Critical Thinking: How I teach it

Teaching my students to think critically is one of the holy grails that I strive for.  From birth, we are all critical thinkers. As infants, we say “NO” to the tasteless green broccoli mush. As kids, we pester our parents with “WHY” questions. “Why is the sky blue?”  “Why is my hair black?”   As teenagers, we challenge rules laid down by our parents. “Why do I need to be home by midnight?”   Throughout our lives, we naturally ask questions, challenge the opinions of others and form our own opinions.  That’s critical thinking.

Most students intuitively know how to think critically. My challenge is to have my students tap into that raw ability. Apply it in a methodical manner. And communicate that methodical thought process.  In other words, it’s easy to have an opinion, but difficult to support that opinion with principled analysis and even more difficult to communicate that analysis to others.

Simple Analytical Framework

To have students apply critical thinking in a methodical manner, it is important to provide them with a simple analytical framework into which critical thinking is channelled. In teaching law to undergraduate business students, I provide a simple three-step legal analysis: (1) identify the legal issue, (2) state the applicable law, and (3) apply that law to the facts of the case to come to a legal opinion.  This three-step analytical framework can be restated generically so it can be applied to subject matter other than law: (1) identify the issue, (2) state the applicable rule or principle, and (3) apply that rule/principle to the facts of the situation. I ask my students to apply this three-step analysis to fact situations based on real court cases.

To demonstrate this three-step analysis, I provide in class a simple example that most of them are familiar with. “In a baseball game, a hitter hits the ball into the air and then the ball is caught by an outfielder. Do a three-step analysis for the umpire.”  

  1. Issue:  Is the batter out?
  2. Applicable rule:  When the ball is hit by a batter into the air, the hitter is out if the ball is caught by an opposing player without touching the ground.
  3. Apply the rule to the facts:  Since the outfielder caught the ball before it hit the ground, the batter is out.

Communicating the Analysis

To develop their ability to communicate critical thinking, it is important to have students express their thinking in writing. I have students do that in small groups and individually.  In class, my students work in groups of 3 or 4 on case problems. They write up their three-step legal analyses and post it online on Socrative. Everyone’s answers are projected on the screen in class. I ask them to vote on Socrative for the answer that is the best legal analysis. And then I critique the top two or three answers.  No grades are at stake. These are safe opportunities for students to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes.

I also get students to work individually by posting their legal analyses of case problems online in class discussion forums. Feedback is posted by both me and other students in the class.

Critical thinking is a difficult to teach but it is an incredibly important skill that will allow our students to be successful in work and to be contributing citizens in society.

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About Wayland Chau

Post-secondary educator involved in teaching and course design for face-to-face and online learning.
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