The Truth about What is True: Teaching Students How to Think

This just in:

  • Inner-city crime in the United States is reaching record levels. (Source: Donald Trump).
  • You are three times more likely to be able to get a mortgage if you’re a white applicant than if you’re a black or Hispanic, even if you have the same credentials. (Source: Hillary Clinton)
  • Due to a shortage of men, Iceland will pay $5,000 per month to immigrants who marry Icelandic women. (Source: Email from a random person.)
  • If you say “Candyman, Candyman, Candyman” in the closet with your lights off, the candyman will stick a poisonous lollypop up your mouth and it will kill you. (Source: My 9-year-old daughter’s friend).

    Tough and scary times, isn’t it?  Especially for those lonely single women in Iceland. Fortunately….

None of the statements are true.

But, how do you know? Or, for that matter, how do you know if anything you hear or read is true? The ability to discern fact from fiction is not a new idea or a new skill. It’s called critical thinking. And yet, the skill could never be more important in an era of 24/7 news cycles, social media, a tangled Web of information that can support almost any position on any issue, and complex issues facing our world. As Nobel Laureate and chemist, Harold Kroto recently stated, “I think the most important thing that young people should be taught at school is how they can decide what they’re being told is true.”  

And, yet, if you ask 10 people what critical thinking means, you will probably get 10 different answers. The operational definition that I’ve come to like is this one discussed in the Critical Thinking Web tutorials hosted by University of Hong Kong’s philosophy professor, Joe Lau:

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • understand the logical connections between ideas
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

For a more detailed explanation, see Lau’s companion text.

Being a good critical thinker is not the same as being cynical. A good critical thinker doesn’t dismiss everything they read or give equal weight to two sides of an issue. Instead, they recognize that nearly all information is shared from a specific vantage point and that conclusion may often omit contradictory facts or acknowledge certain assumptions. So, rather than being closed-minded to the beliefs, facts, and position of someone else, a good critical thinker remains open to the beliefs — testing the thoughts against other evidence and reason. In other words, a good critical thinker is not just good at making a case for their own position on an issue. They are thoughtful, experimental, and good at being convinced.

More thoughtful. More experimental. More open-minded. I know that is something that I wish for my kids. So, here are just a few suggestions on how we might strengthen critical thinking activities for all students:

Ask open-ended questions

         Here are some thinking stems that might help get you started:

  • What do you predict…
  • Do you agree or disagree…
  • What can you infer…
  • What would you do if…
  • What do you think would…
  • What if we…
  • Is it possible that…
  • How might we…
  • Why did…

Teach students how to make and support a claim

I’ve increasingly noticed that students are turning to Google for their answers. They aren’t just using Google to find information to shape their thinking. They are using Google to replace their thinking.

Should the US have used an atomic bomb in WWII?
What is the perfect location of a bunt in a baseball game?
What does this passage in To Kill a Mockingbird mean?

If you ask students these questions, I fear that the most common responses will look strikingly similar to Google’s top search results. Instead of repeating the findings from a search engine’s algorithm, challenge students to form their own opinions by having them answer three key questions:

     a) ClaimWhat do you think? Students state an opinion about an issue. 

     b) EvidenceWhy do you think that? Students describe the details that they see (through reading or observations) or have personally experienced.

     c) ReasoningHow do you know this? Students provide a logical explanation of how the evidence supports their claim.

To go further, you might ask students to note exceptions (or qualifiers) to their thoughts and perhaps also note what questions they still have about the topic.

This is a strategy that is transferable to all ages and all subject areas. See this video for examples of how this might look in an elementary classroom.

Encourage students to become better at forming good questions

I get that students must master the academic standards, and I’m not suggesting that they always have open reign on what problem they want to solve. But, I’ve found that we have fallen into the trap of giving students all the information that they need to solve a problem and then asking them to find the one unknown. And, then we become frustrated when they start to tune out or fail to master the question we handed them.

The real world doesn’t come so neatly packaged. Most problems come lumped with tons of information that may not be helpful and missing information that is needed. To illustrate my point, here’s a classic problem listed on that will probably make all those with an aversion to math begin to squirm a little from their memories of math class.

Train A, traveling 70 miles per hour (mph), leaves Westford heading toward Eastford, 260 miles away. At the same time Train B, traveling 60 mph, leaves Eastford heading toward Westford. When do the two trains meet? How far from each city do they meet?

What if we instead began that lesson with a picture of two trains pointed at each other and simply ask the following: “What are some questions that we could possibly ask about this scenario that math would help us answer? What information would we need to figure out the answer?”  


Over time, by modeling how an inquisitive mind views the world, students will see that the math is not just about artificial, manufactured problems about trains on a track, but instead is the language that explains their surroundings and the world.

(For more on this idea and profound, but practical, ideas on how this relates to teaching math, view this video and check out more resources by Dan Meyer.)

The same principle is true in all subject areas at all grade levels. Whether we are discussing The Scarlet Letter, introducing photosynthesis, or learning the primary colors, we have the incredible opportunity to not only have students learn new information but also we have the opportunity for them to see that a learner is always gathering and testing new information against what they previously learned.

I think Atul Gawande perhaps said it best in his commencement address at the California Institute of Technology this past summer:

You are supposed to have skepticism and imagination, but not too much. You are supposed to suspend judgment, yet exercise it. Ultimately, you hope to observe the world with an open mind, gathering facts, and testing your predictions and expectations against them. Then you make up your mind and either affirm or reject the ideas at hand. But you also hope to accept that nothing is ever completely settled, that all knowledge is just probable knowledge.

Imagine a world where students were endlessly curious and seeking better answers, not just to the problems on the board, but the problems in their own lives. Now that’s the world that I want for my two daughters.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll even solve the shortage of men in Iceland.

Looking for strategies to promote critical thinking in your classroom?
Check out our THINK collection on PyxisEdu!

As a former math teacher, I realize now that I was way too caught up on finding good questions myself and grading students on their answers to my questions instead of challenging students to become better at forming good questions.

Written by Brad Fischer