Critical Thinking

Ashbrook’s Vision

Ashbrook faculty lays a solid foundation of core subjects and critical thinking skills that is enhanced by a comprehensive arts, world languages, and physical education curriculum.

Fostering critical thinking skills in early childhood classrooms is crucial for laying the foundation for a child’s lifelong learning. Teachers in our preschool and pre-k classrooms are masters at teaching students critical thinking skills which they integrate throughout their daily activities, lessons, and interactions. Problem solving activities, storytelling, imaginative play, reflection, experimentation, outdoor play, and developing independence are all ways we grow critical thinkers in our early childhood classrooms.

Here are some examples:

  • Teachers interact and communicate with students using open-ended questions.  This encourages curiosity and exploration by asking open-ended questions that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. These questions prompt children to think, reason, and express their ideas. This also encourages students to develop a larger vocabulary and practice their communication skills at a higher level. 
  • Hands-on, age-appropriate problem solving activities are provided daily. These activities can involve puzzles, math games, using building materials, and simple experiments that require children to think critically to find solutions.  Students are exercising their problem solving brain muscles and also their problem solving social muscles as they collaborate with their peers to work together on a shared task. 
  • Students are engaged in storytelling activities and discussions daily. Through guided read-aloud time, teachers invite students to share their thoughts, predictions, and interpretations of stories. This helps develop their ability to think critically about narrative elements.  This also allows students to hear different perspectives and start to learn that others have different views and ideas. 
  • Opportunities are integrated throughout the day for children to observe their surroundings and ask questions. This can involve nature walks, science experiments, or exploring everyday objects. Encouraging young students to inquire, predict, and explore the world around them helps to foster a critical thinking mindset. 
  • Collaborative learning experiences where children work together on projects or activities is another way critical thinking is developed in the early childhood classroom. Collaboration encourages children to consider different perspectives, share ideas, and solve problems collectively.
  • Teaching children the importance of reflection allows their brains to process abstract concepts and ideas with the help of an adult to guide this processing until they are older and can independently reflect on their own.  After completing an activity or project, teacher’s ask children to reflect on what they learned, what worked well, and what they might do differently next time. This helps them develop metacognitive skills.
  • Incorporating imaginative play, such as role-playing or pretend scenarios is a critical part of the school day in the preschool and pre-k. This type of play encourages children to think creatively, make decisions, and solve problems within the context of their play.
  • Teacher modeling is another way critical thinking is encouraged in our early childhood classrooms. Teachers demonstrate how to ask questions, explore possibilities, and make thoughtful decisions. Teachers serve as important role models for developing these skills.
  • Curriculum emphasizes process over product. Children and teachers focus on the process of learning rather than the end result. Teachers celebrate effort, persistence, and creativity, reinforcing the idea that learning involves exploration, experimentation, and continuous improvement. This approach teaches children that there are many ways to come to a conclusion or finished product and they are encouraged to work towards that conclusion in their own unique way. 
  • Extended outdoor playtime. The children have ample amount of time outside each day to play, explore, take risks, discover new things in nature and interact socially with their peers and children in a younger or older cohort. This time allows children to be the decision makers of their time giving them autonomy in a nurturing and safe environment.
  • Independence is a key value in the Early Childhood program. During their time in our program our students are exposed to many ways to gain independence for themselves. Independence fosters problem solving, social dependence (asking a friend for help), autonomy and agency. When a child runs into difficulty getting a coat on or cleaning up at lunchtime they have to evaluate the different options to accomplish a task, “Do I ask a friend for help?  Should I ask a teacher? Could I try it this way?”. Evaluating these different scenarios takes higher level thinking that children approaching five years old can begin to contemplate in a nurturing and safe environment.  

Critical thinking skills in elementary education classrooms are essential for preparing students to become independent learners and problem-solvers. These skills not only contribute to academic success but also prepare students for a future that demands adaptability, creativity, and the ability to think critically in various situations. 

Here are strategies and activities that our teachers use to promote critical thinking in our lower school classrooms:

