Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

KBobango and kstephens

 “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” Joseph Joubert

Skills to Thrive in a Changing World

Mission statements all over the country maintain that college and career readiness is a priority in educational systems.  Colleges and employers consider more than grade point averages when evaluating future high school graduates. There are writing samples, portfolios of exemplary work, and series of interviews that authentically give a holistic profile of the individual’s readiness.  We assess this generation and those that follow for their ability to research, analyze data, collaborate, communicate, plan, and execute problem-solving to create products.

The knowledgebase and rich experiences our students need to meet these standards must be mastered in grades K-12 so that their performance is relevant, refined and competitive.  Science, technology, education, business, engineering and communications are only a few of the professions that require excellent critical thinking ability. The responsibility for ensuring youth are prepared for tomorrow lies with educators who work with them today.

As educators, we often yearn for our students to possess stronger critical thinking skills.  The Foundation for Critical Thinking (2017) states:

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism  (para. 2).

As critical thinkers, students develop to meet the rising needs of technologies that require planning, cooperation, analysis, and the ability to solve problems independently and in groups.  Students must think in order to learn. Memorization of isolated facts has taken its resting place in the history of education. We have progressed as accomplished educators to facilitate learning through experiences that promote retention of information and application of this information to solve problems.  Discourse among students is fascinating for a teacher who listens. As students negotiate with varying levels of expertise from their individual schema, a plan evolves, and new learning occurs. This learning is enhanced by increased self-confidence, decision-making skills, and an understanding that the cognitive process is as crucial as any answer.


Metacognition is the act of thinking about our thinking.  Students of all ages can be prompted to answer reflective questions about their approach to learning: to think about what they know and how they know what they know.  “The cultivation of independence and active learning allows students to develop metacognitive skills that help them to frame, tackle, and solve problems; evaluate and improve their own work; and guide their learning in productive ways,” (Darling-Hammond, 2010, p. 170).

This process can be transformative and what gets explored in this process is extensive. Differences present in the time a learner spends on their work, to what strategies they will apply to solve a problem. Students learn actively when they participate in discourse and negotiation based on data.  Passive learning does not build critical thinking skills or provide opportunities to analyze relevant information to make decisions and solve problems. Building these skills is essential in preparing students for the 21st-century workforce.

Listening to students negotiate while working together on a performance task is informative for the teacher. Their prior knowledge, combined with new learning, results in the ability to interpret information in unique ways. Students are able to use the tools they have learned to learn collaboratively.  This observation process provides crucial information for molding and reinforcing. Having structure and roles assigned can help contribute to greater equity.  Effective teachers have the ability to create a learning community within their classroom. An effective learning community is one that promotes participation from all learners and incorporates an active, cooperative, and collaborative learning environment.  This helps meet the academic needs of each individual student and strengthens the collective capacity of the group.

Instead of presenting information to our students, we should invite them into the process of thinking.  One approach to this is to have students predict outcomes given specific variables. We can use this technique in any discipline, whether it be in identifying what action a character is likely to take in a work of fiction, stating what might happen when two chemicals interact or predicting what method would work best on a math problem, as Boaler (2016) recommends.  Predicting leads to higher order thinking.

Building greater critical thinking skills can also be accomplished through the process of inquiry. Instead of having a predictable set of linear topics, we can set up environments where students do more exploration and discover pathways toward their own learning.  When students have the opportunity to use inquiry in the various content areas, “they are exploring ideas, making connections, and valuing growth and learning,” (Boaler, 2016, p. 181).

When they have agency over their own learning instead of following precise directions, ownership occurs. Coursework becomes more engaging and more accessible in their minds. This mindset creates a transition from “I don’t know…” to “I don’t know, yet!” As we are candid and clear in communicating our expectations to students, we teach them to value the same qualities of thinkers, rather than have a student believe that coming up with the right answer or finishing the assigned page of writing most quickly is of greatest value.

