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48 Critical Thinking Questions For Any Content Area

by Ashley McCann

Critical thinking is the heart and soul of learning, andin our estimation anywayultimately
more important than any one specific content area or subject matter.

Its also an over-used and rather nebulous phrase how do you teach someone to think? Of
course thats the purpose of education, but how do you effectively optimize that concept into
lasting knowledge and the ability to apply it broadly?

Looking for more resources to teach critical thinking? Check out our critical thinking
curricula resources on TpT.

What Is Critical Thinking?

This question is what inspires the creation of seemingly endless learning taxonomies and
teaching methods: our desire to pin down a clear definition of what it means to think critically
and how to introduce that skill in the classroom.

This makes critical thinking questionswell, critical. As Terry Heick explains in What Does
Critical Thinking Mean?:

To think critically about something is to claim to first circle its meaning entirelyto walk
all the way around it so that you understand it in a way thats uniquely you. The thinker
works with their own thinking toolsschema. Background knowledge. Sense of identity.
Meaning Making is a process as unique to that thinker as their own thumb print. There is no
template.

After circling the meaning of whatever youre thinking critically abouta navigation
necessarily done with bravado and purposethe thinker can then analyze the thing. In
thinking critically, the thinker has to see its parts, its form, its function, and its context.

After this kind of survey and analysis you can come to evaluate itbring to bear your own
distinctive cognition on the thing so that you can point out flaws, underscore bias, emphasize
meritto get inside the mind of the author, designer, creator, or clockmaker and critique his
work.

A Cheat Sheet For Critical Thinking

In short, critical thinking is more than understanding something it involves evaluation,


critiquing, and a depth of knowledge that surpasses the subject itself and expands outward. It
requires problem-solving, creativity, rationalization, and a refusal to accept things at face
value.

Its a willingness and ability to question everything.

The Ultimate Cheat Sheet For Digital Thinking by Global Digital Citizen Foundation is an
excellent starting point for the how behind teaching critical thinking by outlining which
questions to ask.
It offers 48 critical thinking questions useful for any content area or even grade level with a
little re-working/re-wording.
What Does Critical Thinking Mean?

by Terry Heick

This post has been updated from a 2014 post

What does critical thinking mean?

Well, that depends on who you ask. For educators, as a term critical thinking is similar to
words like democracy, global, and organic: You hear people use them all the time, but no
one seems to understand exactly what they mean.

This kind of etymological opacity lends itself to them being misused, fumbled awkwardly,
and abused. Over the long term, such abuse empties it of meaning until we all either throw it
around casually in the middle of an overly complex sentence to bolster our own credibility, or
avoid the term altogether.

If we can, for the purpose of the here and now, agree that critical thinking means something
along the lines of thinking to produce judgment, then were already two thirds of the way to
making some kind of new meaning ourselves here.

Critical thinking is among the first causes for change (personal and social), but is a pariah in
schools for no other reason than it conditions the mind to suspect the form and function of
everything it sees, including your classroom and everything being taught in it.

Of course, critical thinking without knowledge is embarrassingly idle, like a farmer without a
field. They need each otherthought and knowledge. They can also disappear into one
another as they work. Once weve established thatthat theyre separate, capable of
merging, and need one anotherwe can get at the marrow and fear of this whole thing.

More than definition and clarification, we need contextualizationto look around the term as
we use it and see when and how its used, and what kind of reaction it elicits when that
happens. Here, theres a lot to look at: how to teach it, how to assess it, what role it plays in
the learning process, how to use it in misleading school mission statements, how to casually
drop it in classroom walkthroughs or walkthrough documents (in a way that implies Im not
exactly sure how this lesson should be made better, so Ill instead encourage you to
encourage the kids to think critically, or, There is so much abstraction in your class that I
have no idea whats happening but boy theres probably a lot of critical thinking going on).

Criticalthinking.org says that critical thinking is:

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking about any subject, content, or problem in
which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing,
assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-
monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of
excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and
problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and
sociocentrism.

A paper published in 2004 by a professor at Harvard says that definitions for critical thinking
are available in various sources are quite disparate and are often narrowly field dependent,
offering a psychology-based definition as Critical thinking examines assumptions, discerns
hidden values, evaluates evidence, and assesses conclusions.

In the same paper, Philosopher Richard Paul and educational psychologists Linda Elder
define critical thinking as That mode of thinking about any subject, content, or problem
in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of
the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

In education, critical pedagogy and critical thinking overlap almost entirely. The definitions
above, while focus on the thinking, dont focus much on the criticism. In critical thinking, the
thinking is only a strategy to arrive at informed criticism, which is itself is a starting pointing
for understanding ones self and/or the world around you. While in function it can run
parallel to the scientific method, science intends to arrive an an unbiased, neutral, and zero-
human conclusion.