  • Teachers create experiences that allow students to explore cause-and-effect relationships. Examples include simple science experiments, such as mixing colors or observing changes in materials, or role-playing to help students understand the consequences of their actions.
  • Collaborative learning experiences are promoted throughout all lower school homeroom and specialist classes. Group activities encourage students to work together, share ideas, and consider multiple perspectives, fostering social and cognitive development.
  • Lower school students are introduced to age-appropriate problem-based learning scenarios. We encourage students to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches.
  • Teachers foster critical listening skills by encouraging students to listen actively during whole group read-alouds or group discussions. They ask questions that prompt children to reflect on what they’ve heard and express their opinions.  
  • As students develop higher level reading comprehension, teachers challenge them to analyze, infer, and make connections to the text they are reading/hearing.  Students are often asked, “What is the author trying to tell you without actually telling you?”  Students learn to critically analyze texts, including literature, informational articles, and historical documents.  They learn to identify main ideas, evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions based on the information presented.
  • As students move into the upper elementary grades they begin to learn how to create concept maps or use graphic organizers to visually represent relationships between ideas. This helps them organize information, identify patterns, and understand complex concepts.
  • Teachers often bring in guest speakers or organize field trips (several each year!) to provide students with diverse perspectives and real-world experiences. Discussing these experiences afterward encourages students to think critically about different viewpoints and cultural contexts.
  • Teachers often use educational games and activities that stimulate critical thinking. Puzzle games, board games, and strategy games engage students in problem-solving and decision-making while making learning enjoyable.
  • Around 3rd and 4th grade, students are introduced to debate and persuasive writing activities. Students are encouraged to present and defend their opinions using evidence and logical reasoning. This helps develop argumentative skills and the ability to assess the validity of different perspectives.  If you see an Ashbrook 3rd grader ask them why they do or do not believe we should have a school uniform!
  • Teachers in all subject areas facilitate regular classroom discussions where students can express their opinions, share ideas, and respond to their peers. We encourage them to provide reasons for their viewpoints and consider alternative perspectives.  You will often hear teachers in our lower school respond to student answers with a question such as, “Why do you think that?  What led you to that conclusion?  How do you know?  What clues helped you figure that out?  Tell me more.”
  • Real-world problem-solving activities are incorporated into the curriculum. Teachers present challenges that require students to analyze information, identify solutions, and make decisions. This includes math problems, science experiments, art projects, or social issues.
  • As students get older and naturally become more aware of how they are perceived by their peers, our teachers work to create safe classroom environments where students are expected to share their thoughts and respectfully listen to their peers.  
  • We promote a growth mindset by emphasizing the importance of effort, perseverance, and learning from mistakes. We encourage students to embrace challenges and view setbacks as opportunities for growth.

Ashbrook middle school educators create a learning environment that not only develops critical thinking skills but also nurtures a mindset of curiosity, inquiry, and lifelong learning in their students.  We work to prepare students to navigate complex challenges and become independent learners as they begin to look ahead to life beyond Ashbrook. 

Here are strategies used by our teachers as well as classes we offer that foster critical thinking skills in middle school students:

  • Teachers in all subject areas encourage students to ask probing questions that require analysis and synthesis of information. They teach them to question assumptions, consider alternative perspectives, and evaluate evidence.  Ashbrook students do not tend to simply accept something at face value. 
  • We work to develop metacognitive skills by encouraging students to reflect on their thinking processes.  Teachers push students to think critically about their own responses/learning by asking questions like, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” or “What might you do differently next time?”
  • Teachers facilitate structured classroom discussions and debates on relevant topics. They provide guidelines for respectful discourse, and encourage students to support their arguments with evidence and logical reasoning.
  • Students are introduced to primary sources in history and other subjects. They are taught to critically evaluate historical documents, artifacts, and firsthand accounts to develop a nuanced understanding of events.  
  • Students engage in in-depth literary analysis by exploring characters, themes, and symbolism in literature. The teachers encourage them to support their interpretations with evidence from the text as well as share their thinking with their peers in order to understand and sometimes challenge others’ perspectives. 
  • Science classes emphasize the scientific method and inquiry-based learning. Teachers guide students to formulate hypotheses, design experiments, collect data, and draw conclusions based on evidence.  Critical thinking takes place as students are asked, “Why do you think that happened?  What could you try next?  What do you think you need to find out?”
  • Research projects are often assigned in the middle school core class that require students to delve into a topic, analyze information from various sources, and synthesize their findings. This helps develop research and critical evaluation skills. 
  • Digital literacy plays a large role in the middle school grades.  We teach students to critically evaluate online information. Teachers stress the importance of verifying sources, recognizing bias, and understanding how information is presented in various digital formats.  Students learn how information, graphs, statistics, and online content can be deliberately or inadvertently misleading.  
  • Students explore philosophical concepts through guided discussions.  We  encourage students to reflect on ethical dilemmas, moral reasoning, and abstract ideas, promoting higher-order thinking.
  • Collaborative learning experiences continue to be an integral part of the school day. Group projects and discussions encourage students to share ideas, challenge each other’s thinking, and work together to achieve common goals.

