The art of questioning. Helping our teenage students to become critical thinkers

In today’s world, where news spreads like wildfire, it is not uncommon to find our teenage students taking things for granted and believing whatever is “on the internet”. As teachers, we want our students to become critical thinkers so that they can make sense of this VUCA world. Helping our students to develop strategies for asking (good) questions will not only prepare them for their future but also help them develop critical minds that will maximize their learning experience across disciplines.

Critical thinking involves asking questions that generate more thinking, help students refine arguments and promote reasoning. According to Educational Psychology, critical thinking is divided into the following three core skills: curiosity, skepticism and humility.

  • Curiosity: desire to learn more information and seek evidence as well as being open to new ideas.
  • Skepticism: having a healthy questioning attitude about new information that you are exposed to and not blindly believing everything everyone tells you.
  • Humility: ability to admit that your opinions and ideas are wrong when faced with new convincing evidence that states otherwise.

Following our three core skills, how can we implement critical thinking in our lessons? Here are some practical ideas (B1 level or higher).

CURIOSITY

Listening / Speaking – Class presentation

After a student has made a class presentation about any topic, we normally ask the rest of the class whether they have any questions. This is a rather vague task and sometimes students don’t know what to ask. Try this:

  • 15 questions: In pairs, students write 15 questions to ask the presenter. Then, they negotiate and decide on the 3 best questions to ask (and say why).
  • Limit the questions: In pairs, students think of only two questions to ask.  Then, the presenter will only pick one to answer and explain why they picked that one. Finally, the class votes for the best question that the presenter was asked.
  • Reply with a question. While listening to the presenter, students choose one argument and make a question starting with “How do you think…?”. For example, if the presenter is talking about climate change and recycling, the question could be “How do you think recycling is actually done in our country?” The presenter will try to find a good answer and throw another question back to the student asking the question.

SKEPTICISM

Reading. News articles

As we mentioned at the beginning, teenage students need to be trained to have a critical mind, especially when they encounter fake news. How can we help them become less susceptible to misinformation?

  • True or Fake? Provide your students with links to true and fake news / web pages. Students can then complete a chart including the following information: source, audience, news. Then, they should write 6 questions regarding the news (“What, why, how, where, who, when?”). How does the article respond to those questions? What’s the evidence that proves the article / page is true / fake?
  • Spread the news! Students create fake news about well-known organizations, using incorrect figures, etc. They can use their social networks to do this and see how well they spread. The piece of news with the most shares wins. Then, the whole class will have to explain why they think that piece of news was credible among internet users. Then, make sure your students explain this was a classroom experiment!
  • Spot the lie. Write 3/4 things about yourself on the board, one of them being false. Let the students ask you as many questions as necessary to spot the lie. When they find out, ask them what question worked best to find the false statement? Why are the other statements true? Then, let your students practice in pairs with facts about themselves (try to bring together people who don’t normally work together and barely know each other in order to make the task more interesting).

HUMILITY

Writing. Argumentative essay.

In argumentative essays, students state their opinions about a specific topic. However, sometimes we might find that their arguments are weak or not well-evidenced. What’s more, we want them to acknowledge other people’s ideas, and accept, respect and integrate other opinions.

  • Swap with a partner! Students exchange their essays with a partner. They read each other’s work and find a question to ask about a specific point lacking enough evidence. They do this several times with different partners. For instance, if my essay states that “women are better at languages”, my partner can ask “What makes you think this is true?” so that I can provide a well-reasoned argument that supports my opinion.
  • Writings on the wall. This activity is similar to the previous one, but instead of the students swapping the essays, you can collect the students’ texts and put them up on the wall anonymously (or publish them in the classroom blog). Students walk around the classroom and read a couple of essays. Then, they put on a sticky note with a question (or comment online). Finally, students stand next to their essays, read the questions and prepare to better defend their position.
  • Convince me! Using the arguments the students stated in their essays, they will have to convince a few classmates about their position. The other students defend an opposing stance by disagreeing and stating contrary opinions (or alternative answers). Finally, they will have to say whether they were persuaded or not and why.

In sum, in critical thinking, questions generate more thinking and contribute to develop higher order thinking skills. We are talking about questions that are challenging (but not threatening), lead to more thinking (not to an expected answer), take time to be answered thoughtfully, make the speaker willing to keep the conversation going, lead to other questions, and create powerful answers that involve evidence and reflect reasoning.

What other activities do you do in your classes to help your students become critical thinkers?

This entry was posted in Ideas for Class, Teaching Teens and tagged , by Elena Merino. Bookmark the permalink.

About Elena Merino

Teacher Trainer for Pearson. I lived 1 year in Ireland and 3 years in the USA, where I fell in love with the English language. I’ve worked as a teacher for twelve years in different contexts and with different age groups. PhD in Communication and Multilingual Education, I’m concerned about meaningful real-world tasks that get students to communicate, in other words, how can teachers facilitate learning and engage students in the English classroom?

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