Teaching Thinking Skills in the Elementary Classroom

Thinking skills

Kim Smith, veteran Christian school teacher, is joining us on the Abeka blog to share ideas you can use to make your classroom amazing. 

For a decade, I worked alongside gifted teachers across the country in continuing education meetings and in-school curriculum training. When it came time to discuss critical thinking strategies, this was a common response: 

Every day is already full. Critical thinking development takes time! How do I fit it in? 

Let’s think about that question, as well as a couple other “Reality Roadblocks.”I think you will find out you are already doing a great deal to train good thinkers. I think you will also find that teaching discernment, reasoning, and independent thinking fits naturally into your daily lesson goals. So, be encouraged!

Reality Roadblocks: Teaching Thinking Skills in the Elementary Classroom

Roadblock #1: My students don’t know enough. They are not prepared for higher-level thinking. 

I get it. If your students are weak in knowledge, how will you get them to make higher-level connections? The best answer is, work to improve skills and knowledge at the same time.

  • During reading, science, or arithmetic, have you ever asked your students, “What do you think will happen?” Good! Open-ended questions provide opportunities to think and develop hypotheses.
  • Do you ever say, “Let’s think that through!” after a student question? Good! You didn’t do the easiest thing, which was to just give the answer. 
  • Do you link learning across subject areas? Good. You are showing your students how to apply knowledge and thinking in as many contexts as possible. 
  • Are you teaching students to respect and listen to others, value thinking and truth, and ask for an example when they do not understand? Good. You are developing thinkers! 

Skills rely on knowledge; knowledge relies on good instruction; and good instruction relies on proven teaching practices. 

Do you remember these simple problem-solving strategies from your school days in arithmetic class?

  • Read the problem twice. 
  • Look for keywords, patterns, or analogies. 
  • Show all your work. 
  • Underline the question. 

They still work, but strategies cannot replace understanding and knowledge. Imagine searching for the solution to a problem that you don’t understand. Without specific instruction, students don’t know what they don’t know. 

So, you should: 

  • Keep providing specific steps for solving each type of problem. 
  • Keep showing examples of problems that have already been solved. 
  • Keep interweaving ample problem-solving practice and analysis in classwork and homework. 

Roadblock #2: I do not have enough class time to devote to critical thinking. 

I agree. There is a lot to learn and only so much time to do it. Check your Abeka teacher editions for planned opportunities to incorporate critical thinking into your lessons. 

Roadblock #3: Many of my students just don’t make the effort.

I understand. Your challenge is to establish the value in being able to apply, create, or extend thinking. 

How do you handle it when students forget assignments or responsibilities? You bring on the motivators, right? Tackle the lack of thought in the same way. Give your students opportunities to make independent choices — you’ll find this is great for motivating them when they’re bored. Making decisions is key to critical thinking.

  • Not putting thought into arithmetic story problems? Using models from the lesson, create and solve your own story problem today instead.
  • Sloppy with spelling homework? Analyze which words you should write and then just spell the other half orally tonight. 
  • Loud groaning at book report time? Choose from alternatives for one of the sections.
  • Summarize the plot from the viewpoint of the main character.
  • Write a letter to a friend recommending (or not) the book. 
  • List new or interesting words, phrases, or comparisons you found in the book.
  • Present your oral book report on powerpoint. Remember that some students are afraid of answering. 

Remember that some students are afraid of answering questions “incorrectly.”

  • Give them time to think. Pause and wait. Remember: Some thoughts have to simmer a while! 
  • Ask leading questions that help students make connections with what they already know. Show how they can come up with answers. 
  • Give specific, sincere praise for and recognition focused on thinking and improvement. 

Cognitive development takes a leap in elementary grades. This means children can work things out in their heads rather than relying on just physical experience. 

”Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.” – Henry Ford 

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