Critical Thinking Through Elective Classes:

  • World Language (Chinese, French, Spanish) – Ashbrook language teachers create an environment that not only facilitates language acquisition but also nurtures critical thinking skills, cultural awareness, and a deeper understanding of the intricacies of language and communication. Teachers guide students to compare and contrast cultural elements, linguistic structures, or literary works from the target language with those of the students’ native language. This encourages critical thinking about linguistic and cultural differences.  Teachers use language games, puzzles, or activities to make language learning engaging. These activities stimulate problem-solving skills and encourage students to think critically about linguistic patterns.
  • The Arts – From Mr. Erik Olson, Art Teacher –  “The Ashbrook education is about building knowledge. It’s about learning skills and developing the perspectives to take on the challenges that our students will face throughout their lives. Our academic program is foundational and architectural: information and skills are compounded over time, one year on top of the next. Our students stand on each level/layer/floor/branch as they are building the next. Every year this tree/pyramid/house grows higher. Horizons extend, perspectives expand. With this broader view, students develop understanding, not only of the world outside themselves, but also that which is deep inside. They gain insight and power. One day, your children will likely be expected to go out into the world and make a life for themselves. How do we, in the arts program, ensure that our students possess the self-awareness, confidence, and empowerment to someday succeed on their life’s path? We do so by teaching them to not merely observe the world around (and inside) them, but to engage with it, creatively.”
  • Theater Classes – Readers Theater – Students in these classes develop critical thinking skills as they engage deeply with literature and its various dimensions.  Students learn to critically analyze the script as they discuss the characters, plot, themes, and the author’s intent.  The teacher asks questions that prompt students to think about the motivations of the characters and the overall message of the play.  Students create alternative endings or perspectives for the play. This activity allows them to consider different outcomes and understand the impact of changes in the storyline.  Students compare and contrast different scripts or versions of the same story. This helps students analyze how different interpretations can shape the overall message and impact of a play.
  • Musical Ensembles – Fostering critical thinking skills in a band class is crucial for the development of well-rounded musicians.  The music teacher guides students in analyzing the musical pieces they are playing. They discuss the structure, key changes, dynamics, and stylistic elements. The teacher encourages critical thinking about the composer’s intentions and how these elements contribute to the overall musical expression. Students are pushed to think critically about their interpretations. They discuss the emotional content of the music, and are challenged to make deliberate choices in dynamics, phrasing, and articulation to convey a particular mood or atmosphere.  When facing challenges during rehearsals, we encourage students to problem-solve collectively. This may involve addressing technical difficulties, working through challenging passages, or figuring out how to achieve a specific musical effect. The teacher creates an environment that not only focuses on technical proficiency but also develops critical thinking skills, creativity, and a deeper appreciation for the art and craft of making music.
  • PE/Health –  Students practice team sports that require strategic thinking and problem-solving. Games like soccer, basketball, or volleyball encourage critical thinking about positioning, teamwork, and tactical decisions during gameplay. The teacher presents scenarios that require critical decision-making related to health and physical activity. Group projects or team-building exercises encourage critical thinking about effective communication and collaborative problem-solving.  Students engage in discussions about ethical considerations in sports and fitness. This includes topics such as fair play and inclusivity in physical activities.
  • Speech & Debate – This class not only develops effective communication but also encourages students to analyze, evaluate, and articulate their thoughts persuasively.  During Speech & Debate class students learn to evaluate evidence for validity, reliability, and relevance.  They learn how to anticipate and respond to counter arguments as well as consider opposing viewpoints and address potential weaknesses in their own arguments.  Students develop logical reasoning through constructing speeches and debating points as they learn how to identify fallacies, recognize faulty reasoning, and strengthen their arguments through sound logic.  Students practice cross-examination exercises where they can question and challenge their opponents directly. This helps develop the ability to think on their feet and respond to unexpected challenges.  Teachers connect debate topics to real-world issues which help students to see the relevance of critical thinking skills in addressing societal challenges and making informed decisions.
  • Model United Nations – MUN simulations require participants to research, analyze global issues, and engage in diplomatic negotiations.  The teacher guides students in critically analyzing draft resolutions by helping them to assess the feasibility, effectiveness, and potential consequences of proposed solutions. The class discusses the implications of different clauses and amendments.  Students are challenged to think critically about their delegation’s position on a given issue. This involves considering national interests, historical alliances, and geopolitical factors that may influence their stance. Cross-examination sessions are incorporated where students can question the positions of other delegates. This promotes critical listening, quick thinking, and the ability to respond to unexpected challenges.  We create an enriching learning experience that not only hones diplomatic and communication skills but also cultivates students’ ability to think critically about global issues and engage in meaningful international dialogue.
  • TedTalks – The teacher guides students in critically evaluating the credibility of the speakers. They discuss their expertise, credentials, and any potential biases. This analysis helps students discern reliable information from less trustworthy sources.  Students practice active viewing by taking notes, jotting down questions, and identifying key arguments during the TedTalk. This practice fosters engagement and critical thinking.  The teacher conducts post-talk discussions where students share their thoughts, questions, and insights. This encourages them to express their opinions, challenge ideas, and consider alternative viewpoints.  Students create their own TedTalks. This exercise requires them to synthesize information, articulate their thoughts effectively, and present their ideas critically.