In critical thinking, there is no conclusion; it is constant interaction with changing


circumstances and new knowledge that allows for broader vision which allows for new
evidence which starts the process over again. Critical thinking has at its core raw emotion and
tone.

Intent.

To think critically about something is to claim to first circle its meaning entirelyto walk all
the way around it so that you understand it in a way thats uniquely you. The thinker works
with their own thinking toolsschema. Background knowledge. Sense of identity. Meaning
Making is a process as unique to that thinker as their own thumb print. There is no template.

After circling the meaning of whatever youre thinking critically abouta navigation
necessarily done with bravado and purposethe thinker can then analyze the thing. In
thinking critically, the thinker has to see its parts, its form, its function, and its context. After
this kind of survey and analysis you can come to evaluate itbring to bear your own
distinctive cognition on the thing so that you can point out flaws, underscore bias, emphasize
meritto get inside the mind of the author, designer, creator, or clockmaker and critique his
work.

This clockmaker that has made this clock.

This poet that has conjured this poem.

This scientist that has worked for months on this study to prove or disprove this ambitious
theory.

This historian that has contextualized this historical movement in a series of documents and
artifacts that now deserve contextualization of their own.

To think critically requires you to aggregate knowledge, form some kind of understanding,
get inside the mind of the clockmaker, judge their work, and then articulate it all for a
specific form (e.g., argumentative essay) and audience (e.g., teacher). Think about what that
means.

Its easy for teachers to see the role of critical thinking in a more macro process. By
analyzing and critiquing the work of othersespecially expertsstudents have to
temporarily merge minds with them (or else theyre just producing conjecture that sounds
smart). By thinking critically, they learn here by imitationfor a moment, running alongside
others who, among other functions, act as pacesetters. By combining this kind of angled
thought with master workers and their works, we force students to dance with giantsor the
holograms of giants.

The tone here is intimidating for developing thinkersor should be anyway. Its a tone that is
simultaneously intellectual, collaborative, and defiant. It says, Ive come to understand this
complex thing worthy of studywhich probably represents a more significant achievement
than anything Ive ever produced in my lifeand then bring judgment upon it. I am both
capable of all of this, and willing to do it in a way that itself will be judged.

This is the kind of courage that takes years to grow.

https://www.teachthought.com/critical-thinking/the-courage-for-critical-thinking/
What Is The Cognitive Load Theory? A Definition For Teachers

by Terry Heick

Preface: Im (very clearly) not a neurologist. While I often have dedicated a lot of thought
and research into things I write, sometimes I write about things in order to understand them
or understand them better. This is one of those times. Caveat emptor.

Generally, the Cognitive Load Theory is a theory about learning built on the premise that
since the brain can only do so many things at once, we should be intentional about what we
ask it to do.

It was developed in 1998 by psychologist John Sweller, and the School of Education at New
South Wales University released a paper in August of 2017 that delved into theory. The paper
has a great overviewand even stronger list of citationsof the theory. They also, obviously,
define and explain it:

Cognitive load theory is based on a number of widely accepted theories about how human
brains process and store information (Gerjets, Scheiter & Cierniak 2009, p. 44). These
assumptions include: that human memory can be divided into working memory and long-
term memory; that information is stored in the long-term memory in the form of schemas;
and that processing new information results in cognitive load on working memory which
can affect learning outcomes (Anderson 1977; Atkinson & Shiffrin 1968; Baddeley 1983).

Put another way, the Cognitive Load Theory says that because short-term memory is
limited, learning experiences should be designed to reduce working memory load in
order to promote schema acquisition.

Since both cant be done well at the same time, teachers can be specific about not just what is
being learned (e.g., content knowledge versus procedural knowledge) and the sequence of the
learning (e.g., learn about a thing, then how that thing works, then how to use that thing
critically and creatively) it is, but also the nature of whats being learned (e.g., domain-
specific knowledge and definitions versus design thinking through knowledge and
definitions).

For example, if you asked a student to critically examine various economic systems (higher-
order thinking) while also defining and making sense of what an economic system was
and how they worked, youd be overloading short-term memory. Because the student doesnt
yet understand economic systems, they would need to consistently access their short-term
memory while processingwhile learning. The concept of economic systems is not yet in
their long-term memory, so as they create knowledge (moving new information into
existing or emerging schema), their short-term memory becomes cluttered because it is the
primary ground zero for the learning.

