Why do we have brakes in a car? Take a moment and try to answer the question before you read further.
Here are some answers from a class of teenagers:
To stop the car.
To slow it down.
To prevent accidents.
Were these some of your answers? All of them are correct but one may surprise you: So that you can drive fast!
When explored further, this unusual answer responds to another question: What is the real purpose of a car: to drive it or to stop it? And that’s how critical thinking works.
Identified as a 21st-century skill, critical thinking can be defined as the process of thinking carefully about a subject or idea, without allowing feelings or opinions to affect you.  In other words, it is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. 
Often closely associated with problem-solving, these skills promote self-directed thinking that produces new and innovative ideas and that solves problems. They are also about reflecting critically on learning experiences and processes, and about making effective decisions. 
The process of critical thinking
Critical thinking can be divided into seven stages:
- Formulate the question clearly and precisely.
- Identify the purpose, reasons, goals and objectives of what needs doing or answering.
- Gather information, facts, data, evidence, experiences about the problem from various sources.
- It’s also a good idea to get different points of view.
- Distinguish between facts and assumptions/opinions.
- Analyse and try to find similarities between similar incidents in the past.
- Conclude and decide on the actions to be taken or opinion to be formed
Critical thinking in the classroom
Very often as teachers, we feel the pressure to know all the answers and to have all the solutions. However, in our experience of being teachers and teacher educators, this has been the most liberating aspect of our practice. When we focus on developing the curiosity of learners to explore and question, it’s not up to us to have all the answers – it’s up to them! We delivered a workshop at the recent ELTAI conference where we demonstrated just how this could be done. Using ‘fake news’ as our topic, we showed teachers how simple learner training can help young people today discern the reliability of all the information that is thrown at them on a daily basis.
These questions can help teachers be more purposeful in promoting critical thinking with their learners:
- How am I directing learners in the classrooms to think beyond the obvious?
- What should I do to hone their skills to think beyond the textbook?
- How can I adapt the syllabus to promote critical thinking?
- And am I, in fact, asking questions to make them think at all? If yes, what are those questions?
- Improve your own critical thinking skills by doing free Sudoku puzzles. You can pause, print, clear, modify difficulty level and ask, ‘How am I doing?’ in the middle of the puzzle.
- Encourage your learners to create their own stories based on current events or topics using StoryboardThat.
- The Critical Thinking Workbook, available as a free download, helps you and your students develop mindful communication and problem-solving skills with exciting games and activities. As a paid support, there is also a teacher’s workbook.
- For teachers, watch this sample lesson on encouraging critical thinking with the help of the map of the world.
- For a paid course, Business Result, published by Oxford University Press, comes with interesting case studies at the end of each unit. Except for beginners, there is one for each level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
- Preparing charts on a given topic, using song lyrics for subjective interpretation, giving project work, analysing simple situations and showcasing practical aspects of them, brainstorming ideas, reflecting at the end of a lesson on what was learnt and more importantly how it was learnt are some of the ways to promote critical thinking in the classroom.
- Watch this creative lesson, Learning to be a superhero, which develops critical thinking.