Strengthen critical thinking skills

Strengthen critical thinking skills


Good teaching and learning goes beyond the acquisition of facts and knowledge to support critical thinking. Within our “information age”, strong critical thinking skills increase the range of work students are capable of tackling and help support self-actualization. Research by the Project Zero team at Harvard University identified three key components for developing strong critical thinkers:

  1. Ability.  Directly teaching processes related to problem solving, debating, analyzing, evaluating, and creating helps students understand the steps involved in tasks that require higher-order thinking. Further, nurturing learning dispositions — such as open-mindedness, curiosity, reflection, creativity, organization, and perseverance — facilitates the development of critical thinking skills.
  2. Inclination. Even if students already possess critical thinking skills, it does not guarantee that they will use them. Researchers found that students need to care about the material they are being asked to analyze or evaluate. Culturally responsive lessons work to engage students in meaningful and relevant contexts. Students learn, process, and apply new information more effectively when lessons draw from cultural schemas and background knowledge that leverages existing neural pathways (Hammond, 2014).
  3. Sensitivity. Finally, students must understand when it is appropriate to use a particular set of thinking skills. For example, students might learn a process for making a thoughtful decision and might successfully execute this process when directed by a teacher. However, they may not be able to independently identify opportunities to use that process in other contexts. Researchers found that of the three elements, this is the one missing most often. Regularly using scaffolds, thinking maps, or thinking routines provides students with specific tools for processing complex information. Adults can build sensitivity with students by reflecting on situations both in and out of school where they can apply each tool.


  • In a study of English Language Learners, teachers used thinking routines to help students visualize their thought processes. As a result, students became more engaged in class, were better able to make connections within content, dug deeper in their learning, came up with new ideas more easily, and were better able to express themselves in English. Additionally, teachers found it easier to witness students’ thinking processes and recognize students’ misconceptions about content (Dajani, 2016).
  • At an elementary school, students have performed better on state and district tests on reading, writing, and social studies since adopting Visible Thinking approaches in the classroom. In another case, high school students reported that thinking routines helped them structure their thoughts before writing on state tests, which boosted their confidence (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2008).
  • Action research conducted with 8th graders showed that Thinking Maps broadened critical thinking skills and enhanced students’ understanding of content. The maps promoted more strategic thinking and an organizational strategy that allowed them to form more meaningful connections with the material (Long & Carlson, 2011).
  • Extended small group discussions that involved constructing academic ideas with others enabled a student body (73% ELL and 88% qualifying for free & reduced price lunch) to become more independent thinkers and speakers, improve writing and critical thinking skills, increase participation, and use academic vocabulary to answer questions (Zwiers & Crawford, 2009).
  • A crucial component of culturally responsive teaching is developing a “toolkit of techniques that act as cognitive scaffoldings for students working to understand content” (Hammond, 2013).


It is helpful to teach content and cognitive skills separately until complex thinking processes become routine. Otherwise the cognitive load for students can be too heavy. Each of the set of routines linked below can be introduced using these steps:

  1. Identify the cognitive skill to teach
  2. Select a relevant thinking routine to scaffold this thinking skill
  3. Practice using the routine with engaging, low stakes material
  4. Debrief and reflect
  5. Use the routine with standards-based content

Project Zero’s Thinking Routine Toolbox

Thinking Routines from the Agency by Design project (with Spanish companions)

13 Strategies for Making Thinking Visible in the Classroom

Thinking Maps: A Shared Visual Language for Learning

Sentence Stems for Academic Conversations


Dajani, M.M.Y. (2016). Using thinking routines as a pedagogy for teaching English as a second language in Palestine. Journal of Educational Research and Practice,  6(1). 1-18.

Hammond, Z. (2013, March 22). Using call and response to deepen thinking, part I. Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain. 

Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Corwin Press.

Long, D., & Carlson, D. (2011). Mind the map: How thinking maps affect student achievement. Networks: An Online Journal for Teacher Research, 13(2).

Ritchhart, R., & Perkins, D. (2008). Making thinking visible. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 57-61.

Tishman, S. [Project Zero]. (2019, June 21). Thinking dispositions [Video]. YouTube. 

Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2009). How to start academic conversations. Educational Leadership, 66(7), 70-73.