Senge (2016) refers to the work of the author, Daniel Pink, who has described an “ongoing shift in the workplace from ‘algorithmic tasks’ (following a preordained path) to ‘heuristic tasks’ (working effectively in contexts needing experimentation and innovative thinking)” (p. 60).  Innovation and the ability to think critically and solve new problems is crucial to the success of our students as they enter college and careers in the 21st century.

Providing interesting, relevant content is a prerequisite to planning and teaching. Engaging students in listening, taking notes, and discussion is not discarded for collaborative learning.  These experiences provide the basis for those profound discoveries and completion of complex, multi-step tasks. “Attention serves as a baseline for higher-order thinking processes, including self-regulating thoughts and behavior, making meaning of new information, and employing memory strategies to enhance long-term recall,” (Wilson & Conyers, 2016, p. 72). Critical thinking skills do not develop unless a student has developed selective attention. Paying attention when it matters helps their memory (Wilson & Conyers, 2016).   As students improve their memory, they have more information to apply to new situations. “The use of metacognition and cognitive strategies engages two levels of thinking. The first level involves applying a cognitive strategy to solve a problem; the second involves using metacognition to select and monitor the effectiveness of that strategy,” (Wilson & Conyers, 2016, p. 11).

Higher order questioning enhances critical thinking.  Asking, “What would happen if…” and providing new variables or information, causes students to pause and ponder.  Saying, “what data supports that finding?” sends students back to their process to defend their work. Clarifying queries such as, “How could we apply that to…?” helps students to justify their conclusions. This takes students beyond the memorization of facts. Knowledge gained applies to work, and knowledge is retained more efficiently for future application (Wilson & Conyers, 2016, p. 11).

“When kids take on a writing assignment, they are actually facing a problem-solving challenge-whether or not they are aware of it,” (Levine, 2003, p. 187).  Students first have to define and clarify the problem. In writing, they then have to explore the aspects of the problem, including their own opinions. As they explore their topic, they also have to consider the outcome they desire as the writer, and whether the problem has a solution. Research then follows and reflection is key (Levine, 2003). Critical thinking is not limited to mathematics and science, although it is an essential process for learning those topics. Technology enhances learning in all subject areas when applied appropriately, with reason and relevancy.

The result of emphasizing facts over analysis over decades of public education has been that “students’ tolerance for ambiguity and conflict is diminished, and their critical thinking skills fail to develop,” (Senge, 2012, p. 52). Our job is to create budding experts, not to demonstrate that we are the only ones who possess the needed knowledge.  When a teacher inspires, creates curiosity and allows a class of young minds to develop questions and solutions of their own, a new perspective on classroom interactions occurs. Technology provides everyone with a wealth of knowledge and the ability to access and process information. Peter Senge describes them as “multiple systems of change” (p. 60).

Standards/Digital Pathways

State testing does not “assess a number of important standards from among the Common Core State Standards, including oral communications, collaboration, and the capacity for extended investigations and problem-solving,” (Conley & Darling-Hammond, 2007, p. 4).  The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) reported that research indicated 94% of educators view themselves as facilitators in the learning process while 84% felt developing the critical thinking and reasoning ability of the students was more critical than curriculum content (Burns & Darling-Hammond, 2015).

As students engage in lessons that require them to explore and analyze a situation instead of applying pre-learned steps or algorithms, they become true problem-solvers and their self-confidence heightens.  They share strategies and apply them to synthesize information while discarding facts that are irrelevant or not applicable. While discussing pertinent information, peers in small groups can negotiate opinions and come to refined agreements. When they apply this process to make conclusions, their work becomes more creative and innovative.

“The Common Core State Standards emphasize the development of skills to support independent learning and college and career readiness and ‘assume that teachers are ultimately teaching students to think – the most difficult and important literacy skill of all” (Wilson & Conyers, 2016, p. 13).  Assessing critical thinking is a challenge for many teachers, but as educators, it is our duty to continually work towards strengthening this aspect of our planning and assessment. The key is to make lessons that incorporate critical thinking the norm rather than the exception. Assessment is formative and thus, informs subsequent learning and identifies gaps in learning. As students demonstrate advanced abilities, feedback is frequent and detailed to increase motivation.  Lessons should require students to consistently think critically and apply that thinking to solve problems at their grade level and above.