The student could likely still learn under these circumstances, but the instructional design in
this scenario is non-optimalthe student would literally be fighting the way their brain works
in order to learn.

Or so says the Cognitive Load Theory anyway.


Of course, a teacher doesnt want students fighting an uphill battle just to acquire new
knowledge. We want students to grapple with complexity, but thats very different than
defying neurology.

Another (Slightly Longer) Definition For Cognitive Load Theory

Wikipedia has one of the best (though slightly longer) definitions for the Cognitive Load
Theory Ive seen.

Cognitive load theory provides a general framework and has broad implications for
instructional design, by allowing instructional designers to control the conditions of learning
within an environment or, more generally, within most instructional materials. Specifically, it
providesguidelines that help instructional designers decrease extraneous cognitive load
during learning andrefocus the learners attention toward germane materials, thereby
increasing germane (schema-related) cognitive load.

The Theory In Swellers Own Words: A Psychologists Definition

In 1988, Sweller himself wrote that:

Cognitive load theory has been designed to provide guidelines intended to assist in the
presentation of information in a manner that encourages learner activities that optimize
intellectual performance. The theory assumes a limited capacity working memory that
includes partially independent subcomponents to deal with auditory/verbal material and
visual/2- or 3-dimensional information as well as an effectively unlimited long-term memory,
holding schemas that vary in their degree of automation. These structures and functions of
human cognitive architecture have been used to design a variety of novel instructional
procedures based on the assumption that working memory load should be reduced and
schema construction encouraged.

See also Is The Cognitive Load Theory The Most Important Thing Every Teacher
Should Know?

Ultimately, the Cognitive Load Theory also suggests that knowing things is necessary to
think critically about those thingsor at least is most efficient when that is the case.

This further suggests that two of the primary information processing activities here
(knowledge acquisition and problem-solving) should be considered separately, oftentimes
focusing first on schema, then on problem-solving with and through that schema.

Sweller continues, It is suggested that a major reason for the ineffectiveness of problem-
solving as a learning device, is that the cognitive processes required by the two activities
overlap insufficiently, and that conventional problem-solving in the form of means-ends
analysis requires a relatively large amount of cognitive processing capacity which is
consequently unavailable for schema acquisition.

Put another way, the reason problem-solving and domain knowledge arent directly
proportional is because of how the human brain works. Problem-solving takes up crucial
brain bandwidth, reducing whats left to learn new things.
Of course, this has significant implications for how teachers might design lessons, units, and
assessments, and for how curriculum developers use instructional design elements that brain-
based learning.

A Few Thoughts About The Theory

The paper from NSW offers a slightly confusing cognitive load-friendly strategy:

Cognitive load theory supports explicit models of instruction, because such models tend to
accord with how human brains learn most effectively (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark 2006).
Explicit instruction involves teachers clearly showing students what to do and how to do it,
rather than having students discover or construct information for themselves (see Centre for
Education Statistics and Evaluation 2014, pp. 8-12).

Im honestly not sure what to take away from this bitmaybe that the nature of explicit
instruction is Cognitive Load Theory-friendly because students are less frequently
overloading short-term memorymaybe because the teacher is reducing load by modeling
and explaining and being extremely clear and explicit? In which case, the brain is free to
learn the specified learning objective?

That sounds great, but by being so narrow and clear, it leaves very little room for
personalization unless the teacher:

1. Was crystal clearfrom the academic standard to the curriculum map to the unit to the
lesson objectivewhat was was being learned and the cognitive level it was being learned at.
For example, any academic standard that require the student to evaluate the bias in an
authors position, for example, would itself need to be parsed to separate

2. Had fresh and accurate assessment date evaluating the prior knowledge each student came
to that lesson with

3. Designed some way to accommodate a wide variety of existing understandings so that the
load was reduced per student rather than per standard or content topic

And theres zero chance of that happening consistentlywhich suggests education be looked
at with fresh and honest eyes of how the brain works, and everything elsefrom curriculum to
classroomsbe designed in response.

Conclusion

Anyhow, there you are. A definition for and brief discussion of the Cognitive Load Theory.
There are scores and scores of theories worth looking at, but this one stood out to me
because it doesnt mean exactly what it sounds like it means, and in a neat and tidy way, kind
of frames how all teaching and learning most naturally happen: in small movements, building
in small increments of progress until something close to mastery emerges and learners can
see what the value of the learned thing is, and what the true utility of that knowledge might
be.

https://www.teachthought.com/learning/cognitive-load-theory-definition-teachers/