Monday, September 20, 2010

Critical Thinking is Critical

A few years ago I was selected for jury duty. As the lawyers were interviewing potential jurors, details of the trial were somewhat revealed. We learned, among other things, there would be DNA evidence and that the trial would probably take several days.

When the lawyers finally got to me, they asked me if I watched television shows like "CSI" and "Law and Order." When I said "yes," they asked me if I thought all evidence could be collected, analyzed, and conclusions drawn in a one hour show. If I remember correctly, I said that I knew television shows had to condense story lines for their viewers and that the actual processes took weeks or maybe even months. The interviewing lawyers called it the "CSI Effect" and said that many people think that all evidence, investigations, arrests, and trials should only take short amounts of time. They also made clear that the science and technologies on television dramas, while possible, were usually far more advanced than what anyone would find in real life.

At the time I thought how sad it was that the lawyers had to take time to tell prospective jurors that television shows are not real; they are television shows; they are stories. Obviously, the lawyers had learned that many people called to jury duty do not have the critical thinking skills to realize that television, while based on real-life stories, is not real life. That's kind of sad.

This is one reason why critical thinking skills are so stressed in schools. It also happens to be one of the areas in which students have trouble. The skills include observing, interpreting data, analyzing, making inferences, evaluating, explaining, and coming to accurate judgments. It involves open-minded thinking processes that lead to intelligent conclusions.

It's understandable that students will have some trouble with this kind of thinking because they are still learning to think critically. It is hoped that by the time students leave high school, they will be proficient in these skills. Unfortunately, that is not happening as evidenced by the number of adults who lack these skills. When lawyers have to interview prospective jurors about their critical thinking skills, it's obvious that many adults still need help in this area.

Schools definitely need to do a better job. My first day of high school chemistry, my teacher lit a candle and told us to watch it. We watched it and watched it until it was gone. At the time I thought it was just about the most stupid thing I had ever had to do in school. But then he asked us about our observations. As he wrote them on the chalkboard, we started interpreting what we had seen, we started analyzing and evaluating, we started to explain why the candle burned. This led to a discussion of the chemical processes involved in burning, a discussion of plasma, and how important it is to just observe.

As it turned out, this one activity of watching a candle, led the class into the world of science and critical thinking. Teaching these skills can really be just this simple, but must be done over and over in all subjects. Give students a math problem and let them come up with different ways of solving it. Let them write a story in Language Arts class about an observation they've made, perhaps something they saw on the way to school that morning. Analyze a current event for a Social Studies class and have students come to intelligent judgments of that event. With just a little imagination, the opportunities for teaching critical thinking skills are limitless.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Karen,

    Thanks for the post on critical thinking. You're right; it's sorely missed in today's world. I think there are a couple of reasons that they're missing. You hint at one of them...teachers today feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content they're responsible for teaching. Class time becomes a race to get through it all, at the expense of discussion time (or candle-watching time).

    The other reason that students are leaving school unequipped with the thinking skills they'll need is this: teachers haven't had a surefire method for teaching them. Yes, there are lists like Bloom's Taxonomy. And you put together a short list of general behaviors (observing, interpreting data, analyzing, making inferences, evaluating, explaining, and coming to accurate judgments) that involve thinking. I'm always at a loss, though, to tell the difference between a student who is 'evaluating' and a student who is 'coming to accurate judgments.' Aren't they highly related? Maybe they overlap?

    As educators, we haven't been clear in OUR thinking about what thinking is. I've had an opportunity to study under Dr. Derek Cabrera, an educational theorist who has studied thinking, knowledge, and how we build ideas for the past 20 years. His work has resulted in the DSRP Method, a way to teach thinking skills within the context of ANY lesson, with any student, in any grade. For teachers using it, it's changing the way they teach and the way their students see the world. I would encourage educators who are interested in thinking skills (hopefully all educators!) to check out the DSRP Method online at:

    There's also a free course about the research behind the theory available at:

    As a veteran educator, I would love to hear your thoughts about the DSRP Method. I'm pretty sure you would recognize it as great teaching...the kind of teaching your chemistry teacher did in asking you to watch that candle burn (and make finer-grained Distinctions than just "it burned.")