PG Blog Header, Intellectual Curiosity and Critical Thinking

Intellectual Curiosity and Critical Thinking

April 12, 2022
Dr. Amanda Sullivan & Dr. Amanda Strawhacker

What to eat. Whom to vote for. How to fix that problem with your computer. What job or college major to pursue. The decisions we make each day, from small to big, have profound impacts on our lives. To lead a successful and fulfilling life, we need to make conscious and well-informed choices through a process known as critical thinking. 

Simply put, critical thinking is very much like problem-solving. It is the process of analyzing facts (often from multiple sources) in order to make a judgment, a decision, or to formulate an answer to a problem. There are a lot of different definitions of critical thinking. One of the most widely cited definitions is offered by Barry Beyer in his book “Critical Thinking where he states:  "Critical thinking... means making reasoned judgments" (p. 8). Beyer views critical thinking as using criteria to judge the quality of something, from cooking to a conclusion of a research paper. 

Adults must be able to think critically in order to make good decisions about personal, professional, and civic affairs. How do we get adults who can do this? By raising students who can think critically! These students will grow up able to use the critical thinking skills they learned in school to make good decisions throughout their adult lives. 

What is Critical Thinking?

In her article “Getting Critical About Critical Thinking,” Heather Wolpert-Gawron explains that “critical thinking is when the brain is active, making connections to the material and applying original thought to the concept. It’s the difference between struggling to remember (‘ugh!’) and struggling to solve (‘yeah!’).”

If this sounds messy, that’s because, well, it is! Critical thinking is deeper than just outlining a paper, and it’s usually not possible to address Critical Thinking Challenges simply by Googling for an answer. For example, if students are curious about how we can limit the number of plastic bottles polluting our local park, they’ll need to define the problem (what are the boundaries of the park?), investigate evidence (how many plastic bottles are there now?), formulate hypotheses and avoid assumptions (if we guess that there is more litter after baseball games, how can we test that idea?), consider other interpretations (maybe there aren’t enough recycling bins?), and tolerate ambiguity (what’s our next step if we don’t know how to answer one of our questions?).

There are many traits of critical thinking, but to keep it simple, just remember that this kind of thinking takes time, effort, and motivation to work through a question. That’s why the easiest and most successful way to engage students in critical thinking is to help them explore a question that they actually care about, and actively want to explore! That’s where curiosity comes in.

Critical Thinking & Curiosity

Most educators and caregivers agree that critical thinking is important. But what many overlook is that critical thinking and intellectual curiosity go hand in hand. Critical thinking means asking questions and wanting to know more about the why, what, who, where, when, and how of a situation. It means seeking out reputable research and facts and not simply taking things at face value. If you read the first post in this series, you know this is very similar to the definition of intellectual curiosity which is, in a nutshell, the act of asking questions with the purpose of learning something new. 

Francesca Gino explains that, “when our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions” in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Why Curiosity Matters.” The ability to think critically is an essential 21st century​ skill and at the core of this ability is curiosity. This means, that if K-12 school settings want to improve critical thinking skills, they must also be focused on fostering intellectual curiosity. 

Supporting Critical Thinking In Schools 

Professor and senior national consultant with The Critical Thinking Consortium Garfield Gini-Newman argues that schools must inspire wonder to help students develop the intellectual tools for deep learning and critical thinking. In his TedTalk he provides suggestions on how educators can bring this about to prepare our students for an undefined future, like using surprising and provocative questions (e.g., “Do we drink the same water the dinosaurs drank?”) to launch investigations of more traditional topics like the water cycle. 

PG Screenshot, Water Cycle ArticlePG Screenshot, Water Cycle Article

Standards and frameworks are beginning to focus more on strategies like those presented by Gini-Newman. Schools are becoming more focused on students gaining critical thinking and problem-solving skills than the rote memorization of facts. In the Common Core standards, for example, students are not only expected to read and understand what they are reading, but to be critical thinkers, asking questions about possible data gaps, exhibiting curiosity about how the author reached a specific point and exploring in greater depth areas of interest on their own. Similarly, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning asks that educators focus on critical thinking along with creativity, communication, and collaboration in order to prepare students for the future.

Despite this push for creativity and critical thinking in K-12 settings, formal education classrooms often focus on students being busy with activities like worksheets, that educate through repetition, and yes, busy work. These approaches encourage students to respond to questions with answers that are “correct” as opposed to asking questions, solving problems, and thinking critically to discover knowledge on their own. 

Using open-ended resources like PebbleGo and Pebble Go Next prompts students to explore ideas, create hypotheses, and draw well-researched conclusions. With over one thousand articles, students read facts, watch videos, and play games, supporting their critical thinking by allowing them to obtain and evaluate information in different ways. 

PGN Screenshot, Grand Canyon ArticlePGN Screenshot, Grand Canyon Article

Tips for Educators 

Curiosity is an important driver of critical thinking. Similarly, the ability to think critically can lead to a positive feedback loop of curiosity, discovery, and innovation. Educators can support curiosity and critical thinking by implementing practices that celebrate the process of learning and questioning. Educators may consider implementing these practices in their classrooms: 

Foster Project Based Learning  

In a Project Based Learning (PBL) approach, students show what they learn as they journey through the unit, collaborate with peers, and assess themselves and each other. According to PBL Works, this approach supports critical thinking and curiosity because it engages students in purposeful, real-life relevant explorations of questions that are close to their interests. 

Implement KWHL Charts

Instead of focusing solely on new knowledge, engage students in a process of self-reflection around what they are learning. You can do this by asking students how they made a new discovery and prompting them with questions that routinely explore what they think or believe and how they arrived at these thoughts/beliefs. KWLH charts are a great tool for supporting this! As a class or individually, use these charts for students to track what they K (know), W (want to know),  L (learned), H (how they learned it, and maybe even how to learn more!).

Supporting Curiosity

Educators can help support critical thinking by also supporting question-asking and curiosity. Teachers can encourage their students to develop questions beyond those with simple “yes or no” answers or one right solution. Students should be prompted to ask deep, personally meaningful questions and then use sources like PebbleGo to conduct research, challenge existing ideas with evidence, and communicate their own understanding. 

More Resources

Want to learn more about supporting critical thinking and curiosity? Check out the following resources:

This is the second post in an exciting blog series all about fostering curiosity in K-5 and beyond. Let us know what you want to see on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using #PGCuriosity. Be sure to tag the authors of this post too! 

Dr. Amanda Sullivan - Twitter @AASully, Instragram @keikisullivan

Dr. Amanda Strawhacker - Twitter @ALStrawhacker, Instagram: @ALStrawhacker

Together: Twitter @theDrsAmanda