How to Teach Critical Thinking

In a rapidly changing world where information is at your fingertips, it’s less valuable (but still important!) to memorize, and more important to be able to put information together and draw a conclusion. Every time you make an inference, prepare an argument, or solve a problem with given information, you use critical thinking skills. You can teach elementary school students how to use critical thinking skills, too. It’s never too early for students to develop a skill so necessary for solving challenges!

Read on for:

  • a concrete definition of critical thinking
  • the short and long term benefits of critical thinking
  • how to use critical thinking in all academic subjects (not just science and math)
  • the basics of how to teach critical thinking skills
  • strategies to use when you teach critical thinking to elementary students

What is critical thinking and what does it involve?

Child writing in notebook. Text lists five core skills of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a set of cognitive skills that students use to take information they already have and build something new from it. There are five critical thinking skills students can learn in the classroom:

  • effective reasoning
  • creativity and innovation
  • problem solving
  • decision making
  • schema development and activation (developing mental links between different concepts and applying them in different areas of life)

It may be hard to imagine teaching higher level critical thinking skills to elementary students, as they do not have a wealth of knowledge to draw on. But they can practice these cognitive skills with several different topics.

An Elementary Level Example

Students in grades 3-5 learn about ecosystems. They learn about different environments, weather patterns, and the food chain. At this stage, students are taking in content and adding it to their current supply of information. They receive knowledge, without making anything new out of it – not a conclusion, argument, etc. So, they are not thinking critically yet.

But once they have this store of information, they can put it to use. You can pose questions like:

  • “If we take one animal from the food chain, what would happen?”
  • “If people moved into this environment, what might happen?”
  • “What traits do animals need to live in this environment?”

These are effective reasoning questions. They take what they already know, and then use it to make sensible answers to these questions. If you give them the time to think, and give possible answers without the fear of “being wrong”, they will understand more about ecosystems than by reading alone.

You can also have them analyze or create their own environment as a project. They can do this through physically crafting it, or writing about it. Their project should include the kind of food chain, activities, and weather patterns for their chosen environment. You can even give them the option to make an entirely new environment. But it has to align with what they just learned about ecosystems, otherwise they’re just creating a fantasy. (Fantasies aren’t altogether bad, but you don’t need critical thinking to make one up.)

Related: Students read a lot of informational texts for content to add to their “bank of knowledge.” Read about what counts as an informational text here.

The Benefits of Teaching Critical Thinking in Elementary School

What do students get out of critical thinking? List of benefits of learning critical thinking skills.

Short Term

Children start to really form habits by age 9, so it’s important to build good thinking and study habits now. Until critical thinking entered Common Core Standards, the majority of education was teaching and testing students on facts.

But placing so much value on “getting the right answer” teaches children that there is always a right answer, and someone else has it. They become fixated on the right answer. They become afraid to take risks, to be wrong. If they never take a chance or speak up if they’re not completely sure of their answer, then they’ll never offer up something completely new.

Critical thinking offers students the opportunity to branch out, take risks, and be creative. They learn that it’s okay to not have all the answers – just putting real thought into a problem or answer is valuable.

To teach these five cognitive skills in classrooms, you also have to be creative. You can’t just give them worksheets. To expand their minds, you have to expand your own. They get the chance to do new kinds of projects, and you get the chance to interact with your students in a more interesting way.

Long Term

As you teach critical thinking skills, seek out opportunities to routinely apply them to coursework. If students build the habit of thinking independently, building new connections out of acquired information, and taking creative risks, they will have the confidence to do this for the rest of their lives.

As you and your students embark on critical thinking projects, your relationships with them become more enriching. Each individual student will have the space to show their way of thinking, their interests, and their personality.

And of course, innovative designs, creative problem-solving skills, and the ability to adapt are all valuable soft skills in the workforce, no matter what career path a student pursues.

How to Teach Critical Thinking in Elementary School

Five example classroom activities written on five sticky notes on corkboard.

Historically, students and teachers have employed critical thinking in math and science classes. This is because math and science classes inherently involve problem solving and showing conceptual knowledge. But core critical thinking skills can be applied in any class, and outside the classroom.

To prove this, let’s learn how to teach critical thinking in a variety of subjects.

Opportunities to teach critical thinking in elementary school humanities classes:

Project-Based Learning

Take a lesson and go one step further with a creative/informative project.

Four Corners

Ask an open-ended question and have students split into each corner depending on their answer. Next, have a “representative” from each group make their group’s case. If anyone in a different group is persuaded, they can move into another corner. Open-ended questions don’t have an obvious “correct” answer, which forces students to think critically. Also, presenting a persuasive argument is a valuable skill in a collaborative group.

Learning Stations

Set up different stations for each part of a lesson. For example, as you teach about different elements of a story, create stations with art materials or label PowerPoints with each element (if you are teaching remotely.) Then assign groups to depict each story element using art materials, PowerPoint, etc. Finally, students walk around the room (or view each others’ PowerPoints), learning from displays. You can even have students from each group explain their artistic vision behind the finished work. This is a chance to get creative and work collectively.


Now this is a common classroom activity. Ask an open-ended question, then give students a chance to respond to it independently. Next, instruct students to turn towards their partner (or start their own chat if you are teaching in an online setting) and share their answers. Have them take note of what they agree on, and argue their points in areas of disagreement. See if they can come to some common understanding, if not an agreement. This teaches them to make arguments, ensure their message is understood, and compromise.

