We live in an age of advertising slogans, sound bites, talking points, and other bits of pre-digested dogma, straw men, and urban myths. Is researcher Gwen Dewar (see References) right when she says that people are getting the idea that “fractured attention and superficial thinking are acceptable ways to get along”?

There is an antidote to fractured attention and superficial thinking. Critical thinking skills are perhaps more essential for success today than ever before. Do you have a strategy for using eLearning to help people develop critical thinking skills? Does your eLearning help people develop the ability to mindfully apply what they learned instead of merely enabling them to recall information?

Methods for doing these things in the physical classroom exist and can be highly effective. Should we just go offline, back to the physical classroom for this work, or should we just make the effort to use technology appropriately to extend the opportunity to learn? In my opinion, the answer is, “Take it online!”

I’ve searched out ideas from experts on ways to deal with these questions, and I’ve looked at ways to implement those ideas in eLearning. Here’s a brief compendium of what I came up with, and I hope you find it useful.

What does “to think” mean?

“Teaching people to think” sounds like a worthy goal, but a little reflection shows that the phrase doesn’t mean much without defining what “think” means.

In his article in the References, M.S. Katz recalls that John Dewey discussed two common meanings or synonyms of the word: to recollect and to recall. Nobody has to be taught how to do either of those. Another sense Katz describes consists of reveries, dreams, and mental wandering. These are not controlled, they are not going anywhere, and they are not productive of anything worth keeping. These non-reflective meanings of “thinking” are not significant as far as learning is concerned.

“Thinking” can also mean “believing,” and belief frequently leads to action, which is usually the goal of an eLearning experience. But when the learner takes action, analysis of the outcome is also desireable: did it work? What could the learner do differently next time to improve the results? The key to belief and effective action is to support learning to think critically, to analyze, to concentrate, and to reflect. How does an instructional designer get that to happen?


At this point, we might look to neuroscience and current brain research. Neuroscience has found ways to understand how neurons and the brain work to store information and to move it around from short term memory to long term. It is also giving us clues about the role that emotion and activity play in this process, about timing, and about the effect of learning on the physical brain (it grows brain cells and increases and modifies interneuron connections). Dr. Judy Willis has published an excellent guide to applying what researchers have discovered, and you will find a link to this in the References.

However, much of what is known to date relates to efficient teaching for the purpose of storing and recalling information, not so much for mindful application of that knowledge. We know that the most successful strengthening of neural networks is associated with guided instruction and practice with frequent corrective feedback, for example.  The expectation is that research will continue to provide more information about the relationship between learning experiences and maximizing the brain’s learning and proficiency.

For the moment, then, we need to look at what educators have learned over the years about ways to develop and support critical thinking. Let’s start with the process in children.

Teaching critical thinking to kids 

Professor William Klemm suggests that you can help develop critical thinking in younger students by:


  • Requiring them to defend their ideas and their answers to questions
  • Modeling critical thinking by showing how to think about alternative answers
  • Rewarding good thinking with attention and recognition


Klemm provides links to sites that show how to do these three things when teaching children. 

Developing or supporting critical thinking in adults

Professor Klemm’s suggestions can form the basis for working with adults, although the execution of them will need to be adjusted to match the experience and life skills of adults. Here are two specific approaches that are known to be effective.

Critical Incident Dialog

A favorite technique of mine is an adaptation of the Critical Incident Method, originally designed to assist researchers and investigators in identifying specific behaviors that contribute to success or failure in specific situations. The adaptation is a huge improvement over traditional roleplaying in that it takes the pressure off of the individuals playing the parts, and requires the learners who are watching to do some critical thinking about applying a policy or procedure.

Identify a hypothetical situation that might arise when someone applies, for example, a particular policy or procedure that you are teaching. Write up a short script for a dialog between two people in the hypothetical situation. The script should give learners enough information about the situation that they would be able to apply the policy or procedure, but it should not lead them to a pat answer—the last line in the dialog must be the point at which a decision is called for.

Select two learners to read the dialog parts. When they reach the last line, call “Stop” and ask the other learners some questions that do not have “yes” or “no” answers, such as:

  • What could happen (would happen) if this situation were not handled correctly?
  • What should the (person responsible for taking action) do next?
  • What words could the (person responsible for taking action) use?

Have the group discuss the responses and try to improve on them.

Problem-based learning (PBL)

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a highly effective approach to learning, often employed in training doctors. However, PBL will be useful for any topic where learners must master thinking strategies and knowledge about a domain.

PBL is a student-centered strategy involving collaboration and reflection. Students work in small groups under the guidance of a tutor, who does not teach. Students direct their own learning as the means of obtaining new information.

You can support the entire process by using a discussion board, perhaps supplemented with a wiki and web conferencing. PBL is a simple strategy, but it takes some planning before implementation.

Developing critical thinking is at the very heart of PBL. Research shows that PBL is effective, including when used with middle school- and high school-age students.

A discussion of problem-based learning is beyond the scope of this article. If you are not familiar with PBL, or lack experience with it, there are a number of resources available on the web:

Venues and solutions for critical thinking in eLearning

As you can anticipate, strategies for using eLearning to help people develop critical thinking skills rely heavily on social learning/collaboration and on virtual classrooms or video conferencing. Most of the methods discussed on the sites linked in this article will work in virtual spaces with little or no modification.

Virtual classrooms/video conferencing

  • Google+ Hangouts
  • Adobe Connect; WebEx; GoToMeeting with HDFaces; others (Google “video conferencing multiple video feeds”)
  • Skype (only practical for two-person discussions)

Online discussion

  • Google+ Private Communities (all partiipants need Google/Gmail accounts)
  • Yammer or other enterprise social network
  • Basecamp or similar online collaboration tool
  • Twitter chats

Online and blended course designs

  • MOOC
  • Flipped classroom


Technology constantly brings new tools and channels for communication to a state in which designers can use them to support effective, engaging dialog. Use an appropriate mix of these to clearly express the expectation of critical, creative thought and to provide opportunities for it. This also means setting up venues for learners to express and defend their ideas, conclusions, and opinions.


Dewar, Gwen. “Is High-Tech Multitasking Making Us Dangerously Stupid?”; Making Humans column, Psychology Today, September 13, 2012. Recovered 1/18/2013 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/making-humans/201209/is-high-tech-multitasking-making-us-dangerously-stupid

Katz, M. S. “Two Views of ‘Teaching People to Think'’”; Educational Theory, Volume 26, Issue 2, pages 158-164, April 1976; published online 2 April 2007 in the Wiley Online Library. Recovered 1/18/2013 from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-5446.1976.tb00722.x/abstract (payment required for access to full article)

Klemm, William. “Teaching Children to Think”; Memory Medic column, Psychology Today, October, 2011. Recovered 1/18/2013 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201110/teaching-children-think

Willis, Judy. “How the Memory Works in Learning”; TeachThought, January 1, 2013. Recovered 1/18/2013 from http://www.teachthought.com/learning/how-the-memory-works-in-learning/