How To Teach Critical Thinking and Logic to K-12 Students

Rote memorization has its place: It’s important for students to know their multiplication tables. But they also need to be able to apply these concepts to other parts of the math curriculum. Students need critical thinking skills and logic to understand how something learned in one lesson can be applied to another at a later date.

It can be hard to teach critical thinking – but also fun. Your students can learn to love logical arguments and use the critical thinking skills they develop. Here are some guidelines for teaching your students to think critically and tap into logic when faced with a new idea.

Introduce Logic and Critical Thinking at a Young Age

Childhood development is fast and varied, which means kids are constantly hitting milestones and learning new things. Whether you teach kindergarten or high school, your students can benefit from logic and critical thinking lessons. In fact, you might be surprised by how much kids pick up in early development.

“Experiments suggest that preschoolers are inhibited by the pronouncements of authoritative adults,” says Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., founder of Parenting Science. “When grown-ups tell them how something works, kids don’t question it. They act as if the adults have told them everything they need to know. They become less inquisitive, less likely to investigate on their own.”

The critical thinking skills that kids develop can make them successful teens. As their thought processes and reasoning grow more complex, tweens and teens can use the tools you introduced to them when they were younger.

“Tweens experience a variety of cognitive changes, including an increase in logical thinking,” says Rebecca Fraser-Thill, a former psychology lecturer at Bates College. “The cognitive processes of older tweens, in particular, transition from child-like reasoning to a more adult-like way of thinking, which is increasingly complex and abstract.”

By teaching students to become critical thinkers, they can become independent learners. This sets them up for a life of curiosity and interest in the world.

“Children initially require a lot of demonstration in education to help them learn and comprehend,” writes the team at 98th Percentile, a K-12 online enrichment program provider. “Since problem-solving requires a great deal of reasoning and analysis, prolonged and frequent demonstration does not work. This is where logical reasoning skills make room for independent thinking.”

The example they give is that a teacher can explain and demonstrate how a game of chess works. However, it’s up to students to develop a strategy to play each game.

Young girl sits on sofa with laptop open; critical thinking concept

Let Students Discover That Solutions Can Be Open-Ended

Many educators want to develop a classroom of critical thinkers, but they aren’t sure how. Your main goal is to help students understand that there are multiple solutions to a problem and logic will help them reach the best path to solving it.

“Keeping an open mind and flexible thinking when approaching a new problem is essential in critical thinking,” says Pamela Li, founder of Parenting For Brain, a provider of science-based parenting information. “We can teach kids to be open-minded by suggesting different points of view, alternative explanations, or different solutions to problems.”

Consider the discussion around staying dry when walking in the rain. Is an umbrella or raincoat more effective at keeping a person dry? Both are solutions to the problem of not getting wet, but what are the benefits and drawbacks of each option?

Former teacher and principal Simona Johnes, the creator of Science and Literacy, shares activities you can use in your classroom to teach critical thinking. One, The Barometer, lets students see how any given topic has more than one correct answer.

Start by designating parts of the classroom with differing levels of feelings ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree, with options to agree or disagree slightly or be neutral. You can read a controversial statement and ask students to move around the classroom based on their beliefs. Silly statements like “there is no difference between a bowl of cereal and a bowl of soup” will spur debate about how we define and label things. Kids can change where they stand as their peers make their cases for or against certain ideas.

The goal with an activity like this is for students to use logic to make a case for something. You can even challenge your students to defend ideas they disagree with to help them work through the logic of their peers.

Build Logic Into Every Lesson Plan

While you can certainly dedicate several hours to teaching critical thinking and logic, you don’t have to take away an excessive amount of class time for these concepts. Once you establish a foundation for your students to use, you can build this skill into every lesson.

To help your students practice critical thinking, for instance, ask open-ended questions or offer various solutions for students to debate. These approaches start (and keep) those critical thinking muscles growing.

Students should think about thinking, writes education consultant Laura Kay. You can ask students what their strategy was for solving a problem, asking “how” instead of “what” to encourage lateral thinking. From there, you can highlight how other students solved the same problem, which teaches them to see different perspectives.

It’s important to know why you want students to take the time to work through problems and make their own decisions or to think out loud when solving a problem.

Logic helps clarify thinking. It encourages debate. As a tool, logic teaches students how to look at an argument, discern fact from fiction. With logic, you are able to reason.

