Holding politicians accountable, choosing the right friends and doing advanced math. Depending on who you ask, these actions may require a common denominator: the ability to think critically.
In college, students make important decisions, get exposure to different world views and hone skills in their academic fields of interest. Students can prepare to make the most of their college experience by becoming better critical thinkers while still in high school.
What Is Critical Thinking?
Scholars sometimes differ in how they describe and define critical thinking.
Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, says someone using the term could mean one of two things. They could mean thinking at times when others might not, like when someone considers the writer’s viewpoint after reading a newspaper commentary. Or, they could mean thinking sharply when solving problems or completing tasks, Willingham says.
“The way you would want to approach these two types of critical thinking really differs,” Willingham says. “If there were a formula for getting kids to think critically, we’d be using it in schools.”
David Hitchcock, professor emeritus of philosophy at McMaster University in Canada, wrote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on critical thinking and “came to the conclusion that it’s not really a specific kind of thinking. It’s just good thinking. It’s reflective thinking, careful thinking, rational thinking.”
And it’s important regardless of how one may choose to describe it, experts say.
“Given that critical thinking allows you to arrive at beliefs and actions that are beneficial, it seems that it is actually vital to anyone,” says Eileen Gambrill, professor of the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare.
Ways to Develop Critical Thinking Skills
Here are six ways high school students can develop critical-thinking skills before college:
- Build your domain-specific skillset.
- Conduct experiments.
- Question your presumptions.
- Read books written by critical thinkers.
- Start a critical thinking club.
- Talk to peers with different perspectives.
Build Your Domain-Specific Skillset
People who view critical thinking as someone’s ability to use problem-solving skills to complete tasks can become better critical thinkers by improving their fundamental understanding of the subject they are studying, Willingham says.
“Think about the different domains that students study – science, literature and math, for example. These domains have different definitions of what it means to understand something,” he says. You sort of have to respect those distinctions among the domains.”
High school students who complete lab assignments as part of science courses are familiar with experimentation. Hitchcock outlines that as one of numerous mental processes that make up the critical thinking process.
Experimenting involves seeking answers, which requires open-mindedness. Hitchcock recommends that students investigate topics they find interesting.
“If you’ve got an issue that’s important to you personally, inquire into it in a personal way,” he says. “Don’t get in the habit of jumping to conclusions. Consider alternatives. Think it through.”
Question Your Presumptions
“Most of us are ignorant about things,” Gambrill says. “Anything that students assume they know, they can start questioning.”
Students have presumptions, which form over time when they accept something they hear as truth. Critical thinkers challenge ideas presented by leaders, such as teachers and politicians, Gambrill says.
“Authoritarians love people who can’t think critically,” she says.
Read Books Written by Critical Thinkers
Reading books that challenge norms can help high school students understand how the mind of a critical thinker works. Doing so can help them realize that knowledge “is in a constant state of flux,” Gambrill says.
Gambrill recommends “Teachers Without Goals, Students Without Purposes” by Henry Perkinson, a book that challenges traditional notions of education and teaching.
Start a Critical Thinking Club
“Critical thinking is, in fact, very dangerous,” she says. “Asking questions is often viewed as a really bad thing, when in fact it is the essential thing.”
Some students may be worried about asking critical questions in a classroom setting. Gambrill recommends they start a student-run club at their high school to facilitate conversations driven by open-mindedness.
Teachers can also create classroom atmospheres that encourage students to ask critical questions, she says.
Talk to Peers With Different Perspectives
Much like in college, students in high school can meet peers who have opposing viewpoints. Considering alternative viewpoints can help students become better critical thinkers, experts say.
“Cultivate conversations with people who think differently,” Hitchcock says. “Try to understand the thought processes of people who come at issues in a different way than yourself. Get an appreciation for the variety of ways you can think about something.”