Critical Thinking: Facilitating and Assessing the 21st Century Skills in Education

Illustration of varied colorful figures with varied word balloons
(Image credit: Michael Gorman)

I believe that Critical Thinking is the spark that begins the process of authentic learning. Before going further, we must first develop an idea of what learning is… and what learning is not.  So many times we hear our students say, “Why am I learning this?” The reason they ask is because they have not really experienced the full spectrum of learning, and because of this are actually not learning to a full rewarding  extent! We might say they are being exposed to surface learning and not authentic (real) learning. The act of authentic learning is actually an exciting and engaging concept. It allows students to see real meaning and begin to construct their own knowledge.  Critical Thinking is core to learning. It is rewarding, engaging, and life long. Without critical thinking students are left to a universe of concepts and memorization.  Yes… over twelve years of mediocrity! When educators employ critical thinking in their classrooms, a whole new world of understanding is opened up.   What are some reasons to facilitate critical thinking with our students? Let me begin:

Ten Reasons For Student Critical Thinking in the classroom

  1. Allows for necessary inquiry that makes learning exciting
  2. Provides a method to go beyond memorization to promote understanding.
  3. Allows students to visualize thoughts, concepts, theories, models & possibilities.
  4. Promotes curriculum standards, trans-disciplinary ideas & real world connections.
  5. Encourages a classroom culture of collaboration that promotes deeper thinking.
  6. Builds skills of problem solving, making implications, & determining consequences.
  7. Facilitates goal setting, promotion of process, and perseverance to achieve.
  8. Teaches self reflection and critique, and the ability to listen to others’ thoughts.
  9. Encourages point of view  while developing persuasive skills.
  10. Guides interpretation while developing a skill to infer and draw conclusions.

I am excited by the spark that critical thinking ignites to support real and authentic learning in the classroom. I often wonder how much time students spend in the process of critical thinking in the classroom. I ask you to reflect on your typical school day. Are your students spending time in area of surface learning , or are they plunging into the engaging culture of deeper (real) learning?  At the same time … how are you assessing your students? So many times as educators, we are bound by the standards, and we forget the importance of promoting that critical thinking process that makes our standards come alive with understanding. A culture of critical thinking is not automatic, though with intentional planning  it can become a reality. Like the other 21st century skills, it must be built and continuously facilitated. Let’s take a look at how, we as educators, can do this.

Ten Ways to Facilitate Student Critical Thinking in the Classroom and School

  1. Design Critical Thinking Activities. (This might include mind mapping, making thinking visible, Socratic discussions, meta-cognitive mind stretches, Build an inquiry wall with students and talk about the process of thinking”
  2. Provide time for students to collaborate. (Collaboration can be the button that starts critical thinking. It provides group thinking that builds on the standards. Have students work together while solving multi-step and higher order thinking problems. Sometimes this might mean slow down to increase the learning.)
  3. Provide students with a Critical Thinking rubric. (Have them look at the rubric before a critical thinking activity, and once again when they are finished)
  4. Make assessment of Critical Thinking an ongoing effort. (While the teacher can assess, have students assess themselves. Self assessment can be powerful)
  5. Concentrate on specific indicators in a rubric. (There are various indicators such as; provides inquiry, answers questions, builds an argument etc. Concentrate on just one indicator while doing a lesson. There can even be an exit ticket reflection)
  6. Integrate the idea of Critical Thinking in any lesson. ( Do not teach this skill in isolation. How does is work with a lesson, stem activity, project built, etc. What does Critical Thinking look like in the online or blended environment? Think of online discussions.)
  7. Post a Critical Thinking Poster in the room. (This poster could be a copy of a rubric or even a list of “I Can Statements”. Point it out before a critical thinking activity.
  8. Make Critical Thinking part of your formative  and summative assessment.  (Move around the room, talk to groups and students, stop the whole group to make adjustments.)
  9. Point out Critical Thinking found in the content standards. (Be aware that content standards often have words like; infer, debate, conclude, solve, prioritize, compare and contrast, hypothesize, and research. Critical Thinking has always been part of the standards. Show your students Bloom’s Taxonomy and post in the room. Where are they in their learning?
  10. Plan for a school wide emphasis. (A culture that builds Critical Thinking is usually bigger then one classroom. Develop school-wide vocabulary, posters, and initiatives.)

