Promoting Critical Thinking in Math
Critical thinking is more than just an educational term. Experts have shown that it is an essential skill needed for students to be able to logically process concepts and become effective problem-solvers. While it is important for students to learn mathematical skills, facts, and vocabulary, critical thinking skills provide the avenue for students to use that knowledge in various real-life situations. Also, if you consciously follow Bloom’s Taxonomy (the original or revised versions) in your classroom, you’ll see how critical thinking plays a key role throughout learning. Here are a few ideas to promote critical thinking within your classroom:
- Use language that supports critical thinking: “Why,” “how,” and “if” are keywords that teachers should use to support critical thinking in their math lessons. Instead of allowing students to accept an answer at face value, question them about why that is a logical answer. How do they know their answer is correct? Initially, this might cause some of your kids to become a little anxious, and they’ll probably think their answer is wrong. But as you teach them the importance of explaining/defending their answer, this can help them become more confident and be more apt to use critical thinking skills. Need ideas of what questions to ask? Check out this article from Cambridge University.
- Teach how to solve word problems and practice the skill regularly: If you were to poll your students on their least favorite part of a math assignment, the majority would probably express their dislike of word problems the most. Why? Because word problems make you think harder (and how dare we ask our kids to think, right?) Most students prefer factual problems where they know exactly which numbers they’re computing and the sign tells them what to do with those numbers. However, word problems require critical thinking skills that aren’t always natural for students. So teaching them how to solve word problems is a crucial skill. What is the problem asking? What are the keywords students need to look for that direct them to add, subtract, multiply, or divide? Is there extra information they need to overlook because it is not necessary to solve the problem? These are all critical thinking skills that have to be taught and practiced for students to become competent at solving word problems. Word walls and vocabulary notebooks are a great way to continuously expose children to those keywords they’ll need to be on the lookout for when solving word problems.
- Determine where a mistake occurred and how to fix it: We all make mistakes, especially in math. That’s why our pencils have erasers! It is important to be able to review a problem, find where the mistake occurred, and then take the steps to fix the mistake. Many times our students (and ourselves, if we’re honest) see a wrong answer and think, “It’s wrong. Oh well, move on.” Sometimes as teachers, we might take the time to analyze why the answer is incorrect to be able to help our students learn from their mistakes. But it is important to teach them those same skills to be able to fix their own mistakes. One way to practice this is to have students check their own or a peer’s answers using reverse computation skills (addition/subtraction and multiplication/division). While not every answer needs to be checked, it would be beneficial to practice regularly enough that students become effective and comfortable in using necessary critical thinking skills to analyze and correct their answers. Want to remove the personal emotional aspect of wrong answers? Have them correct pre-made problems with errors as a part of activities like warm-up or exit questions.
- Analyze graphs and interpret data: Another part of math that requires critical thinking skills is analyzing graphs and interpreting data. What do those dots, lines, and pictures mean? How can graphs and data be used to visually present and compare information? These are critical thinking skills students need to be taught and practice regularly.
- Use peer tutors, student teachers, or “turn and talk”: This helps students present their knowledge one-on-one to a peer instead of in front of the whole class. It promotes discussion on a student level. One method is to have a partner pretend to be the teacher and the other partner pretend to be a student in a lower grade. The “teacher” can then explain the math skill or word problem to their “student.” Another option is to train your students using the “turn and talk” method. This means they turn to an assigned partner sitting near them to either solve a word problem together or work on it separately and then explain their answers to each other.
Do your students need extra problem-solving and application practice? ORIGO’S Think Tanks are the perfect resource for all students. Think Tanks save teachers time by providing 12 imaginative sets of 20 task cards that increase in difficulty for scaffolded independence. Think Tanks complement any curriculum and are suitable for any setting: whole group, small group, or independent work.