Technology Tools/Strategies/Lessons to Accelerate Learning

As we search for strategies to make our students college and career ready, it is imperative that we consider the use of technology to enhance and accelerate the develop of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Innumerable web resources provide teachers with critical thinking activities for learners of all levels and all subjects.  This section outlines a few of the sources available to educators and students that might facilitate a higher level of thinking among our learners.


Socrative is classroom app that allows for educators to engage students through numerous interactive lessons.  In addition, Socrative allows for immediate feedback to instructors to assess students understanding as well as long-term mastery tracking for each individual student.  This mastery is visualized for the educator by a red, yellow, and green system approach allowing the status of each student to be easily recognizable (Mastery Connect, 2018).  Standard-based reports can be generated and students in need of remediation are readily identifiable (Mastery Connect, 2018). Socrative is compatible with Microsoft Word, Adobe PDF, or Open Office making it possible to upload rubrics, assessments, and test banks directly into your Socrative account (Mastery Connect, 2018).

Activities available include instant polling, quizzes, and quick questions.  Space race visuals allow for students to compete during quizzing keeping the student engaged as they track their progress (Mastery Connect, 2018).  Educators upload their own content making it possible to include higher level, critical thinking and problem-solving questions. Since formative assessment is viewed instantly the educator has the opportunity to give immediate feedback to the students to clarify subject matter or open discussion to further promote critical thinking.


Kahoot! is an interactive game-based learning app that can be used as an engagement tool for quizzing students allowing for immediate feedback.  Similar to Socrative, educators can develop their own quizzes that include higher level, critical thinking, and problem-solving questions in order to facilitate student learning.  Students are scored based on the accuracy of their response and their speed. Unlike Socrative, Kahoot! does not include mastery tracking to review assessments over a longer period of time.  Kahoot! also includes access to previously designed quizzes in subjects such as science, math, and history (Kahoot!, 2018). To further incorporate critical thinking and reinforce course content, students can be assigned the task of creating their own Kahoot! quizzes to share with the class or in small groups.

Poll Everywhere

Poll Everywhere is a real-time polling and quizzing app used in the education and business that is compatible with PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides (Poll Everywhere, n.d.).  Educators are able to import polling or quizzing questions directly into their presentation allowing the learners to view selected answers immediately. Critical thinking can be accomplished through polls related to predicting outcomes based on the presented variables in a given case study.  Additionally, discussion can be generated based on responses to further promote critical thinking.

Neo K-12

Neo K-12 is available for a nominal fee for a one-year teacher subscription.  Neo K-12 includes numerous videos, games, puzzles, and quizzes for a variety of ages (Neo K-12, 2018).  Some of the online activities of interest for critical thinking enhancement teach students to organize their ideas, drag and drop information or pictures in sequential flow charts as well as watch videos that prompt critical thinking, discussions and increase their retention of facts (Neo K-12, 2018).


Stencyl is a paid for use educational service.  A subscription enables students to learn code, design games and solve problems at a high level of critical thinking (Stencyl, 2017).  To make the transition to Stencyl easier for educators, the company provides educators with an educator’s kit with how-to instruction and lesson plans to help get started (Stencyl, 2017).  Educators and students have the option to take assessments through the Interactive Assessment Institute to receive certificates of competency for different aspects of Stencyl (Stencyl, 2016).  School plans with funds for technology might consider this application crucial to a balanced program that meets students’ need for competency in a 21st-century plan for their education. This program might also find a home with educational institutions with career path readiness programs in technology and computer design.

Clockwork Brain

Clockwork Brain is an interactive gaming site that deliberately developed games that test and work to enhance memory, attention, dexterity, language, and reasoning (Clockwork Brain, 2018).  An adaptive difficulty is employed through this system, keeping players challenged as they progress through games and puzzles (Clockwork Brain, 2018). Student engagement can be maintained through the “petbots” that interact with the player, mini-games, and crystals that are collected along the way (Clockwork Brain, 2018).

