How can we teach critical and creative thinking?

The catalysts for writing this much-procrastinated post are these posts on the same theme by Bianca Hewes (@biancah80) AND this by Giorgio Bertini.

Bianca posed the same question as my title and my immediate answer was – teach them the way you learned to be a critical thinker. Thinking back, I know there were several ways for me though the most influential would be learning Information Systems Analysis and Design and Philosophy (and Theology) – both at college/university level. Let me focus on the latter because G Bertini appears to have successfully used philosophy in his classes.

I did enjoy the content of my philosophical and theological studies, some of which have stayed with me even now (as mentioned in About Me). But, it;s not just the content – largely irrelevant and too abstract for kids younger than 15 perhaps. Philosophy as a study of what is fundamental is a way of learning, so-to-speak.

Here are some practices to foster if we are to teach critical and creative thinking.

It is okay to question

Nothing prepared me when my Philo professor asked, “How do you know you’re real? (differentiate reality to a dream and vice versa)”. I was only 16. Moreover, going to a Catholic university, the last question I expected was “Is God real?”. These are heavy questions to contend with and we did study several discourses to answer them. But for this post, what I want to highlight is that with philosophy, you soon learn it is okay to question. More than okay, it is integral. Questioning is that important to philosophy and critical and creative thinking. Asking “what if” is part-and-parcel of the process.

In teaching maths, I’ve tried to instill in my students that it is okay to question what I say or write – in a polite way, of course. I am fallible.

Adjunct to this is that students must feel safe to question. That involves among other things, no put-downs, follow-up, some fun activities (not all activities must be graded or marked), knowing the kids, teacher as facilitator (don’t let them drown in the unknown).

Find different ways to respond

There’s no point asking questions if there is no intent to find answers. As mentioned, we studied various philosophers and theologians – thinkers. All were logical though I have to admit that in theology, I found the discourses into the existence of God ultimately required a leap of faith.  I doubt that any of those would have convinced an atheist, logical or not. The point is, in order to teach thinking, it must be modeled, preferably in various ways and concretely.

In maths, this can take the form of equations but also of diagrams and reasoning (esp. in Geometry). It is worth showing that sometimes there are multiple methods to arrive at the same answer. I also remember when I told my year 9 class about Descartes (cogito ergo sum***) before launching into a lesson on the Cartesian Plane – they were enthralled; sometimes maths is so abstracted that students forget maths is wrought by human hands, or minds, more like.

Encourage group work

We had a lot of group studies, especially in preparation for oral exams. These group studies showed me how limited my thinking was and how through open discussion my thinking expanded and grew. That was learning with and from others outside of the classroom even.

I find that for younger years, it is easier to assign specific roles to play in group work – especially for assessments. I also like to play around with group sizes; mostly I find 2-3 most workable in maths.


***Descartes said: Cogito, ergo sum.  I think therefore I am. I can doubt everything except for the fact that I am thinking now. Thus, my existence is proven by the mere act of thinking. (my extremely simplified version of Descartes’ philosophy on existence)

Do you think these practices would help?

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6 thoughts on “How can we teach critical and creative thinking?

  1. BiancaH80 says:

    Thanks so much for the post! Some wonderful ideas here that I actually do with my students frequently. I guess my issue is having the students transform these trains of thought into concise arguments that are threaded through a compelling essay. Damn subject English, huh?!
    I am a philosophy major – you wouldn’t guess it with all me questions about critical thinking, would you? – and have had some great class discussions regarding Descarte’s Cogito Ergo Sum argument – even better is the Evil Demon argument that I relate to The Matrix, of course!
    I will be rehashing these teaching methods this year – thanks again for putting them in black and white for us!

    • malyn says:

      Thanks Bianca for setting me right on Descartes.

      Thanks, too, for making me feel normal about mentioning Philosophy at all! I was really trying not to sound like prat….I’m not.

      Already, your students are better off because you are trying to find ways to make them learn better.


  2. Lydia Schultz says:

    I really enjoyed your post. I spent 20 years trying to teach college students how to get comfortable asking and answering questions in writing and literature classes. Unfortunately, many of my students (at a small, midwestern US, state university) wanted nothing more than to get a degree and get a job. So I am glad to know that people are working to encourage thinking and analyzing in earlier grades. I am also a parent of a high school senior who loves mathematics and his theory of knowledge class at his IB school. So I know how important it is to get them thinking. Thank you for helping your students find some ways to do so!

    • malyn says:

      Thanks Lydia. There are many, many primary and secondary school teachers (and parents) who purposefully teach thinking – or attempt to. There is much hope for the future.

      not just being an optimist,

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