,” and my eighth graders loved it. It gave them permission to question, wonder, reason, and think as people instead of waiting to be told what to do.
As teachers, you can initiate the process of critical thinking by asking questions that require self-reflection. Once your students start down the road of reflective analysis, they will begin to develop the cognitive skills that can carry over to all aspects of their lives.
Strategies for Developing Critical Thinking
One way to create a more active learning environment in your classroom is to ask questions that challenge assumptions. Encourage your students to think about why they believe what they believe. Here are a few ideas:
- Prediction. Prediction is one of the most important aspects of critical thinking. Asking your students to make well-reasoned assumptions about future events is an excellent way to get them to think multidimensionally. Again, have them predict how events in a particular region will play out over the coming weeks. Or, use fiction or historical stories—preferably something more obscure so your students won't already know what happens. Then, read or present the beginning of that story and ask your students to predict what will happen next and why they think that. When you reach the outcome, students can reevaluate their predictions to see where they may have been correct or incorrect.
- Use the news. If you're having trouble devising a series of questions to ask your students, check the headlines. You’ll likely find something you can use to inspire your questions, whether it's the latest geopolitical issue or a discussion about seasonal trends. In fact, sometimes the simplest topics can be a great way to lead into the more difficult ones, especially when they are relevant and timely.
- Survival. Many of our most basic critical-thinking skills developed millions of years ago out of our species' need to survive. Try asking your students how they would handle certain survival situations, whether it's running from a saber-toothed tiger or living through a natural disaster in a modern city. Follow up by asking them to provide reasonable support for their responses. While these may be more serious topics, they are likely to engage your students in collaborative discussions and promote thinking about different issues with a critical eye.
We all know that our job teaching isn't to fill up the students' empty vessels with knowledge but rather to help them gather the tools they need to build their knowledge. Here are some great critical-thinking questions that will help your students on their journey:
- What makes this the best strategy for accomplishing this goal?
- What steps did you use to solve this problem?
- What does this problem make you think of?
- How did you reach this conclusion?
- How did you develop your hypothesis?
When students learn to provide evidence or reasoning that justifies their responses, they are developing a valuable life skill.