The Challenge Zone: Implement These Techniques to Build a Culture of Critical Thinking

White female high school student with short curly hair and black frame glasses rests her chin in her hands with a puzzled expression on her face.

Today’s school leaders must be more than instructional leaders, facility overseers and human resource managers—we must also carry our school communities through political, social and health crises.

– Christi Hildebrand, SmartBrief Contributor


Create Safe and Engaging Learning Environments

A safe classroom is one that allows students to take risks, make mistakes, explore concepts, and gain understanding. Critical thinking strategies require students and teachers to step outside their comfort zones.

  • Establish flexible learning environments that allow for different learning opportunities and group formats.
  • Harness technology to capture student interest and maximize learning.
  • Model respect for students when they speak.
  • Communicate through your actions and words that every student’s voice is valued.
  • Build strong relationships by engaging students in informal conversations throughout the school year.

Watch the short video below from Edutopia on how learning occurs at the intersection of comfort and challenge.

Lead by Example

It’s important that students see educators asking questions to work through a problem, seek out potential solutions, and strive to determine the best response. When teachers explain their thinking out loud, students become aware of the thinking processes that are involved in performing certain tasks.

Start Small

To kick-start your school’s critical thinking journey, focus on identifying little ways to push students and teachers. One way to do this is by encouraging meaningful talk. For example, when a student answers a question, follow up and ask: “How do you know?” “What makes you say that?” “How can you take what was said and go further?” and “Now what? Why?”

Higher-Order Thinking is Essential for Every Student

Higher-order thinking skills are not just for “higher level” students. Higher-order thinking is essential for everyone. In fact, students who struggle with retaining rote facts and knowledge often begin to shine when given an opportunity to explore more critical and creative problem-solving.

Prepare Families

Many of today’s families learned in classrooms that looked and felt very different than those of their children. As a result, they often want quicker, easier answers and fact-based study guides to help their children succeed. Communicating the value of higher-order thinking and critical thinking is an essential part of creating a schoolwide culture that sticks.

Explore the Unknown

Critical thinking is not confined to academic success, and its influence stretches into artistic realms, interpersonal relations, and more. Building a culture of critical thinking requires stamina and perseverance. By leading others to use critical thinking to explore the unknown, you’re helping them gain lifelong skills for success.


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