How can critical thinking be taught?

Robert H. Ennis, University of Illinois, 10/00

1. Throughout, emphasize alertness for alternatives (alternative hypotheses, conclusions, explanations, sources of evidence, points of view, plans).

2. Emphasize seeking reasons and evidence. Frequently ask “Why?” in a non-threatening way, when you agree with them as well as when you don’t — and of course when you are unsure yourself — or are trying to find out what they mean. Another good question is, “Would you say a little more about that?” “Why?” is sometimes threatening, though it is the most concise way to get out the reasons.

3. Emphasize their seeing things from others’ points of view and being openminded — that is willing to reconsider, should other reasons and evidence appear.

4. Students do not need to become subject matter experts before they can start to learn to think critically in a subject. These things can proceed together, each helping the other. Students will learn best the subject matter they use. But ultimately, of course, familiarity with the subject and situation calling for critical thinking is essential for critical thinking.

5. Ask students to discuss questions (in the subject area) to which you do not know the answer, or that are controversial.

6. Give them time to think about it. If you wait long enough, someone will offer an answer.

7. Label that answer with the student’s name, so that the student receives attention and assumes some responsibility. Write the statement on the board (Don’t worry about this wasting time. it gives students a chance to think about it.) Encourage them to speak to each other’s positions, giving reasons. Again give wait time.

8. Get them to write down their positions, giving reasons to support what they think, showing awareness of opposing positions and the weaknesses of their own positions. Limit: two or three pages.

9. Get them to read each other’s, making suggestions. Then get them to revise.

10. Seek other devices to get them to revise their papers. Then you read them.

11. Provide a set of criteria for judging their written position papers. I have enclosed a copy of a set I developed (two versions, one is text only).

12. Try to transfer responsibility for the above to them — for them to use in other situations.

13. Be ready to postpone an assignment, if the previous assignment is not understood. Your worst enemy is trying to cover too much too fast.