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In this lesson you’ll learn the art of crafting a question that inspires different levels of critical thinking. We’ll cover a basic definition for critical thinking and a five level system for word problems.

A short quiz follows.

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Critical Thinking Word Problems

When designing lessons for students, teachers are constantly trying to develop ways to increase their students’ retention of material while also challenging the way they think. They’re also trying to get home in time to cook dinner and watch the latest episode of their favorite TV show. I can’t help with that last problem, but we can learn how to structure problems for students in a way that encourages the development of critical thinking.What’s critical thinking you say? You didn’t say that you say? I should stop posing questions you say? Ok, enough of that. Critical thinking is intentional thought that is logical, rational, and open-minded.

This is a pretty broad definition, but critical thinking is a very open concept. The key to critical thinking is the idea of actively analyzing your own thought. This process of thinking about thinking is known as metacognition and is a hallmark of critical thinking, which is exclusive to us humans.

Take that, you darn apes!

Levels of Critical Thinking

When crafting word problems to inspire critical thinking, it is vital that you use the right language. How you frame the question sets up how the student is going to think to come up with the answer. There are five levels of complexity based on how you ask a question, going from least to most cognitively complex. You’ll notice that as the levels increase the questions become more abstract and ask the student to engage in more critical thinking.

Level One: Foundation

These questions are simply repeating facts or knowledge. They can also involve performing a basic computation in mathematics. This is the lowest form of cognitive complexity and requires no critical thinking.

Prompts for these questions: Define, Calculate, List, Describe.

Level Two: Identification

Questions at this level involve very basic critical thinking skills. These questions are taking foundational knowledge (level one) and examining some factors. These can include listing or sorting information based on attributes and beginning to understand uncertainty about knowledge.

Prompts for these questions: Explain why, Identify aspects of, List issues related to.

Level Three: Interpretations and Connections

Now we’re starting to get into the meat of critical thinking. At this level, the thinker is trying to identify her/his own biases and assumptions while understanding opposing viewpoints.

Information can be organized in a more complex manner, such as relevance to an argument.Prompts for these questions: Discuss strengths and weaknesses, Compare and contrast, Identify and discuss.

Level Four: Prioritize and Communicate

This level is starting to require some serious critical thinking. Here the thinker is given a set of guidelines and tasked with coming up with the proper answer after analysis. After a solution has been formulated, communication is also a vital step.

Prompts for these questions: Explain how you prioritized issues in reaching a solution to, Discuss how you reached this answer compared to, Defend your solution from.

Level Five: Integrate and Refine

We’ve reached the highest level of critical thinking. The big cheese. The whole enchilada. I might be hungry. At this level it is assumed the thinker has gathered, compared, and interpreted relevant facts to develop and communicate a solution to the problem. Now her/his job is to understand the limitations of her/his answer, acknowledge alternatives, and develop an ongoing process to incorporate new information into her/his solution.

That’s a spicy meatball! Ok, I really am hungry now.Prompts for these questions: Describe the limitations of your proposed solution to, Explain the implications of your solution to, Establish a plan for monitoring your recommendation of, Examine how conditions might change over time for.By understanding these five steps we can learn how to craft word problems that spur critical thinking development. Bonus points for those of you who noticed elements of Bloom’s taxonomy or Webb’s depth of knowledge.

Bonus points may be redeemed for hugs by me.


Now we’ll cover some examples of each level so you can see how the levels work. One thing to keep in mind is that not every question needs to be posed at level five. Quite frankly that would get tiresome. It’s good to start at level one and work your way up. Also, younger students will struggle with higher levels as they require a degree of self-reflection that might be beyond their development.

Level One

Since these questions are very simple and involve little cognitive challenge, they will be short and simple.

Example: List the steps involved in a bill becoming a law.

Level Two

These are getting a little more complicated, but they are still primarily based around the idea of finding and identifying specific attributes.Example: Create a list of information that might be useful in thinking about climate change.

Level Three

This is, in my own estimation, the level at which most critical thinking problems will be found in schools. They challenge thinking, but not at the highest level.Example: Discuss the effects the Dred Scott decision had on the build-up to the Civil War.

Level Four

This is where things start to get a little tricky.

Now you’re asking students to come up with alternatives and communicate those ideas.Example: Explain the theory behind ‘broken window’ policing and provide reasoning for the arguments against this theory.

Level Five

Now we’re at top-level serious critical thinking. These questions shouldn’t be answered easily, since they require detailed answers and an on-going process of monitoring. They should really boil your mind noodles.

Now my stomach is growling.Example: Describe the ongoing effects installing a dam on the Snake River would have on the surrounding ecosystem. Provide a mechanism for monitoring the flora and fauna levels.

Lesson Summary

Alright, while I go fix myself a sandwich you should review the facts. Critical thinking is intentional thought that is logical, rational, and open-minded.

A hallmark of critical thinking is metacognition, which is thinking about thinking. When utilizing critical thinking, you are looking at the whole problem, rather than just the solution. Based on how we design our word problems, we can encourage higher or lower levels of critical thinking. Now I’m off to get something to drink to go with this sandwich.

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