Seesaw: The Learning Journal

Seesaw is a “student-driven digital portfolio” available for IOS devices with multiple features to enhance learning (Apple Inc., 2018, para. 1).  Students can use photos, drawings, voice recordings, and whiteboards to share their reflections on learning, new ideas, and creative thoughts (Apple Inc., 2018).  Parents can also be invited to view their work of their child in order to monitor their progress throughout the year rather than simply moments in time (Apple Inc., 2018).  The Seesaw library offers educators activities they can assign students, or they have the ability to create their own activities for their courses or even blogs (Apple Inc., 2018).  Proper self-reflection can help the students formulate thoughts that require critical thinking. Additionally, students might discover gaps in their own knowledge and the motivation to seek knowledge to fill in these gaps.

Development over time

When preparing critical thinking activities, it is critical to keep the grade level of the learner in mind.  Younger students are still developing their critical thinking abilities and exercises should be developed to aid young learners in this important endeavor.  Age-appropriate lessons with guiding questioning can help to put students on the right track for developing critical thinking skills. Encourage students to ask questions and to defend why their answer is correct.  If the student is wrong, promote collaboration giving students the opportunity to verbalize rationales to their classmates and hear differing points of view. The adoption of the technological tools mentioned previously can be useful tools in developing critical thinking skills in this population.  As educators of younger students, it is imperative to prepare learners for success in future grade levels.

When students enter higher education systems and the workplace, they must be able to analyze and evaluate complex information.  They will be expected to solve problems collaboratively with peers in college and with colleagues on the job. Critical thinking and problem-solving have been deemed by those who teach in higher education as areas where improvement is drastically needed in first-year students (Conley & Darling-Hammond, 2013).  Schools are not doing enough to get people ready for the challenges they will encounter as they move to post-secondary endeavors.

When working with older students and adult learners, a thorough assessment of the student’s critical thinking skills should be completed to give the educator a baseline of the previously developed skills the students possess.  Based on this assessment, educators should tailor lessons based on their level of critical thinking with the goal of further developing their skills. Critical thinking skills are necessary for success in the saturated job market.  Students lacking the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary might not be successful in the 21st-century workforce.  Through the use of technology, educators are able to enhance critical thinking and prepare students for technological advancement in the workforce.

From Theory to Practice (T2P)

Incorporating critical thinking into your classroom using technology requires patience and commitment.  This is a necessary step in preparing students for the 21st-century workforce and learning to work effectively as part of a team.  Please complete the theory to practice exercise below before moving onto the next chapter as a starting point for linking theory to practice.


  • What makes critical thinking important for your students’ academic progress?
  • What types of problems do students need to improve their critical thinking in order to be more successful?
  • How do you find resources that blend technology with developing critical thinking for problem-solving?


As you think about the grouping of students and types of problems they solve in your classroom, how can you improve and modify the questions so that critical thinking is necessary for students to access a solution?

Are the materials that students read for your subjects accessed in such a way that your students have the opportunities necessary to analyze and discuss the topics by applying prior knowledge?

Is the vocabulary development in your classroom successful as measured by listening to student discourse? In other words, are the conversations rich with language and ideas that students feel confident negotiating? Do their replies to each other include justification and data when they are working on performance tasks in mathematics?


Access one of the online activities suggested in this chapter and modify it to meet your students’ needs as to grade level, content, and Common Core Standard. Include opportunities for students to give feedback on the lesson by creating a template or having them answer a prompt before the lesson, during, and after. Share the results with your colleagues or department by posting it on your Schoology (or whatever platform your team/school uses to communicate within the site). Include your own reflection: How will you teach this lesson better in the future? Have students mastered the standard? What gaps have you identified in content knowledge, ability to communicate, or critical thinking strategies that you will need to address in the next activity?

*Theory to Practice Exercise Adopted from Hooper and Bernhardt (2016)



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Beyond the Cloud by KBobango and kstephens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book