New ideas to grow tomorrow's critical thinkers and problem-solvers

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Thick skin in junior english class

Matthew Ventura, Ph.D., recalls a high school English teacher who taught him a hard but important lesson.

“Mr. Davidson was really tough,” he says. “He felt no shame ripping apart our essays.”

“Despite the criticism, he spent so much time giving us detailed feedback,” Matthew says. “It really affected me.”

“Not only did I become a better writer,” he says, “I realized that a Mr. Davidson-like level of feedback can help improve critical thinking skills like few other things.”

Important skills, better teaching

Matthew went on to study and develop new ways to teach and assess 21st century skills like critical thinking.

An early collaboration, the Physics Playground, was a digital game that walked students through complex physics concepts with outcomes and processes that mimicked real-world experiences.

It was a breakthrough.

“These kinds of natural, playful simulations,” Matthew says, “help students strategize their way through tough subjects—and provide an opportunity for teachers to provide feedback based on where each student is in the learning process.”

“Imagine a class of 400 students,” he says. “How can a teacher be like Mr. Davidson and provide such granular, one-on-one feedback to everybody?”

Innovative digital platforms, he says, provide a trifecta of benefits:

They teach effectively. They lead to one-on-one feedback for students. And they’re scalable.

The need for problem-solvers

“It was an opportunity to explore some basic questions about critical thinking,” Matthew says. “What do we mean by ‘critical thinking? How can we improve it?”

It’s part of a conversation, he says, that’s been batted around by academics for decades.

“More and more employers want to hire good problem-solvers,” Matthew says.

Good problem-solvers, he says, can spot opportunities for innovation thanks to critical thinking skills—”so these questions were important to try to answer,” he says.

Critical thinking in specific disciplines

“Skills for Today” reviews the history of definitions around critical thinking. It summarizes leading research on the various methods of teaching and assessing critical thinking.

The paper also takes the discussion about critical thinking in a new direction.

“There is so much talk about broad critical thinking skills,” he says. “What we want to start exploring is: How can we improve critical thinking in particular disciplines?”

A speech class might employ new critical thinking teaching methods in debate exercises, he says.

An IT course might show students how to find bugs in computer code.

A business or economics class might guide students to weigh issue pros and cons in order to make tough decisions.

“We want to provide an actionable framework for educators in this new approach,” Matthew says, “so we can reach more learners and prepare them for tomorrow’s workforce.”

Next-generation teaching tools

Matthew emphasizes that critical thinking skills are skills—and that they are only improved with practice.

He hopes his paper can be a part of making this practice more effective.

“We hope this research helps us develop new learning tools that benefit learners,” he says, “and, at the same time, guides teachers to bring new teaching approaches into their classrooms.”