What exactly is critical thinking? Do we know how to define it, or better yet, to foster it in those we are teaching? In her article, “Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Practical Points,” Dr. Linda B. Nilson aptly describes how critical thinking can be encouraged and successfully practiced in the classroom.
Nilson recognizes there is much confusion in scholastics when it comes to delineating what precisely makes thinking “critical.” However, she also sees a commonality of thought in the literature surrounding the topic. Dr. Nilson draws from these unified principles to outline a number of practical, open-ended questions to ask when attempting to foster critical thinking. Such questions include:

  • What is your interpretation/analysis of this passage/data/argument?
  • What are your reasons for favoring that interpretation/analysis? What is your evidence?
  • How well does your interpretation/analysis handle the complexities of the passage/data/argument?
  • What is another interpretation/analysis of the passage/data/argument? Any others?
  • What are the implications of each interpretation/analysis?
  • Let’s look at all the interpretations/analyses and evaluate them. How strong is the evidence for each one?
  • How honestly and impartially are you representing the other interpretations/analyses? Do you have a vested interest in one interpretation/analysis over another?
  • What additional information would help us to narrow down our interpretations/analyses?

Dr. Nilson insightfully points out that in addition to providing students with such thought-provoking questions, an educator also needs to facilitate a venue where such processing can happen. Such opportunities might include classroom discussion times, debriefing of complex cases, simulations, or role plays. And Nilson is quick to recognize that this learning space is only as effective as the educator’s willingness to also engage and model critical thinking to the students:

“Students need to see us showing the courage to question our own opinions and values, the fair-mindedness to represent multiple perspectives accurately, and the open-mindedness to entertain viewpoints opposed to our own. When we do this, we should let students know that we are practicing critical thinking.”

The application of Linda Nilson’s rich insight reaches far beyond the four walls of the classroom and into the world of innovation. Just as Systematic Inventive Thinking is critical to innovation, critical thinking is the platform on which SIT stands. Critical thinkers can be the best innovators when they create thoughtful, template-based products that stand the test of time.