Portrait of a Learner 9-12

Systems Change

Critical Thinking

Factor Connections

Hover to see how factors connect to Critical Thinking. Then click connected factors to explore strategies related to multiple factors.

Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate information and consider ideas across different perspectives, to make decisions and solve problems. It is purposeful and reasoned thinking about what information is being presented, who is presenting it, and in what context. Learners who think critically ask thoughtful questions, and consider multiple forms of evidence when drawing an inference. Critical Thinking involves many reasoning processes and cognitive skills that are important for preparing learners for their future roles as active, participating members in a society. Adolescence is a developmental period marked by cognitive changes that influence Critical Thinking, including increased ability to think abstractly, use logic, and consider hypothetical scenarios or ideas.

Main Ideas

A critical thinker is an active inquirer who approaches tasks using cognitive and metacognitive skills to effectively navigate their learning environments. When learners are able to think critically, they are better able to make thoughtful decisions and solve problems using relevant skills and processes, such as analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information. It is important to note that learners do not fully develop Critical Thinking skills naturally on their own; Critical Thinking must be fostered, and is best developed when explicitly taught within a specific subject or domain (e.g. math, literacy, science, history, etc.), as the specific Critical Thinking skills needed in a given context may vary across domains. In adolescence Critical Thinking becomes a key building block to thinking about issues of social justice.

Critical thinking skills are also particularly important in digital settings. Learners entering high school typically already use multiple forms of media, including social media. Yet despite their familiarity with these platforms, learners still require support in navigating these spaces with a critical lens, especially with the rise of mis/dis-information. As learners sharpen their Critical Thinking skills in academic contexts, educators should encourage and scaffold learners in applying these skills in digital spaces, supporting learners' online behaviors and out of school literacy practices. Because adolescents increasingly formulate their individual identities and opinions based on information gleaned online, instilling Critical Thinking in online spaces is especially important in adolescence.

Providing students with opportunities to use Critical Thinking skills when encountering specific problems, such as presenting learners with complex situations that they must structure and work through, can help them recognize and internalize these skills and empower learners to use these skills on their own. Importantly, supporting the development of Critical Thinking is most effective when learners are solving real-world problems, through experimentation, scientific inquiry, simulations, or role play. This active learning connects to learners' interests and values and engages Curiosity to better understand the world in which they live. Providing environments for productive discussion and dialogue about complex concepts, including texts from multiple perspectives and varied sources of information, and encouraging diverse perspectives and inquiry in the classroom, allows learners to think critically and flexibly, both within and across disciplines and domains. It is important to provide the appropriate scaffolding and sufficient time to ensure that all learners, particularly those with ADHD who may have delayed maturation of their executive functions, and those with difficulties with Speed of Processing, have the time and level of support they need to engage with complex concepts and use and grow their Critical Thinking skills.

Learn More

View Measures and References