By Gina Kennedy

By Gina Kennedy

Ten Easy Ways To Promote Critical Thinking Skills In Your Elementary Classroom

By Gina Kennedy-Brown

In a perfect world, teaching students to think critically at a higher level would be an integral part of any classroom's curriculum.  Whereas, teachers are much more aware of the need to challenge their students at a higher level and have become much better "questioners"; there are many small things we can do to promote higher level thinking skills on a daily basis in the classroom that take little or no teacher preparation.  

1. "Four Numbers and Three Operations!"  Depending on the age group, write a two, three or four digit number on the dry erase board each morning and ask the students to use four different numbers and any three operations in an expression to calculate the number.  The entire challenge should only take four to five minutes a day.  This would be a great daily entry in their math journals.

For example:     145       9 x 5 x 3 +10 = 145
                              38       3 x 30 ÷ 15 + 32 = 38
                            100      1000 ÷ 10 - 50  x  2 = 100

There is definitely more than one solution and if a student finishes early they can continue to work on an alternative way to solve the problem.  You could provide the additional challenge of seeing how many different expressions they can form.   
You could also mix it up providing one of the four numbers they must use.  You may choose to have the students use the "order of operations" as they progress to add more difficulty.

2.  "Build the Highest Number!"  This is the reverse to "Four Numbers and Three Operations" as this time the teacher will write any four numbers on the board and challenge the students to create the highest whole number possible using three different operations.  The key is that they must use division and subtraction as two of their operations. I would suggest using two common multiples as two of the numbers that you provide.  In this activity there may only be one answer, but it will involve a depth of critical thinking skills to realize this.  This should only take four to five minutes a day.  I would use this primarily for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders.   This would also be a great daily entry in their math journals.

For example:     5, 71, 80, 8              80 x 71 ÷ 8 - 5= 705
                              9, 69,  4,  12            69 x 12 ÷ 4 - 12 = 195
                              13, 19, 6, 4              13+ 19  ÷  4 - 6 =  2      

3.  "Inventions"!  This is simply an activity of brainstorming.  Brainstorming is an important technique that can be misused in classrooms to the point where it becomes an ineffective learning tool.   If implemented correctly, brainstorming will create a new level of depth in how your students produce ideas. Major corporations are once again grasping a hold of this simple process of producing ideas through discussion.  Teams of engineers are commonly asked to come up with new product ideas using this simple technique.  

      In this activity each week I place an object on display for our class to see such as a paper clip,  clothespin, hanger, key chain, comb or desk caddy and I have them brainstorm new ways the object can be used or to name other inventions that could feed off of the object's structure or form. 
      I always start the year with a paperclip because students have a fairly easy time with this and the ideas roll off quite naturally from earrings, lock pickers to one student who determined that they could be used for hanging pictures so that the weight of the nail would not bend.

In recent studies, the order of the ideas that are being generated have followed this order:
First Set: (1-33 ideas) will be the easy and obvious ideas and won't usually involve anything different or new than what most would think of.
Second Set: (approximately the 35th-70th ideas) will be unique and creative and involve new ideas based on prior knowledge and experience.

Somewhere in the first or second set; many students will have hit a mental wall.  If they are continuing to develop new ideas after this point; they have reached the realm of creativity. Large companies search for people who possess the higher level thinking skills to develop ideas past the second set.  

There is no teacher prep other than brainstorming objects that you could use!

It only takes one idea to impact the world!

4. "Cross WORDS!"  This is simply a quick spelling and vocabulary activity that generates quick ideas. The students are given any vocabulary word from the teacher; it could be from a unit they are currently studying or even a current event.  They start with the vocabulary word and build words left to right, and top to bottom crossword style.  I take it one step further for my competitive group that I have this year and have my students add up their points by counting each letter as two points.  I've included the link below to download this FREE  ACTIVITY.
Download your copy here!

5. "IF I WAS FROM.." Geography Project!  Research projects for students continue to provide an outlet for stimulating critical thinking skills.  With this activity, students are given a recording sheet titled "If I Was From".  The teacher provides them with a city, state, or country and they find out quick facts about the geographic area; such as what language they speak, what type of homes they live in, or what industries are popular there and so on.  This entire research activity can be completed in fifteen to twenty minutes.  While they aren't required to complete the formal lengthy research paper; they learn to search deeper and use critical thinking skills while finding the "bare bone" facts about their location.   I've included the link below to download this FREE ACTIVITY.

Download your copy here!

6.  "Character Trait 4's"!  Each week we discuss one character trait such as honesty, determined, empathetic, loyal and so on.  As an entire class or in groups, students have to determine four people in the public eye who display that trait and four signs to tell if someone possesses that trait as well as four ways that having that character trait can have a positive or negative impact on someone's life.
 I've included the link below to download this free activity.

Download your copy here!

7. "If They Build It, they Will Learn!"  For those of you old enough to remember "The Field of Dreams", this might be a catchy name.   Sometimes we forget that the simplest things in life are right in front of our eyes.   One major monetary investment I made in my career years ago was a huge set of Legos.  When the students are getting tired and they need a "brain break", divide them into groups, take out the Legos and provide a "theme".   Have each group produce a structure connected to the theme.  You can use any curricular theme; the idea is to spark higher level thinking so the more abstract the theme; the better.  I usually set the clock to ten minutes and that seems to be all they need to create their brilliant Lego displays.

8. "Fortunately Unfortunately!"  Display a statement for the class to read that begins with either fortunately or unfortunately.   Have the students come up with the fortunately or unfortunately endings with a partner and share their responses.  This forces students to think "outside of the box" to look at the alternative side of situations.  This  is also an extension of "point of view" and references that there are always two sides to every story.

For example:
Unfortunately, I read an article today that said that "wild hogs" are causing millions of dollars of damage in the southern states by destroying property.

A few of my students' actual replies:
Fortunately, wild hogs can be used to feed starving people in the United States.
Fortunately, some people have a TV show and have made a lot of money because of wild hogs.

9. "Community Problem Solvers!"  Research local issues in your city.  Explain the situation to your class or share a newspaper article or news clip.  Fortunately, most local newcasts can be found online.  Divide the class into small groups and have them determine a  "plan of action" to help solve the problem.
Download your copy here!

10.  "Could This Be True?"  I like to use a questioning technique called, "Could This Be True?"  I read a statement or quote to the class and they must determine if it could be true or not.  I divide the class into groups and they must come up with a detailed statement as to whether they believe it could or could not be true and then share their ideas with the remainder of the class.  Some of the statements may seem controversial; but controversy sparks thoughts; and this is exactly what you should be looking for.

Sample Statements:

  • You can have as much success in life without a college degree as you can if you have one.
  • You cannot teach a man anything: you can only help him discover it in himself. - Galileo
  • The Hunger Games could actually happen in real life.
  • In ten years people will not use Facebook.
  • In 100 years all students will learn from computers at home.
  • Boys will always score higher than girls in mathematics and science.

It doesn't take a lot of time to add a few of these activities to your classroom routine.  Whereas, we must embed critical thinking into our daily lessons; it is imperative that we create unique situations in which we encourage creativity and higher level thinking skills in our classrooms.