Developing Critical Thinking through Reflection and Questioning

Student reflecting on what he is learning

Been thinking … about thinking. In psychology, we call this metacognition. While I’m grading tests, I’m thinking about how we develop critical thinking skills. Are some people just “born with it?” Or, do these skills develop because we study certain subjects or because we understand certain concepts? Can my students develop/improve their critical thinking skills by understanding and studying math?

I teach statistics, so of course there are innumerable opportunities to have people think critically. Statistics is a course full of “word problems”….the thing that many students try to avoid. Why do they try to avoid it? Math in “real life” is all about application. Things don’t come in tidy packages with one solution and one process to achieve that solution. Real problems can be messy. There may not be one right solution. You might only be able to find an optimal solution based on what you know now…and it might change later.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy, the text from 2001. Who should read this book? Quite certainly anyone who is concerned about a population ready to meet a world overrun by numbers about the economy and personal finance, health and environmental policies, or voting, etc. Quantitative literacy is not just statistics, by the way. But I do think that critical thinking is entwined with quantitative literacy/statistical reasoning/ problem solving in the classroom. I’ve read countless articles about the need for critical thinking and quantitative literacy and the failure of current education models to deliver QL skills to our students. We know that employers want employees who can think critically. Fortune 500 executives choose critical thinking, collaboration, and communication as highly desired key skills for their employees.

So what we can do to address the need for reasoning? Where do we start? One point of interest is professional teacher education; both pre-service teacher training and ongoing professional development opportunities should include the latest neuroscience research. I do agree with Judy Willis in her article “A Neurologist Makes the Case for Teaching Teachers About the Brain,” on the Edutopia blog.

“There are no more critical life supports than passionate, informed teachers who can resuscitate students’ joyful learning. When educators learn about how the brain appears to process, recognize, remember and transfer information at the level of neural circuits, synapses and neurotransmitters, and when they share that knowledge with students, they share empowerment with their students. Informed teachers help students understand their ability to change their brains and experience success and renewed confidence. Students thrive in classrooms where teachers have the added tools from their neuroscience understanding.”

The more we learn about how learning occurs, the more effectively we can create an environment and structure experiences to support quality learning.

I challenge the media and society at large to rethink how we approach mathematics and those who teach it and love it. Most of the time when someone finds out what I “do,” the response is something along the lines of “Ugh, I hate math/ I always struggled in math/we don’t need math….” and so forth.. Maybe we need to retool our K12 and higher education materials to include and embrace more problem solving based to teach concepts so we can focus more on mental math skills and “thinking outside the box.” Like our muscles, our brain synapses grow and extend with‘ use/exercise. Ever hear the term “productive struggle?” It doesn’t mean that we all need to sit down and do some calculus every day; it does mean we need to take the time to reflect when we read an article or review some data. We have to work at figuring it out. What do the results mean? Is the graph accurate? What variables may not be listed but might affect the results? Is there an optimal solution? Can we use a spreadsheet to sort ideas and values? Did the data come from a normal population or not? If not, was an appropriate analysis run? Did the authors explain the background/context of the problem?

After reading multiple articles about critical thinking, I see one common thread is the need for good questioning. As a critical thinker, you have to regularly dissect your thought process and consider its components. What is the key question? What are the assumptions you use in making a decision? What is your goal? What is your conclusion? Is there one solution, or are there several? What is your perspective? Did you draw a conclusion too soon? Did you miss relevant information? Does your solution exhibit thoroughness? These sound suspiciously like questions I ask in the math classroom, but they apply to a much broader audience than math students. Educators across the curriculum have many opportunities to teach students how to gather and evaluate information while eliminating non-pertinent information. Staff in career centers can help applicants understand the importance of good thinking skills. Fortune 500 executives choose critical thinking, collaboration, and communication as key skills for their employees!

We all encounter people who can’t seem to think critically about situations…not just mathematically, either. They struggle with processing information from different resources, turning a problem around and over and conceptualizing differently, collaborating with others, and/or communicating their thought process effectively. We all struggle with that at times, especially when we’re working outside our “comfort zone.” Can we train ourselves to do this more effectively? Neurological research seems to support that, yes, we can! Read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Dr. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work in cognition. Want some great ideas to improve critical thinking skills? Check out the Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Regardless of your job title, critical thinking is one of the most important skills you can teach yourself and encourage in others.



About the Author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister has been teaching college courses since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned from her full-time position at Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pennsylvania, where all the math courses have undergone some level of redesign. She still teaches online there and now is part of Pearson’s Efficacy team, helping instructors to implement programs and strategies that bolster student success.

She is intrigued by neurobiological research and learning theory, and she was quick to adopt adaptive learning as a new tool in her courses. Not only does she strive to help her students succeed, but Diane enjoys the collaboration with her peers. She has taught a variety of courses and loves learning how new technology and resources can help students be more successful.

Read more of her articles about math, ICTCM, and quantitative reasoning.