I keep talking about the idea of surface learning and deeper learning. This can best be seen in  Bloom’s Taxonomy. Often we start with Remembering.  This might be essential in providing students the map to the further areas of Bloom’s. Of course, we then find the idea of Understanding. This is where I believe critical thinking begins. Sometimes we need to critically think in order to understand. In fact, you might be this doing right now. I believe that too much time might be spent in Remembering, which is why students get a false idea of what learning really is. As we look at the rest of Bloom’s ( Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create) we can see the deeper learning take place. and even steps toward the transfer and internalization of the learning. Some educators even tip Bloom’s upside down, stating that the Creating at the top will build an understanding. This must be done with careful facilitation and intentional scaffold to make sure there is some surface learning. After-all, Critical Thinking will need this to build on.

I have been mentioning rubrics and assessment tools through out this post. To me, these are essential in building that culture of critical thinking in the classroom. I want to provide you with some great resources that will give your some powerful tools to assess the skill of Critical Thinking.  Keep in mind that students can also self assess and journal using prompts from a Critical Thinking Rubric.

Seven Resources to Help with Assessment and Facilitation of Critical Thinking

  1. Habits of Mind – I think this is an awesome place to help teachers facilitate and assess critical thinking and more. Check out the free resources page which even has some wonderful posters. One of my favorites is the rubrics found on this research page. Decide on spending some time because there are a lot of great resources.
  2. PBLWorks – The number one place for PBL in the world is at PBLWorks. You may know it as the BUCK Institute or BIE. I am fortunate to be part of their National Faculty which is probably why I rank it as number one. I encourage you to visit their site for everything PBL.  This link brings you to the resource area where you will discover some amazing  rubrics to facilitate Critical Thinking. You will find rubrics for grade bands K-2, 3-5, and 6-12. This really is a great place to start. You will need to sign up to be a member of PBLWorks. This is a wonderful idea, after-all it is free!
  3. Microsoft Innovative Learning – This  website contains some powerful rubrics for assessing the 21st Century skills. The link will bring you to a PDF file with Critical Thinking rubrics you can use tomorrow for any grade level. Check out this two page document defining the 4 C’s and a movie giving you even more of an explanation.
  4. New Tech School – This amazing PBL group of schools provide some wonderful Learning Rubrics in their free area.  Here you will find an interesting collection of rubrics that assesses student learning in multiple areas. These are sure to get you off and started.
  5. Foundation for Critical Thinking –  Check out this amazing page to help give you descriptors.
  6. Project Zero – While it is not necessarily assessment based, you will find some powerful routines for making thinking visible. As you conduct these types of activities you will find yourself doing some wonderful formative assessment of critical thinking.
  7. Education Week – Take a look at this resource that provides some great reasoning and some interesting links that provide a glimpse of critical thinking in the classroom.

Critical Thinking “I Can Statements”

As you can see, I believe that Critical Thinking is key to PBL, STEM, and Deeper Learning. It improves Communication and Collaboration, while promoting Creativity.  I believe every student should have these following “I Can Statements” as part of their learning experience. Feel free to copy and use in your classroom. Perhaps this is a great starting place as you promote collaborative and powerful learning culture!

  • I can not only answer questions, but can also think of new questions to ask 
  • I can take time to see what I am thinking to promote even better understanding 
  • I can attempt to see other peoples’ thinking while explaining my own 
  • I can look at a problem and determine needed steps to find a solution 
  • I can use proper collaboration skills to work with others productively to build solutions 
  • I can set a goal, design a plan, and persevere to accomplish the goal. 
  • I can map out strategies and processes that shows the action involved in a task. 
  • I can define and show my understanding of a concept, model, theory, or process. 
  • I can take time to reflect and productively critique my work and the work of others 
  • I can understand, observe, draw inferences, hypothesize and see implications.

cross-posted at

Michael Gorman oversees one-to-one laptop programs and digital professional development for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a consultant for Discovery Education, ISTE, My Big Campus, and November Learning and is on the National Faculty for The Buck Institute for Education. His awards include district Teacher of the Year, Indiana STEM Educator of the Year and Microsoft’s 365 Global Education Hero. Read more at