Critical Thinking is the process of actively evaluating and interpreting ideas. Creative Thinking
and Critical Thinking often work together. Creative thinking originates ideas that are assessed
using Critical Thinking.
Explore these strategies to intentionally support Critical Thinking as a Habit of Mind in your
Want to develop critical and creative thinking skills at the same time? Ask students to evaluate
and organize their data in a visual way. They must think critically as they evaluate the validity of
their data and decide how to organize it. They must think creatively as they communicate their
data in the form of a graph, drawing, or infographic. The more students exercise critical and
creative thinking, the better problem-solvers they will be!
Critical Thinking Sentence Stems
Use these sentence stems to promote critical thinking:
•How do you know that...
•Are you sure that…
•What's your evidence that…
Show Your Thinking
Instead of saying, "Show your work," try saying, "Show your thinking." This emphasizes that you
value critical thinking over rote memorization; working smart more than working hard.
Where's the Evidence?
Make a habit of asking, "Where's the evidence?" or "What's your evidence?" The more students
hear you ask this question, the more apt they will be to provide evidence-based responses. By
asking this question in multiple contexts, you encourage students to be lifelong critical thinkers.
(For example, if a student says, "My mom is making meatloaf tonight," ask, "What's your
When students answer a question or give an initial response, follow with, "Why?" They should
give a slightly deeper answer and/or understanding. Follow that response with, "Why?" again.
Continue asking "Why?" five times so students become accustomed to deeper and deeper
levels of understanding.
When asking students questions, have them respond in a FQR format. Have them answer the
question with a Fact, then ask a related Question, then Respond to the question. For example, if
you ask "Why did the bulb light?," students may answer as follows. Fact: Because the wires
formed a complete circuit. Question: How fast does the current move through the wires?
Response: I'll add that question to my journal to research later. The FQR promotes critical and
creative thinking instead of basic recall.
Worksheets Gone Wild
When you have to use a worksheet, bolster its utility by using it as a tool to strengthen creative
thinking skills. Have the students weave a story out of the answers on the worksheet. Have
them connect something on the worksheet to something they have learned in another subject.
Have them turn the worksheet into an infographic.
Data Your Way
Help students take ownership of their learning by allowing them to choose how
they represent their data from an investigation. They may stretch in their abilities
and learn a new way to graph or chart data. They may observe other students’
representations and want to learn that method. Or you may want to share a
variety of graph choices to spur their thinking, such as those presented in this
Graph Choice Chart. When students take ownership of their learning, engagement
A Dot for your Thoughts
Draw a dot on the board. Have students brainstorm a list of what the dot could possibly
represent (basketball, eye, star, etc.). Then ask the group to create categories out of the ideas
listed so far (sports, art, space, etc.). Resume the brainstorming, this time filling up the newly
created categories. Going between divergent thinking (creative brainstorming) and convergent
thinking (critical categorization) can yield more varied ideas and better focus. As students
brainstorm, allow for new categories and also discuss any unique ideas that couldn't fit in a
Pick an object, for example, a banana. Observe it carefully. Place the object in the box. Have
students take turns asking yes/no questions about the object. When they think they know what
the object is they should ask a question to prove it. When a large number of your class believes
they know the answer, count to three and have them speak the answer out loud. You can pick
students to take your place as the leader.
Compare and Contrast
Having students explain similarities and differences they find between two processes or
concepts is a great way to promote critical thinking. Use a Venn diagram or other graphic
organizer to represent similarities/differences visually. Students could compare needs of plants
and animals, land formations in different states, math problems that have the same answer,
Turn Data into Evidence
Having students transform data into evidence is a powerful strategy to promote critical
thinking. Guide students in first evaluating their data for trustworthiness, then analyzing the
data for patterns and trends. This could include organizing and representing the data visually.
Finally, have them interpret the data in a way that conveys meaning and understanding.
Utilize a variety of collaborative structures to develop and refine ideas. Use individual think
time to reflect on a reading, video, or topic. Use small group time for students to share their
thoughts with others and develop their ideas, and use whole group time for discussion that
allows for refinement of learning. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, each structure adds layers
of insight to the original idea.
Model self-direction and metacognition by thinking aloud. You can share your rationale as you
design an investigation plan so that students learn to emulate that thought process when they
design their own investigation plans. You can share possible reasons for a particular result so
students see what ongoing critical thinking looks like. Thinking aloud also supports a culture of
risk-taking by modeling the communication of ideas freely and without judgement.
When curious people learn new information, they continue to ask questions and make
connections. Develop curiosity by encouraging students to share their learning from secondary
resources using a Fact-Question-Connection format. They should share one fact they learned,
one question they still have, and one connection from what they learned to something they
already know, something they are interested in, or something another classmate said.
Data literacy is complex. When students investigate the natural world, they must be able to gather data, organize it in tables and spreadsheets, analyze it
in context, and describe and interpret it—usually as evi-
dence to support a scientific argument (Jiménez-Aleixan-
dre, Bugallo Rodríguez, and Duschl 2000; Kilpatrick 1985;
These skills are echoed in the science and engineering prac-
tices of the Next Generation Science Standards: “Because raw
data as such have little meaning, a major practice of scientists
is to organize and interpret data through tabulating, graphing,
or statistical analysis. Such analysis can bring out the meaning
of data—and their relevance—so that they may be used as evi-
dence” (NGSS Lead States 2013, Appendix F, page 9).
Hannah Webber, Sarah J. Nelson, Ryan Weatherbee, Bill Zoellick, and Molly Schauffler
But before students can identify patterns in data or use it
as evidence, they must be able to graph it.
In 2007, we began working with scientists and teachers
in Maine to explore students’ data literacy skills. We found
that when students began to organize, graph, and interpret
their data, many were unsure about what kind of graph to
make. Most made bar graphs, regardless of their research
question. They also treated the graph like an end product
in itself—instead of using it to see patterns and make argu-
ments. Although students had the mechanical skills to gener-
ate graphs, they did not logically decide what kind of graph
would best suit their particular research question.
Consequently, we developed the Graph Choice Chart
(GCC), a tool to help students choose the appropriate graph.
November 2014 3
This article describes the GCC and gives examples of how
our partner teachers used it in their classrooms.
Early in our project, we surveyed more than 200 high school
students and asked them to draw graphs to illustrate simple
comparisons between two groups and the relationships be-
tween two variables (Figure 1). In the first part, we asked
students to draw a graph to help them determine whether
the type of stream bottom—rocky or muddy—affected drag-
onfly abundance. The second part asked them to graphically
show the correlation between fish size and the concentra-
tion of mercury. In the case of the dragonflies, only 23% of
students made a graph—a frequency plot or a bar graph of
group averages—that visually compared dragonfly abun-
dance in the two habitats. In the fish example, only 58% of
students correctly made a scatter plot to display the correla-
tion between mercury concentration and fish weight. Based
on our followup interviews with students, we concluded
that, for many, the question “What kind of graph should I
use?” did not occur to them.
Thus, the GCC we created takes the form of a decision
tree, where a choice at each node, or decision point, leads to
other choices, and finally, to an outcome, or type of graph, for
each branch (Figure 2, p. XX). This helps students make an
informed decision about what kind of graph to use.