Creating a Classroom Culture that Encourages Critical Thinking

The start of the school year is overwhelmingly busy. Setting up your room, open houses, lesson planning, and professional development meetings are just a few of many responsibilities that pull in different directions. It’s the chaos of the start that makes carving out time for reflection so much more important. What are your goals this school year? What do you want your classroom to look like? How can you push your students to think harder and deeper?

Our busyness can make us rush past what might be the most crucial part of a school year: establishing a classroom culture that fosters critical thinking. Here are 5 tips to keep in mind as you establish your class for this new school year.

1. Create Norms and Stick to Them

The world is on fire. Civil discussion and rational argument are not being modeled for students in the news, on the internet, or even in the White House. This gives our work as educators an even greater sense of urgency. You are the leader in your classroom. It’s up to you to declare, “Maybe in the world, but not in this room.” Create clear guidelines for civil discussion and stick to them! Revisit your expectations daily, at first, and then throughout the year. Celebrate moments were students model civil discussions and immediately shut down personal attacks or derogatory language.

2. Declare This Year “The Year of Mistakes”

We know now, more than ever, the power mistakes have in learning. Students tend to be embarrassed or hesitant to share if they’re not 100% sure that they’re correct. This creates a roadblock to critical thinking in the classroom. It’s up to you as leader to guide them away from this self-limiting mindset. Start the beginning of the school year by telling your students that you love mistakes and that mistakes show that we’re being challenged and growing as thinkers. Be intentional to celebrate and share not only student mistakes, but your own mistakes as well.

3. Ask More Questions

This tip represents a shift in teacher mindset. As educators, we’re not in front of the room to just impart knowledge to our students. In that scenario, students are passive participants in their education. Rather our job is to facilitate thinking through questioning. Respond to student questions with more questions. Challenge yourself to ask more questions this school year. Think of a simple way to informally track how many questions you’re asking; it could be as simple as putting tally marks for every question you ask. Then challenge yourself to beat that record the next period or day. Create a classroom environment where asking questions is encouraged.

4. Find a Way to Protect Wait Time. And Stick to it.

It wouldn’t be an article about critical thinking without a mention of wait time. It’s the most obvious, and yet the most difficult, thing to do. Our lives are fast paced and it can be difficult to just stop and allow students to think. The key to success with wait time is to find a strategy that works for you. Create a visual reminder for yourself: watch the clock, use an online timer, or steal a good-old-fashioned sand timer from a board game. Silence can be uncomfortable. We have to train ourselves, and our students, to be comfortable being silent with our own thoughts.

5. Remember, You Are Not a Lifeguard.

All of us went into teaching because we want help. We like to see our students succeed, but the sometimes it’s hard to watch them struggle. The lifeguard analogy is so fitting when it comes to watching students productively struggle. My eight-year-old son joined the swim team for the first time over the summer. At the start of the season it was difficult to watch him struggle down his lane. He would gasp for breath and grab the landline midway through his laps. It would have been easy to toss him a paddleboard or reach down and pull him out of the pool. But instead we just encouraged him to keep fighting. By the end of the season he could easily make his way down the lane. He was so proud the first time he passed the swim test to jump off the diving boards. That growth would have never happened if we had been too quick to save him. We must remember this school year that we are not lifeguards. We cannot immediately jump in and rescue our learners. Instead, we must begin with the end in mind and know that they are conditioning their brains in order to grow as thinkers and students.

All of these tips have a common thread. We must give ourselves permission as educators to slow down and think deeply about our classroom practices. The result will be that our students will see this behavior modeled for them and they will grow as thinkers and learners.


To learn how your school or organization can adopt thinkLaw’s standards-aligned program that helps educators teach critical thinking to all students, please click here to schedule a time to speak with someone on the thinkLaw team, call us now at (702) 318-7512 or join us on our next webinar; Thinking Like a Lawyer: Powerful Strategies to Teach Critical Thinking to All Students

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