Stage 3: Critical Thinking

3 Steps to Improving Thinking

How often do you read a student’s response and think,

“Sigh. It’s sort of getting at what I asked but — wow — it’s vague, superficial or missing key ideas?”

Or how about students who don’t recognize contradictions in their own writing?! We typically try to fix each error in a discrete, non-transferable way. Sometimes we focus on the grammatical mistakes, writing style or content of the piece. We usually don’t get very far in improving the quality. Why? 

The problem isn’t bad writing, it’s bad thinking.

We need a systems thinking approach to solve this problem. We like to use a simple structure to help us manage the process.

improving thinking

Both teachers and students have to become consciously aware of thinking. Once it’s visible we can refine the quality. Then we can increase the sophistication of the thinking by finding out more information, comparing our thinking to that of experts, etc. Nifty, right? I use this every time I plan a lesson. 🙂

Ready for the 3 steps you can take to significantly and systematically improve students’ thinking?

1) Choose a comprehensive and specific construct of what it means to improve thinking. The best we’ve encountered is from the Foundation for Critical Thinking. We’ll go into more detail on their criteria tomorrow.

2) Focus on improving one or two aspects of thinking at a time. Our next three blog posts will give examples of tools we use like this rubric:


3) Ask students to evaluate and improve the quality of their own work according to the criteria. This is often called metacognition, reflection or monitoring thinking.  In other words:

photo credit: Gary Meegan, ICCT, 2010
photo credit: Gary Meegan, ICCT, 2010

Why is critical thinking in Stage 3 of our framework which focuses on curriculum? Because we must make improvement in quality of thinking part of our specific learning goals. We need to assess these just like we assess our other learning goals. Here is an example from a 7th grade exam:


How will systematically improving thinking save the world?

How much better would the world be if most of us asked ourselves questions like these on a regular basis:

  • How do I know what I am saying is true?
  • Am I being selfish right now? Are we being fair to everyone in this situation?
  • What are some of the complexities of this problem?
  • Are we looking at this reasonably?
  • What is our purpose in doing what we are doing?

All of these questions should become a regular part of classrooms and adult meetings in schools. 😉

3 thoughts on “3 Steps to Improving Thinking”

  1. I think that you are absolutely correct that both students and adults can become better thinkers, problem solvers and decision makers. TregoED is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to teaching both students (with the SCAN tool) and adults strategic processes that are built around specific questions. Asking the right questions can help students “See the Issues” “Clarify the Issues” “Ask What’s Important” and “Now, what should be done?” (SCAN). We supply teachers and students with plenty of relevant ideas and scenarios to practice these critical thinking skills. I have found that when you teach students the right questions – and they become a habit of mind- you get better thinking and writing and they learn to see other’s perspectives. You can find a sample critical thinking lesson at .

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