The Center for Mission & Academics
Mission Moments

Critical Thinking: A Vital Tool for Students

By Linda Pryor, Executive Director of Mission & Academics

In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Dr. Tony Wagner outlines seven skills that he has identified from his research gathered while talking to many CEOs and successful business owners regarding the skills that our students will need when they graduate and want to enter the workplace. He proposes that these skills will be needed to succeed in the 21st-century global economy but will also be important for students to become engaged and contributing members of our democracy. 
Brookfield Academy has the same overarching goals for its students -- along with an emphasis on character development and personal responsibility. We want our graduates to be contributors to their world and to value freedom and democracy. These goals are a part of many conversations we engage in when we discuss our Mission:  “The Mission of Brookfield Academy is to graduate students, prepared for college and life, educated in the skills, values, and heritage of responsible, constructive, free people.”  

A fundamental element taught during the BA journey is the aptitude of critical thinking, and it is the very first skill Wagner highlights in his book. If by critical thinking, he means the ability to use logic and clear thinking about the pertinents facts when considering a problem or need -- we define this as an important skill for us at Brookfield Academy and we have a defined path about how to work on it with our students. We take a classical approach and spend considerable time building up a large body of knowledge - or schema - to use and rely on in every content area. Knowledge is the foundation for clear thinking and problem solving, and it is an important component to stay true to the art of teaching critical thinking skills.  

Critical thinking has become the hot new topic in the education field right now, but without a vital component; it is, sadly, being separated somehow from knowledge. At BA, we consider knowledge to be the companion to critical thinking. While critical thinking is being prioritized as a skill that educators need to teach, in some cases, it is being prioritized ahead of teaching facts and knowledge and it is being taught in isolation. But in the 21st century, we have access to excellent research in the area of thinking skills.  The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (2006) states that “research clearly rejects the ...views on human cognition in which general abilities such as learning, reasoning, problem solving, and concept formation correspond to capacities and abilities that can be studied independently of the content domains.” In other words, in order to think critically about something - that is, to analyze, synthesize, infer - we need content knowledge, we need real information with which we can interact. Research goes further to explain that these thinking skills are not typically transferable from one subject to another.   

At Brookfield Academy, we work every day to provide our students with a wealth of knowledge in a variety of subject areas first. We strive to feed their wonder and spark their curiosity about the world around them. As our students grow, we, as educators, continue to encourage and guide them to think deeply about what they have learned - to analyze and critique ideas, to compare and contrast events, to synthesize their observations, and even propose new ideas. All of this is possible, after students build up enough general knowledge on a topic first, so they can ask real questions grounded in their own competence on the subject.  

This transformation and growth is exciting to watch but also requires patience and a love for teaching and learning. Critical thinking is not a skill one can just hand out to a student. Once students have established a good grounding in some content and the curiosity to think about it all more deeply, it is only then that critical thinking must be encouraged and modeled, and also provided in the form of opportunities for students to further develop.

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