Critical thinkers ask questions, formulate and solve problems, use reasoning and evidence to reach conclusions, approach situations with an open mind, and so much more. School districts set goals designed to support students in becoming effective critical thinkers and problem solvers, but creating a learning environment that is conducive to the development of critical thinking rests with the teacher. Instructional materials can either greatly support or hinder teachers’ efforts.

Based on our experience reviewing thousands of instructional materials, this blog offers five considerations to help educators evaluate the degree to which an instructional material supports the development of critical thinking skills.

  1. Multiple levels of questions and activities

Activities and questions should be scaffolded at multiple levels, and should encourage students to ask, as well as answer questions. While questions and activities might not be overtly identified as such, educators should be able to identify resources at multiple levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. Instructional materials that reinforce critical thinking should offer activities, questions, and assignments that are open-ended and accept multiple correct answers and interpretations.

2. Defending and explaining answers

Closely related to the level or rigor and types of questions the material provides is the type of answers the material expects from students. Materials that consistently require students to support their answers/arguments with evidence or justify and explain their answers are more likely to bolster the development of critical thinking. For example, a science material may promote critical thinking by requiring students to defend the findings of their experiments; a math material might do the same by requiring students to explain how they solved a problem rather than simply answering the question. The ability to defend and explain answers, to use evidence to justify an argument, are key critical thinking skills.

3. Complexity

Materials designed at varied and increasing levels of cognitive complexity will reinforce the development of critical thinking. Materials should become increasingly complex within each unit and across the entirety of the material. Perhaps this means that students are considering more complex topics, reading texts that require high levels of cognitive processing, or engaging in discourse that requires increased levels of analysis. The degree to which students are required to think deeply, explore ideas from multiple perspectives, and consider ideas that challenge their own thinking are important indicators of the material’s support of critical thinking.

4. Appropriate level of challenge for all students

Critical thinking is developed when students are challenged. An instructional material must, therefore, provide an appropriate level of challenge for all students. This means the material must include options and suggestions for differentiating instruction. This goes beyond the provision of “extension” activities for gifted or high-achieving students. Differentiation must provide multiple entry points to grade-level instruction for struggling learners, as well as increasing challenges and opportunities for depth and complexity for all students.

5. Organization and Integration

Integration, whether through subjects, content, or skills, contributes significantly to students’ abilities to make connections and construct their own meaning. The more deeply integrated the material, the more likely the material is to foster the development of critical thinking. For example, materials that focus on students acquiring facts are less likely to support the development of critical thinking than materials that are organized around global themes or concepts, require students to engage with cross-disciplinary or real-world essential questions, or offer opportunities for inquiry and research.

At Learning List, our goal is to help educators choose and then use instructional materials most effectively to best support student learning. To that end, we provide two types of reviews to help educators evaluate the degree to which instructional materials support critical thinking. The first of these is our Alignment Reports. Critical thinking skills are embedded within most state standards. Our alignment reports assess the degree to which a material is aligned to the content, the context, and the cognitive demand or rigor of each grade level standard. Thus, these reports make it easy for educators to see which critical thinking skills a material supports and which it does not, and how thoroughly each skill is supported.

The second review that helps educators assess how well a material facilitates the development of critical thinking skills is our Editorial Review. The Editorial Review provides a qualitative analysis of the overall instructional quality of the material, including an assessment of its rigor and complexity and the other indicators mentioned above. Learning List’s Editorial Reviews help educators quickly identify the features of the material that support differentiated instruction and promote students’ development of critical thinking skills.