How can we teach critical thinking in school?

young students in a classroom listening to their teacher

October 25 marks the start of US Media Literacy Week, a national event to promote a greater understanding of how we consume information and understand the world around us. 

The essential skill here is critical thinking. 

Becoming media literate means developing good judgment and evaluation skills that help you assess how reliable new information is based on the knowledge you already have.

With access to almost limitless sources of information online, studies suggest that this is something many people find difficult. 

Only 26% of Americans feel confident in their ability to identify fake news.

While 67% agree that seeing fake news causes confusion.

In this context, critical thinking is an essential skill for today’s students.

To better understand critical ways of thought, we will dive into the following 4 factors: 

1.  What is critical listening?

2. How can we teach critical listening?

3. What is critical thinking?

4. What habits promote critical thinking? 

1. What is critical listening?

Critical listening is a process of evaluating, assessing, and forming an opinion on things you hear.

This could be either during a conversation or when listening to a video or audio recording.

As more students integrate live video learning into their studies, and textbooks start to look like an old-school option, critical listening is an increasingly important skill.

The overall goal is to understand what the speaker is telling you, and then form your own opinion of the subject based on a reasonable evaluation of the information.

This could mean considering whether the person or source you’re listening to has a reason to look at an issue from a specific angle, and the reaction they are trying to elicit from their audience. 

It also means assessing the information you hear based on your own knowledge and beliefs.

2. How can we teach critical listening?

The key to critical listening is understanding the purpose and perspective of the person you are listening to and how these may impact the overall message they are sharing. 

Students can learn critical listening, and teachers can encourage this with some simple listening and discussion exercises.

For example, choose a recording to listen to in which the speaker has a particular position on the topic they are talking about, and let students know they are going to listen to the recording three times.

First, ask students to listen to the recording all the way through, and then discuss their initial impressions with a partner or group.

Then, introduce the following categories, and tell students they will listen again, making notes about each of the following: context, audience, purpose, values, and style.

For longer or more complex texts, you might want to give students a transcript, before they listen.

After listening for a second time, ask students to discuss the text again as a group. 

What have they written under each category? Which key moments in the recording gave them insight into the speaker’s perspective and purpose?

Listen to the recording a final time, asking students to write down ideas and statements in the recording they agree and disagree with. After listening, ask students to share their thoughts on this, and whether their opinion of the recording changed between the first and last listening.

3. What is critical thinking?

In 1910 American philosopher John Dewey first put forward the idea of critical thinking as an educational goal. 

He said the practice was the “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends.”

In other words, it means not just teaching students what to think, but how to think.

Critical thinking is similar to critical listening but understood in a broader context as it can apply to things students read, see, hear, and more. 

It means being able to evaluate information in order to form a judgment on the quality of that information. Skilled critical thinkers are then able to come to logical and informed conclusions about the world around them.

Doing so requires abilities such as observation, analysis, inference, self-awareness, problem-solving, and open-mindedness, all of which can be learned and taught.

4. What habits promote critical thinking? 

Critical thinking is a practice that can be developed over time, and forming good habits is a great way to do this.

Self-reflection is a good place to start, as in order to understand how we process information we first need to understand our own biases. This could mean being aware of how our own politics, life experiences, and feelings might influence how we react to new ideas.

Next up, get into the habit of asking simple questions about new information you come across. What do you already know about the topic and how do you know it? How does the new information fit in with your existing knowledge? Are there things you might be overlooking?

Finally, put yourself in other people’s shoes. Who or what is the source of the information and why are they sharing it? How might their beliefs or goals influence the information being shared? 

This might sound simple but it can be hard to look beyond our own perspectives, doing so sometimes means confronting ideas that we find uncomfortable.

Getting into the habit of questioning ourselves and the world around us in order to evaluate ideas fairly, regardless of our personal feelings, is all part of critical thinking.

How can I promote media literacy in my school?

Opportunities for getting students to question the world around them are everywhere. 

As an educator, you can encourage students to ask questions, verify sources and think about how what they read and hear fits with their worldview no matter what subject you are teaching.

Or you can turn to the experts with Skooli’s critical listening tutors, who are vetted educators and subject matter specialists. 

In doing so you’ll be working in pursuit of a prized educational goal, and giving your students skills that will be invaluable in the classroom, and beyond.

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