From Socrates to State Standards: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

21st century skills: why we need to teach thinking

Student thinking
Student considering a topic during a Socratic seminar

The goal of education is to prepare students for life—so they can make a good living, contribute to a democratic society, and find personal fulfillment. Students need a range of skills to equip them for success in the 21st century, but the most important skill we can teach is how to think.

Some people wrongly assume that some students will always be better at critical thinking than others. In fact, critical thinking is a skill that students can learn at school and all students can learn it. Paideia trains educators to teach critical thinking successfully, primarily through Socratic seminar.

Learn to lead Socratic seminars.

Critical thinking in the state standards

State standards have shifted emphasis from content to skills. These standards recognize that students need to master intellectual skills in order to succeed, in life and in their careers. Because thinking and communicating are intertwined processes, critical thinking skills are at the heart of all of the major language arts skills in the state standards: reading, speaking and listening, and writing.

Paideia offers free lesson plans and course materials aligned with state standards. We also offer trainings for educators on how to teach literacy skills through Socratic seminar.

What are critical thinking skills?

Critical thinking skills refer to people’s ability to develop and express ideas that are clear, coherent, and sophisticated:

  • Clear: Students learn to articulate ideas so that a listener or reader can readily understand what they mean.
  • Coherent: Students learn to make points that logically support each other.
  • Sophisticated: Students learn to acknowledge their own biases, consider other points of view, and synthesize multiple perspectives as they develop their ideas.

Teaching critical thinking through Socratic Seminar

Students in seminarIn a Socratic seminar, using the Paideia method, students explore big ideas and values in response to open-ended questions about a text. They generate and express their own ideas, and they listen attentively to other participants’ points of view. As the dialogue progresses, the seminar leader asks questions that increasingly challenge the students to articulate their ideas, evaluate their assumptions, assess logical implications, and consider other points of view.

During this process, the students’ thinking moves from equilibrium (ideas they think they understand) to disequilibrium (uncertainty about which ideas are best) to a more sophisticated equilibrium (new ideas that synthesize multiple points of view).