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Critical thinking – What is enquiry-based learning and why is it important?

Gavin McLean explores five ways to improve primary pupils' critical thinking skills

  • Critical thinking – What is enquiry-based learning and why is it important?

Critical thinking is an educational methodology that has truly withstood the test of time.

Casting our minds back to Ancient Greece, Socrates created the Socratic method to establish the foundations of critical thinking.

What is critical thinking?

Stemming from a determination to provide a mechanism through which pupils were presented with questions (not answers), this method asks pupils to draw upon inquiry, curiosity, reasoning and self-reflection to define the most suitable answer or way forward.

Skipping forward to more contemporary thinkers, it is relevant to draw upon examples like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, even Martin Luther King, as advocates of critical thinking and inquiry-based learning.

Today though, in our modern and technologically-driven age, and an era of automation where machine-learning does most of the work, a concerted effort needs to be made to ensure this vital skill set continues to be taught in schools.

Yet, how, in the face of education technology can this be achieved and why is it still relevant when automation and AI reigns supreme?

The importance of critical thinking?

Developing critical thinking skills among pupils has a wide range of benefits.

My experience has proven time and again that the earlier this is taught in schools, the better equipped pupils are as they progress through their educational experience.

But why is this? What are the skills and traits that critical thinking develops among learners that makes it so valuable?

First, critical thinking encourages curiosity. Pupils who are taught to think critically inherently have a deeper curiosity about the subjects and topics presented to them in class.

It encourages them to ask important questions about even the simplest of topics, questioning the status quo and discovering a richer level of understanding.

Critical thinking questions

Asking these ‘curiosity questions’ like, ‘What’s happening?’, ‘Why is it important?’, and ‘What’s hidden?’ develops lifelong learners who go on to have a greater appreciation for others’ perspectives and explore issues with a critical eye.

Secondly, and somewhat surprisingly, critical thinking enhances pupils’ creativity.

This follows critical analysis of issues and problem-solving that often calls for creative solutions and thinking ‘outside the box’, which transcend more conventional boundaries.

With critical thinking comes a freedom from obstacles that may hinder those who haven’t developed critical thinking skills, allowing for more constructive outcomes.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of critical thinking is the well-honed problem-solving skills that follow.

Developing critical thinking allows us to make better-informed decisions and use reason to achieve the most effective results.

Assessing problems from all manner of angles and perspectives allows pupils to strategically work through the problem or challenge, consider the pros and cons of different solutions and rationally select the path most likely to succeed.

Keeping the ‘curiosity questions’ in mind, these also apply to the critical thinking approach to problem-solving which considers additional questions such as, ‘Where did this come from?’; ‘How do I know this?’; ‘Why should I trust this source?’; ‘What other information should I consider?’.

All told though, each of these benefits of critical thinking work in tandem to develop independent learners who are empowered to think and make decisions for themselves – an objective that I’m sure all teachers will agree, is central to our job as educators.

How to improve critical thinking skills in primary school

Understanding the importance of introducing critical thinking to primary pupils is one thing, but effective implementation is another.

To help you and your pupils succeed, I’ve compiled five quick and easy ways to place critical thinking at the centre of your classroom:

Plan for critical thinking time

As with all aspects of teaching, planning is key so keep this in mind when planning future lessons by allowing extra time for pupils to test their analytical and critical-thinking skills.

Make connections to the real world

We all know that real-world examples help give pupils greater purpose to their learning, so integrate practical applications and activities that will allow them to see how they can apply their knowledge and skills in real life.

Encourage reflection to think about concepts

Critical thinking isn’t restricted to critiquing the knowledge and views of others, it is also about discovering our personal bias.

For this, I recommend creating an online space where questions, thoughts and ideas can be shared.

This also creates a safe sharing space for pupils who are reluctant to speak up in front of their peers.

Pose questions

Develop your own set of ‘curiosity questions’ and challenge pupils at the end of each class.

This leaves them with something to think about overnight and creates a valuable way of connecting the dots during future lessons.

Equally, you can ask the same question at the beginning of the class, and pupils can use the duration of the lesson to come up with solutions and suggestions, as individuals or collectively.

Get active

Read a statement to your class that has two opposing views. Ask pupils to stand on either side of the room to represent their opinion and move around as their views evolve with each subsequent ‘curiosity question’.

Gavin McLean is international business development director at Edmentum International.

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