7 Actively Engaging Ways of Developing Critical Thinking Skills

by | Apr 19, 2017

We talk to many educators in our travels. Everywhere we go, we ask what they feel are the most important skills for modern learners. Teachers, school leaders, and educators of all kinds have many shared goals. No matter where they hail from, one of the most common among them is effectively developing critical thinking skills.

Thinking critically is the pinnacle of the accumulation of knowledge and experience. How can we start developing our learners’ critical thinking skills rather than teaching to the test? What strategies will bring out the critical thinkers inside all our learners?

Strategies for Developing Critical Thinking Skills

Below is a list of some of the ways we have of developing critical thinking skills the right way for our learners. Ultimately this is as much about how teachers teach as it is about how learners learn. Developing critical thinking skills must be embraced and incorporated at the team level. If we start by trusting our teachers to think and speak openly, we can set an example to them to also trust in the goodness of their learners. This encourages kids to step up when fully engaged in meaningful projects.

1. The Freedom to Learn

In short, this means to give to the testers what is theirs but give the freedom to think back to our learners. In an article for The Guardian, Matthew Bebbington talks about a strategy used by companies like Google for increasing employee engagement. They allow workers a certain “freedom” for focusing on personalized approaches to working on problems.


Essentially, they have carte blanche to work on whatever they wish with whoever they wish. The result is a heightened sense of ownership of the problem, and a creative approach to solutions. Of course, this elevates critical thinking capacity as well. There’s no reason why the same thing couldn’t work in a classroom.


2. Encourage Project-Based Learning

Solving real-world problems gets kids out of the classroom and into the real world. Again, this is a skill that’s paramount to success in life beyond school. Developing critical thinking skills and HOTS comes to the forefront here.

A great place to do this is the Solution Fluency Activity Planner. It takes you step-by-step through planning incredible project-based learning and inquiry units for your students. Play with it and plan your own professional development with it. (Pass it on to your admins that you can get 50% of a whole-school plan now when you start a FREE 30-day trial.)

3. Encourage Collaboration

Bring teamwork and peer collaboration into the mix and you’re sure to engage critical thinking skills. This applies not only in your classroom with other students, but also beyond the classroom walls into broader areas. It can involve the community and all the interesting professionals that are part of it.


Think about collaboration along the lines of using technology to reach out to the global community. Don’t just invest in technology. The end goal is students collaborating, thinking critically, and solving problems relevant to their world.

4. Include Professional Development

Make workshops and in-services incorporate the highest critical thinking component among teachers. This a real boon for administrators, and here’s why: what goes around comes around.

The most effective professional development incorporates teachers being engaged and taking ownership of the material. Through this example, teachers will take this back to their students.

If you don’t want your teachers to purely lecture, don’t hire someone to come in and lecture. Your presenters must be the highest examples of what you want your teachers to be. In other words, teach your teachers the same way you want your students to be taught.


5. Teach the 6D’s of Solution Fluency

Solution Fluency is a process for working through any problem no matter how big or small. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a shopping list or redesigning the universe; the 6Ds are foolproof and fail-safe. They’re also the perfect system for developing critical thinking skills. The 6D process is as follows:

  • Define the driving question. Ask questions to clarify, focus and understand what the problem is.
  • Discover all aspects of the problem. What’s being done currently? What exactly is the nature of the problem? Be observant.
  • Dream and brainstorm directions to approach the solution. Imagine the problem solved in the best way, no matter how seemingly impossible some of the solutions may be. Think without borders.
  • Design the product. Create a blueprint of the ideas and workshop them thoroughly.
  • Deliver the goods and put the solution to work in a practical application. Generate the product and test it out against the problem.
  • Debrief and review the process and look realistically on the product or solution.

There are plenty of tools to help you bring this unique critical thinking process into your classroom teaching, as we have with thousands of educators all over the world. Begin with the Solution Fluency Quickstart Guide or the Fluency Posters, which are free resources for developing understanding.

If you’re ready for more tools and tricks, you can move on to the more advanced Solution Fluency Teacher’s Companion. There you’ll find classroom instruction ideas, PBL scenarios, frameworks for assessment, and more.

6. Teach Design Thinking

This is another angle very similar to Solution Fluency. In any design approach, nothing is linear. There is always a never-ending cycle of revisitation and revision. When processes are kept linear, possibilities become limited. Possibilities are what both Solution Fluency and design thinking are intended to generate by working cyclically. With them, there are no limits.

This simple infographic creates a side-by-side comparison of the stages of both Solution Fluency and design thinking. It’s intended to display the striking similarities between the two. Hopefully, this comparison will demonstrate a bit more of the remarkable versatility of Solution Fluency. It truly is a process for both living and learning, and for assisting one in developing critical thinking skills.

7. Make a Mess

Messy learning is unguided and encourages learners to draw conclusions on their own. It also requires support from the teacher in the form of structure, templates, guiding questions, scaffolded skills, and the like. Nevertheless, it is the honoring of the critical thinking process of which teachers need be aware.

That’s because you can’t see it sometimes. It’s virtually invisible. Like the dark matter of the universe, messy learning can be seen only by its effects upon the things around it. Perhaps the biggest proponents of messy learning are schools that know the value of play in a child’s learning. Schools like those featured here on Getting Smart can provide a safe place for messy, sticky learning.

What other ways are you developing critical thinking skills with your learners?


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