Critical Thinking:
Going Deeper, Aiming Higher

So, just what is critical thinking anyway?

Well, in simple terms, it's higher-order thinking. Remember those top three layers of the New Bloom's Taxonomy? Yep, the créme de la créme—critical thinking is Creating, Evaluating and Analyzing. Critical thinking requires active engagement with content and context. Think: problem solving and reasoning. And it's not just for older children! In fact, young children are born problem solvers and innovators.

Why is it crucial to foster critical thinking early?

Nationally speaking, our educational expectations have risen. For one, the Common Core State Standards demand deeper learning from all students in all subject areas. Depth of learning is only possible when higher-order thinking is engaged. Plus, we know that America's children are falling behind especially in STEM subjects—as early as fourth grade. Yikes! To reverse this trend, we must engage preschool and elementary students in active problem solving, logical thinking and innovation.

In large national surveys, teachers tell it like it is: critical thinking is one of the most difficult skills to teach students in both K-2 and 3-5 grade bands, and textbooks are very weak on teaching this skill. So, where to turn? Well, the good news is that high quality supplemental tools combined with inventive teaching can help fill that gap!

Here are a few ideas to get you started. Go ahead—help your students go deeper and aim higher!

Collaborate & Communicate

Practice 21st Century skills and dig deeper via conversations and collaborative tech projects that help students make connections to their lives.

  • Start each day with a "personal presentation" by 2-3 students. After interviewing the presenters, the rest of the class votes on which story they will report on (in writing) and publish. Use a USB Recorder to capture and upload presentations, and track student improvement over time.
  • Have students use a simple document camera to present (show and speak) collaboratively from a desk.
  • Utilize portable interactive whiteboard technology to capture whole-class experiences wherever they take place throughout your school. One student can take notes on the wall as the class brainstorms or engages in a deep discussion. Then, you can save the files, so you and the students have easy access to the notes later.

  • *Hint: you don't need to overspend on tech tools to achieve higher-order learning! Go for tools that offer good basic features, and then challenge each student to take the learning as far as possible.


This can be a physical creation like building with a "plan" or for a purpose, or it can be creating in a less literal sense.

  • Get "little engineers" constructing with a mechanized building set. They'll need to think critically as they experience key math and science concepts, especially cause and effect, first hand.
  • Practice 21st Century skills with a class blog (format, produce, publish).


Okay kids, take a stand and justify that decision!
  • Instill in children that "Why?" is an awesome question. An awareness of personal bias along with a little skepticism is crucial when it comes to evaluating and authenticating information.
  • Encourage students to conduct micro-evaluations whenever possible. For example, after reading a book about a garden, students could rank their top three plants and explain why they are their favorites. Next, they can come up with a short list of rules for a garden field trip, and then use a class blog to practice posting, reviewing and commenting on the rules.


  • Use graphic organizers to give students opportunities to organize, outline and structure information first, and then have them present their ideas.
  • Reinforce the notion that children should experiment, examine, compare and contrast everything. Conduct mini-experiments in a sensory way or investigate their world up close through amazing lenses.

Make Time for Trial & Error

  • Allow enough time for hands-on activities so students can question and test out many different assumptions related to a concept. Nope, these are not basic identification or matching activities that can be completed quickly!
  • Utilize manipulatives, since they facilitate deeper learning. Yes, they may require a bit more time in the lesson plan, but the pay-off is big, big, big.

Do Some Project-Based Learning

Empower your students by having them respond to a real-life problem or challenge. Rigorous projects help students learn key academic content and practice those 21st Century skills such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

  • Have the class plan a mock trip to a country of their choice. Spend a semester on the project, and then wrap up with a dramatization. They can explore how to book their travel online, apply for their passports, plan each day's itinerary and much more.
  • Hand over to your students a REAL problem that your school or community would like to solve. Maybe your school lunches need a healthy overhaul, or your town library wants to redesign its children's area. Let your students investigate, plan and own the solution...and even participate in implementing it if possible!