Your students might use logical tools in fun activities or to walk through problems they understand, but they can also rely on logic when approaching challenges they don’t know how to overcome.

Smiling teacher sits with young students; critical thinking concept

Introduce New Ideas With Critical Thinking Elements

One of the best ways to show critical thinking and logic in action is to apply key skills to new ideas. Whenever you are presenting an unfamiliar concept to your students, give them space to explore the ideas before you dive into instruction. You might be surprised at what they pick up on before you even open the textbook.

There are many ways to do this. Sriparna at Owlcation encourages the use of Venn diagrams to help students compare and contrast different ideas. You can introduce a lesson by allowing students to identify the similarities between the new idea and the one they just reviewed. You can ask them to point out differences and strange elements they might not be familiar with.

Identifying similarities can make a concept seem less strange and scary. For example, if students can point out parts of a math formula they already know, they won’t feel as unsure about new signs and equations that come with it.

Another option is the OWL method, which creates opportunities for classroom discussions before you review a new idea.

“OWL (Observe, Wonder, Learn)…can increase higher-order thinking by introducing a topic through a shared observation,” writes Kristi Mascher, a teaching assistant professor at the University of Arkansas. “A teacher could display a collage of rectangles, rhombuses, parallelograms, etc., and ask students to use comparison skills to write down everything they notice and wonder about these shapes.”

Whether students are building on existing math skills or learning about different planets, there is always time to make connections with previous lessons or facts that students already know.

Use Logic and Critical Thinking to Understand Art

Critical thinking can be introduced at almost any age, and it can be part of any subject. There are always opportunities to explore thoughts and feelings that lead to decisions — followed by reflections on the effects of the decisions made. Art class, in particular, has become a popular subject for discussing creative thinking and logic.

“Through art, children are boundless and are free to make their own choices, unlike in a subject like math, where everything is pretty much definite and predetermined,” says Matthew Lynch at The Tech Edvocate. “They are allowed to make their observations and project them in the best way they know. It allows for reflection, which is an important element of critical thinking.”

Erin Chaparro, a research associate professor at the University of Oregon, highlights how teachers use Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) to open up discussions about art. A teacher will showcase a piece of art and ask three questions:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

One student might answer the first question, while other students can provide supporting evidence and discuss other elements of the painting.

Many teachers have shared their experiences with this process and highlighted how it opens students up and challenges the statements they make.

“In order to actively engage in VTS, I felt it was imperative that my students understood that they had the freedom to experience, to question, and to wonder,” writes elementary teacher Katherine Bishop. “They needed to know that there was no one right answer and that these conversations were truly a discussion with no preconceived ending; each student had to experience freedom and ownership in our conversations.”

Boy on floor uses a book to help him build with blocks; critical thinking concept

Connect Logic to Digital Literacy

Another opportunity to connect critical thinking with life skills is with digital literacy lessons. As students spend more time online, they have to learn to identify facts from falsehoods. They need to learn how to sort through information — or they risk falling for scams or believing fake narratives.

“Kids receive most of the information online where we can’t control who posts and what,” writes the team at KidsKonnect. “This becomes a problem when we take into consideration that not everyone is qualified to speak or write on a specific topic, or they deliberately spread false information. Critical thinking for kids is a defense mechanism that shields them from becoming victims to such dangers.”

Even adults who consider themselves critical thinkers can struggle to sort through information on the web. You can walk students through activities to highlight the dangers of believing everything they read online.

“As your students browse online resources, take time to show the importance of evaluating their quality by thinking critically about each,” says Becton Loveless at Education Corner.

Loveless proposes a few questions to ask students to help them review different websites and articles. These include:

  • What is the point of view of the website?
  • Is the website trying to convince me to believe something?
  • What opinions, ideas or voices are missing from the article?
  • Did I visit the “About Us” page to learn more about this source?

Depending on the grade you teach, you can make this activity as silly or serious as you want. Older students can look into flat Earth websites or pages that make false claims about evolution. Younger students might enjoy browsing websites that talk about the presence of Bigfoot or Nessie, the Loch Ness monster.

Critical thinking and logic are two thinking tools that can help students explore learning materials in the classroom. These are also skills that will be useful in adulthood. Spend some time developing lesson plans related to critical thinking and then identify ways to use it daily in the classroom. Your students can grow their logic muscles throughout the year and can feel more confident when faced with new ideas.

Images by: dolgachov/©, iofoto/©, Kelly Sikkema, bruce mars