The ability to think critically will be essential in workplaces of the future.

That's according to the Ontario Ministry of Education, which put a renewed focus on critical thinking in new curriculum guidelines issued for elementary schools this spring.

Garfield Gini-Newman, a professor with the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, is an expert on the pedagogy of critical thinking and ways to embed it in classrooms from kindergarten to graduate school. Below he explains just what parents can expect from this new curriculum and why it's so important for their kids.

What is Critical Thinking?

"To think critically is to make reasoned assessments or judgments using criteria to guide in our deliberations," he says. "We really should not see critical thinking as a 'skill' but rather a way of learning and a competence to nurture. When we see critical thinking as a skill, it becomes one of many to address in teaching. We need to see critical thinking as the foundation for powerful learning. There is not an activity in teaching that could not be approached in a critically thoughtful manner. Even asking students to remember to put a title on their report can be tweaked to ask for an effective title that is informative, concise and captivating."

How Can Critical Thinking Be Taught at School?

Everything students and teachers  do in schools can be framed in a thoughtless or thoughtful way, he says. "Asking students to copy notes from a board is a thoughtless task that has students passively receiving information," he says. "Asking students to select three least useful statements to not copy down would transform a note-taking exercise from a thoughtless to critically thoughtful task. Everything we do with students from reading for meaning, to decoding an image to writing a persuasive paragraph or creating a compelling poster are invitations to think critically."

However, merely providing opportunities to engage in critical thinking is insufficient, Gini-Newman says. Students need help to develop the tools to successfully think critically, he says. Important questions for parents and teachers to consider include:

  • Do students have enough background knowledge of the subject at hand?
  • Can they identify the criteria they need to guide their thinking?
  • Do they understand the nature of the challenge before them?
  • Do they have they thinking strategies to help them gather, organize, sort and see connection among the evidence?
  • Do they have the dispositions of good thinker, e.g. do they have perseverance, attention to detail and empathy?
Is Critical Thinking a New Idea in Ontario Schools?

"No, critical thinking as a goal in education has been around for many generations," he says. "What is new is the recognition that critical thinking is important for all students, not just the 'academically gifted' and university-bound students." Also, there is a new recognition that kids need to be explicitly taught the tools required to think critically."

Why is Learning to Think Critically Important?

If we want kids to be able to truly understand what they learn and be able to apply that understanding to new situations, critical thinking is fundamental, Gini-Newman says. "Students who learn from rote, didactic teacher-driven lessons are less likely to retain and be able to apply learning," he says.

It's also important to not teach kids in this 'transmissive' manner (teacher simply giving students information), only to expect them to be able to think critically later on. "(That's) not only unfair to students, it is ineffective in nurturing a disposition for critical inquiry," he says.

How Will Jobs of the Future Require Critical Thinking?

The industrial age required workers to be able to replicate information and comply with rules, so that was the goal of the school system, he says.

"In a post-industrial economy and a digital world, replication and compliance will not longer suffice," he says. "In today's world we need children who can apply their learning to solve complex problems, propose innovative solutions, and work collaboratively to deepen their understanding."

Tips on Honing Critical Thinking Skills at Home

Below, Gini-Newman shares his top tips for parents on how to hone critical thinking in kids at home.

  1. Avoid asking list questions e.g. what did you do in school today? Instead invite a conversation with a provocative question like "What was the most useless thing you did in school today?" Explore why they found the learning useless. How could it have been more useful?
  2. Routinely invite children to identify and share the criteria they could use to help them make a reasonable decision.
  3. When helping with homework avoid the temptation to provide an answer. If stuck, provide 3 answers for your child to consider then discuss why your child thinks a certain answer is best.