Teaching how to think, not what to think. Tips for educators

Posted November 10, 2020 by Aisha Abdullah, PhD

Critical thinking is possibly the single most important skill a student can learn. The ability to identify problems, analyze situations, apply research, and develop solutions is an invaluable skillset in any career. For as important a skill as it is, critical thinking is often left out of core curriculum. Frequently, students are often taught facts and figures but not how to analyze data and apply knowledge. In other words, students are taught what to think rather than how to think. Fortunately, teachers have the ability to inspire curiosity and critical thinking in their students, both in and out of the classroom.

The development of critical thinking skills is a predictor for student outcomes, higher education retention, and career success. Educators can incorporate activities into their daily lessons that foster research, analytical, and problem-solving skills. TEDEd, PBS Learning, and Edutopia offer lesson plans, media, and other resources to promote critical thinking skills in your students.

One of our ICS partners focuses specific attention on the skills needed to foster critical thinking and teaching students how to think. The Future Problem Solving Program (FPSP) offers opportunities for students to develop critical thinking skills through problem-solving based competitions and curricula. All FPSP components are centered around understanding and solving some of the most pressing international issues, like food waste, criminal justice systems, artificial intelligence, propaganda, and much more. By participating in FPSP, students won’t just learn how to think; they’ll confront and devise solutions to real-world issues that are relevant to their lives and futures. 



Tips from Winning FPSP Coaches

We asked teachers who coached winning teams in the FPSP for their best advice for educators who want to increase their skills in teaching critical thinking and helping their students learn “how to think.” Jill Stone, coach for the Paris Independent School District in Texas, and Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy, coaches for Mount Horeb School District in Wisconsin, shared their tips, tricks, and lessons learned from their winning seasons of the FPSP. Here are the top tips they recommend for other educators:

(1) Get creative in encouraging creative thinking 
“One of our favorite activities [to push “out of the box” thinking] is to have them find a research article about the topic, read it critically, and make notes of possible challenges, key verb phrases, and solutions. We then ask them to take those potential solutions and “tweak” them in a futuristic and creative manner while still having plausibility.” – Jill Stone

“We also work together to brainstorm different topics and ideas as well as sharpen our critical thinking skills with logic puzzles and games, STEM challenges, and SCAMPER.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy.

Note: SCAMPER is a tool to promote creative thinking that stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse.


(2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help
“I would tell those that are new to the competition to not be afraid of reaching out to other affiliate coaches for advice and lesson ideas. Know that it will be time-consuming and frustrating at times.  However, the growth you will see not only in your students but in yourself will be worth every second.”  – Jill Stone

“It takes time to really understand and get to know the process. Practice, practice, practice. The feedback from evaluators is valuable, and spending a lot of time reviewing feedback and applying suggestions and comments is helpful.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy 


(3) Help your students rise to the challenge
“Students are often given information and told exactly what to do in order to get a specific answer. This time there is no specific answer, it is all about the method and the process.  We have had students tell us after graduating that it has given them an advantage as they work with others in a problem-solving environment.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy

“The pandemic was the biggest hurdle to overcome this year. The prospect of travel is of course part of the appeal of the competition. With that off the table, it was all intrinsic motivation. We told them that continuing the competition would strengthen them not only as a student but as a person. A dependable person will keep going and see a commitment through. They rallied like never before. The sense of accomplishment was so much greater and spoke volumes about their character.” – Jill Stone


Any teacher can take this tips and put them to work with their students. Joining the Future Problem Solving Program is one of the best ways to nurture these skills with your students. You can also learn about other competitions on our competitions page to see what academic competitions are coming up. Set up your account to follow competitions that excite you and stay up-to-date on all the news with academic competitions.

Remember that you can also upgrade to a premium account so you can have more tools to track your progress in competitions, get insider information on academic competitions, access the ICS competitions concierge, and gain exclusive discounts on ICS-managed programs.