Sticky Note Brainstorm

Ask open-ended questions about a lesson and write each one on a large sheet of paper (or on a document, for remote learners.) Each sheet of paper or question on a document acts as a “station.” Then give students sticky notes, or access to the document, depending on your “classroom” setup. Place students in groups and set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Each group will respond to a question at their designated station. Then, they rotate to the next one when the timer goes off. The next group adds onto or responds to the cluster of answers already given. Rotate until all of the questions are answered, and then discuss the answers. This gets students thinking, and as obvious answers are usually given first, students are challenged at every station to come up with something new.

Real World Examples

Connect your lesson to the rest of the world by having students bring in “real world examples” of what they’re learning about. For example, if they are learning about free speech, have them bring in examples of people in the real world using their right to free speech. They can really connect to the lesson and see how it applies to their world.

Opportunities to teach critical thinking in elementary math and science classes:

Pair-share, projects, and problem-solving can all be used in this setting as well.

A crucial part of problem-solving in these areas is to let students struggle. You may be dying to help them as they get challenging problems. But letting them to make guesses, think about new problems using existing knowledge, and get the answer wrong gives them the freedom to try and fail without consequence (because these critical thinking questions won’t count towards a grade.) They also really appreciate when they do understand the framework for answering a question.

A great way to employ this strategy is to give students a critical thinking problem at the beginning of class, one that introduces the day’s subject matter. This question should hopefully build upon information given in previous lessons. It should be challenging, but not ridiculously hard. Then, they can get into groups and discuss their reasoning behind their guesses. Finally, come together as a class and talk about answers. Explain the correct solution, and through this, introduce the day’s topic.

Real world examples are especially useful in math and science classes, as some students think they’ll “never use this information.” Have them bring in real world examples connecting the lesson to their lives. For example, if they are learning about percentages or rates, they can bring in information about hourly wages, or tax percentages.

If you are not teaching critical thinking in elementary school but in a higher level course, and doing something like constructing algebraic or geometrical proofs, have them apply proof structure to other areas. For example, present them with a list of facts and a conclusion. Ask them to use skills like if-then thinking, example cases, and employing given information to come to that conclusion. This shows how proof logic can be applied to outside the classroom.

Tips for Teaching Critical Thinking:

 Picture of toy airplane in background. Critical thinking process.

1. Let them struggle and fail.

If you take away one thing from this article, let it be this: Let them try and fail on their own. If someone else is always there to correct, then they’ll expect someone else to give them the answer all the time.

You want to give them the confidence to try, fail, and then try again. They can’t do that if they’re always asking whether they’re right at every step of the problem-solving process.

2. Let them take risks – within reason, of course.

When you ask open-ended questions or give challenging problems, let their imaginations take the lead. If they have a different way of solving a math problem, let them follow it through. If they have a unique point of view on a question, let them explore that.

Of course, this has to be within reason. A completely irrelevant answer to a question, or a halfhearted attempt at problem-solving is not using critical thinking. Allowing completely irrelevant work is not great. But if they can give a legitimate argument for why their answer is related to the assignment, you may choose to accept it.

3. Foster positivity, safety, relevancy, and creativity.

This is sort of a combo of these first tips. Stress to students that it’s okay to be wrong when learning. Let them know how normal it is. Allow them to share in the risk-taking experience. And show them that what they are learning matters.

Give students several possibilities when it comes to creative projects. A good critical thinking question, project, or lesson should offer students many ways to go about producing something new. You don’t have to limit them to any one creative medium or example case, especially in humanities classes. While you can (and should) give guidelines for what a successful project will have, they should have the freedom to meet guidelines however they see fit.

An Example of Creativity and Relevancy: “Who is the main character? What evidence from the movie supports your answer?”

Elastigirl in fighting stance. Text bubbles read: "Creative! Relevant!"

While learning about story elements, students were asked who the main character was in Incredibles 2. The question was relevant to them, as most had seen and enjoyed the movie. They also watched clips of the popular movie in class and were asked to take notes about the story. This was done so that any student who had not seen it would be able to engage in the lesson.

Students had to give evidence to support their answer. Some answered Elastigirl, as she appeared to have the most screen time. Some argued that Mr. Incredible was the main character. He spent more time with his family, so he was closer to the “family is most important” theme.  A few students even argued that the baby, “Jack-Jack,” was the main character, as he “saved everyone with his awesome power.”

This assignment engaged students how to gather evidence, how to notice story elements in real life, and how to argue their case. It showed educators how their students thought. It showed them what students found to be the most important contributors to characters and story.

Related: We are a society based in storytelling. From brand stories to the timeline of a research study to any report, we are telling stories. So it’s crucial that students learn the elements of a story, which can all be found here.

4. Collaborate as much as possible.

Collaboration happens on a global scale now, and communication skills used to work as a team are never going away.

Get them used to productive arguments, presenting evidence, contributing to problem-solving, and asking peers for help. They can get into the habit of working together now, even with something as simple as who the main character is in a movie they all saw and liked.

It is possible to teach critical thinking in elementary school.

These skills will only improve their chances of success in school, the workplace, and in their daily lives.