True Criteria for Critical Thinking



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Most parents want their children to learn to think critically. Our kids are barraged with information every day, and they need tools to discern between the good and the bad when there’s so much relative, fuzzy information out there. To equip them to think clearly through all the options, parents often buy literature programs that contain critical thinking assignments. 

True Criteria Critical Thinking
The Typical Criteria for Teaching Critical Thinking

While we all agree on the outcome of what we want for our kids, it’s the getting there that’s tricky. I recently walked the halls of a home school convention and looked through many of the critical thinking programs that were there.

The Typical Objectives

Most of the the objectives in these programs were variations of these:

  • Grasp the significance of
  • Have an interest in
  • Appreciate
  • Comprehend (and its new spinoff, “metacomprehend”)
  • Think critically
  • Understand
  • Learn
  • Respect
  • Enjoy reading

The Typical Methods

The method being used to teach these objectives consisted of two parts: to read a passage of literature and then answer questions about it. Here are some of the questions I pulled from actual 4th-8th grade critical thinking programs:

  • Why did she give him the cornbread?
  • Which bunk did the girl sleep on – the top or the bottom?
  • What kind of candy did she buy at the drugstore?
  • What was Billy’s mother’s name?
  • What does the word “exasperated” mean? Look it up and write five sentences with it.

Changing the Objectives and the Method

Would these questions really help a child think critically about what he just read? Would they equip him to think smarter in the next book he read?

No. Those are recall questions, and recall is the lowest form of thought. Recall happens in the frontal lobe (the forehead), the part of the brain you use to find your coffee cup, or the name of that person you met an hour ago. There’s no critical thinking involved at all.

True critical thinking boils down to reasoning, or disciplined thinking. Here’s the criteria for critical thinking as described by The Foundation of Critical Thinking:

“Critical Thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action… [it is] based on…clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”

Critical thinking, in its truest sense, focuses on the thinking process over the topics. Questions based on cornbread, bunk beds, and names fall short of the mark.

What’s the Better Way to Teach Critical Thinking?

Refreshingly, you just do it by having conversations (the better method) with your kids about what they’re reading, and help them reason through it (the better objective).

The Better Method
Here’s how the conversations work:

  • Use one of the free-reading books your child has selected on her own
  • Help her identify the universal elements for literary analysis (*see below)
  • Have a Socratic dialogue with her about one of those elements in the story. These are simple conversations that include open-ended questions to help her gain insights about what she’s read; there are no point-blank recall questions. The goal is for her to analyze the elements of fiction, synthesize what she observes, and to apply that knowledge to the real world.

The Better Objectives

Here are some objectives that will help your child think critically about what she’s reading:

  • Identify the *four universal elements of the story: the setting (time & place), characters (protagonist/good guy or antagonist/bad guy), conflicts (internal or external), and the conclusion of the story
  • Analyze how the elements work together
  • Use that analysis to predict outcomes
  • Identify relationships between elements
  • Discover knowledge
  • Clarify vocabulary (first by context, then in a dictionary if necessary)
  • Synthsize knowledge
  • Apply the knowledge to other situations

As Natural as a Conversation 

True critical thinking happens during conversations that give kids the criteria they need to organize information and find conclusions on their own. With practice, they can apply the criteria in any context, and as a result, your kids will learn to think smarter, and read smarter, when they’re not even aware they’re doing it. This is critical thinking at its best: when it’s relevant, equipping, bigger than an assignment itself, and as natural as having a conversation.

For more information, see CriticalThinking.org

Written by Cathy Canen

Cathy Canen

Cathy was a home school curriculum consultant for 30 years. She’s listened to thousands of parents and kids talk about the issues most important to them, so now she writes to address the topics they discussed the most often. She has taught in their home school (K-12), in a traditional classroom, and currently tutors kids in first grade through college. She is a certified Sign Language Interpreter and has taught kids with various developmental challenges including Aspergers, autism, deaf students, and blind students. She also developed a language program for deafblind students at Georgia School for the Blind. She leads a community Bible study, works with hospice patients, and blogs at the vlcdnetwork.com, where she writes about health and nutrition. You can contact her at her main site, cathycanen.com, where she coordinates her writing and tutoring services.

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