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Critical thinking in schools: An overview

Critical thinking in schools: An overview

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Critical Thinking is one of those phrases that gets mentioned often. Some think it is vital that we teach it to students. Others think it’s something that can’t be taught in isolation. We think it’s worth exploring exactly what it is and more importantly, if it is possible to teach it. We’ve done the research and found that arguments for both sides exist.

So, what are the benefits of teaching critical thinking? And what are some common misconceptions?

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What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking can be defined as clear, rational, logical and independent thinking. It involves changing the way we think and analysing situations and events objectively. It can be used to solve problems and promotes self-regulation and mindful communication.

The process of critical thinking is based on a foundation of questioning and further assessment. There is no one way to go about applying critical thinking – however, we have come up with a few steps that we believe are crucial to the process for students:

  • Identify the problem – There needs to be a basis to your critical thinking. So, to start the process, identify an issue or situation that you would like to assess.
  • Gather information – Do the research and gather resources from a range of sources. This will help you develop a deeper understanding of the problem and view it from different perspectives.
  • Question everything – The key to critical thinking is to question the information we’re given and not just take it at face value. Asking the necessary questions will help guide your decision in the next step.
  • Pick a side and validate it – After assessing all the information, you need to decide what you think. Once you’ve chosen a side, make sure you have the relevant knowledge and evidence to back it up!
  • Evaluate – The final step, and one of the most important, is to evaluate your judgement and reasoning behind your decision. This keeps the process of critical thinking going and enhances your self-regulation.
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3 benefits of teaching critical thinking

Academic success

Students who apply critical thinking are able to question the information they’re given and look for the most valid argument. They are also able to formulate their own thoughts on the matter. The core of critical thinking is questioning what you are told instead of just accepting it. This creates independent thinkers who are able to analyse and assess their work to create something that is of their highest potential.


Having critical thinking skills allows students to take a step back and look at a situation from different perspectives. This helps them understand how other people may come to decisions and expand their insights into different types of people. Becoming open-minded can introduce students to more opportunities and enhance their strengths in all aspects of their lives.


Creative thinking is a very important skill that many believe is necessary for students to thrive in schools and beyond. Use of critical thinking can nurture creativity as it pushes us to ask “how” and “why not?”. This encourages students to find different ways to solve problems that are more complex and require a deeper understanding.

Misconceptions about critical thinking

Researchers suggest that critical thinking is not a skill and have argued it is not a set of generic procedures. For example, it cannot be applied to every situation or context: a requirement for using critical thinking is that the individual has background knowledge on the situation. We should teach subject-specific critical thinking, as opposed to generic critical thinking. This will help enhance students’ knowledge and develop a deeper understanding of the details within each topic. Background knowledge for each subject is essential and is the only way that critical thinking will be most effective.

Some may believe that critical thinking is too complex for younger children, when in fact, they have certain advantages over older students. They can bring a fresh perspective to topics because they often don’t have the same doubts and reservations. Instead of waiting to teach your students critical thinking, we would suggest it is worth starting early. This will help them integrate the skill with their learning and soon it will become an almost automatic process that they can continue to apply throughout their education.

Final thoughts

Critical thinking is necessary for all students to learn and apply to their learning and can be especially useful when implemented into learning at an early stage. Be wary of the common misconceptions when it comes to teaching critical thinking so you don’t reduce its effectiveness, and encourage your students to apply the recommended steps when faced with a problem or situation.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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