LICHTENSTEIN: Teach students to think critically

K-12 teachers should not only teach students content, but also learning skills


Educators should adjust teaching methods to prioritize critical thinking skills.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

Teachers of early elementary grades play an integral role in the lives of their students. Regardless of the content of instruction, young students constantly absorb and interpret their teachers’ actions. Most teachers are aware of the impact they have on their students, and tailor their methods to fit that premise. Some educators, however, fail to recognize the positive effect of adjusting their techniques to best foster a student’s learning ability. Teachers of early grades should place a heavier emphasis on teaching students how to learn, rather than seeking to develop students’ content-specific knowledge. 

Limited individual interaction with their students, administrative pressures to meet standards and inaccessibility of resources undermine teachers’ efficacy and indirectly detract from student achievement. These salient issues may seem insurmountable, but creating alternatives to traditional content-oriented practices provides an opportunity for teachers to improve the performance of their students.

Two international examinations shed light into the inadequacies of current content-oriented practices. The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, test student achievement in countries around the world. Comparisons with similar countries on the PISA and TIMSS indicate mediocre U.S. performance. Although these tests can be helpful when analyzing international performance, their results should be qualified. Both the TIMSS and the PISA use over 30 different languages, which raises the potential for error in expression of problems and concepts. Although some parts of the assessments have become computer-based, most of the tests are administered via pencil and paper, which exponentially raises the risk of human error since the students’ data aren’t preserved online. Differences in international schooling contexts such as curriculum content and prevalence of technology can also greatly confound the comparability of results, and even when the results are comparable, specific rank of individual countries matters very little. These issues shed light on the difficulty of international evaluation and analysis, but when the tests are examined through blocked sections of countries with all confounding variables in mind, they demonstrate useful trends in international performance. 

The PISA and TIMSS results indicate that American students lack the ability to apply learned concepts to new scenarios, which is a necessary skill for higher education and life beyond the classroom. In order to improve U.S. students’ performance, teachers need to create lesson plans and curricula which provide students with the skills to adapt their content knowledge to fit unfamiliar situations. Before algebra, superficial content knowledge is sufficient for success in current U.S. education standards. For example, popular strategies which students use to learn their multiplication strategies may effectively teach multiplication, but they do not help students understand the foundational reasoning behind the solutions, which is needed for higher math classes. An example strategy is the practice of creating “families” within the multiplication table. Zeros, for example, require students to “look for a zero,” which indicates that the answer is zero. For a family of ones, the strategy suggests to “look for a one,” upon which students should “ignore the 1; the answer is the other number!” Such strategies continue for families of twos, fives, nines and “pegwords.” This strategy offers steps regarding how teachers should present the content, but these steps never suggest that the teacher should ask students to explain why the combinations function as they do — the tactics exemplify the rote memorization tactics prevalent in today’s classrooms. As dysfunctional as these strategies may seem, the PISA and TIMSS sample questions indicate that such procedures work fairly well for U.S. students. For example, the test asked “there are 600 balls in a box, and 1/3 of the balls are red. How many red balls are in the box?” The test also asked “a train left Redville at 8:45 a.m. It arrived in Bedford two hours and 18 minutes later. What time did it arrive in Bedford?” These sample questions indicate that fourth-grade students do not need deep conceptual knowledge, and that rote memorization strategies work well for the goals of the international examinations.

Although content-oriented teaching methods are an important part of a young student’s education, they provide little opportunity to develop the student’s critical thinking skills. If instead educators asked students to, for example, explain the reasoning behind their answers, students would gain a deeper understanding of the concepts involved and thereby be better equipped to apply those concepts in future unforeseen problems. By asking students to explain their answers, teachers force students to explore the concepts behind the content at hand. Changing teaching methods can be difficult, but adjusting to develop students’ critical thinking skills will greatly improve their performance both in school and beyond. 

Jake Lichtenstein is a Viewpoint writer for the Cavalier Daily. He may be reached at

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