When it comes to developing critical thinking skills, as with many things in life, it’s all about the basics. The idea of critical thinking can be a daunting one for many people, but when you break it down to its elements–especially its most basic ones–it can become much easier for students to learn and teachers to teach.

Like many topics or lines of thought, the most basic element of critical thinking is identification. As students strive to think about issues more deeply, they sometimes have a hard time seeing the details, instead getting caught up in the final outcome as opposed to focusing on the steps it will take to get there. That’s why it’s crucial for educators to give their students a firm basis from which to build their critical thinking abilities.


The first step in any critical thinking task is to identify what it is you want to study and the primary components of that topic. This may sound simple, but sometimes both students and educators feel the urge to jump ahead and get into the more complicated aspects of critical thinking before they’ve even solidly explained what it is they want to understand.

If you’re an educator working on critical thinking exercises with your students, make sure they have a clear understanding of what it is you want them to explore before you move on to higher-level thinking activities. By spending more time on the early stages of the exercises, students will actually build the knowledge and skills they need to handle the more difficult phases.

For instance, in critical thinking activities where students are asked to delve into the meaning of a passage from a work of fiction, or analyze the author’s intent in a given work, start out by engaging in a brainstorming activity. Have the students write down what they think are the most important themes in the piece. Once you have compiled a list of contributions from the entire class, discuss each one thoroughly and identify which are the most important. This can happen through consensus between the students and the educator, analysis of the importance of those themes, and activities like plotting how often each theme is touched upon in the work you’re examining.

Clear understanding leads to well-developed concepts

The more comfortable students are with the basics of what they will have to think critically about, the more likely they are to be able to make reasonable judgments about it and form rational hypotheses.

Building on the previous example, a basic brainstorming session about themes would help you develop a chart where they are listed in order of importance. Then, going forward, the students would be able to look for them in either the passage that’s being studied or throughout the larger work.

With those themes and ideas already planted in their minds, students would then be able to move on to the more complicated functions of critical thinking–such as analysis, hypothesis, and testing–with a greater handle on how the underlying issues they are studying will help them with those more complex tasks.

Identification in Common Core lesson plans

One of the key intended functions of the Common Core State Standards is to get the broad majority of children in the United States to improve their critical thinking skills.

Not every student will be able to thrive when the later stages of critical thinking are addressed, but by making the initial phase–identification–a focus, educators can teach nearly everyone who passes through their classrooms how to apply basic critical thinking skills to everyday life by understanding and conceptualizing basic concepts. From there, students will be able to both consciously and subconsciously make their own, well-reasoned assumptions and judgments.