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Critical and Creative Thinking: The Joy of Learning!

Gifted Resources

Step-by-step critical and creative thinking strategies are discussed in this article.

Author: Hickerson, B.
Publication: Tempo Magazine
Publisher: Texas Association of the Gifted and Talented (TAGT)
Year: 2013

“Children do not develop their thinking skills by memorizing the products of adults’ thinking. Children develop these thinking skills by manipulating ideas, critically examining them, and trying to combine them in new ways. Data become meaningful only when individuals perform certain mental operations on those data.” (Taba, 1971, pp. 240–241)

We recognize the need for gifted learners to develop and practice higher-order critical and creative thinking skills that go beyond fundamental acquisition of information. Gifted students need to be involved with analysis, evaluation, and creative synthesis of data and information, asking new questions and generating innovative ideas, solutions, and products because of their advanced cognitive development, preference for complexity, questioning of the status quo, idealism, and need for social action. This is particularly true of the creatively gifted learner who must find relevance and opportunities for creative synthesis and expression in order to truly engage in the learning process. We also know that, in order to develop these critical and creative thinking skills as thinking habits, students must engage in these kinds of thinking activities frequently, in meaningful, appropriate contexts.

To what extent is this happening? Are gifted students being given opportunities for exploring ideas and developing skills of critical analysis, evaluation, and creativity in classrooms today? Not so much, according to a study reported in Newsweek (2010) by Bronson and Merryman. The findings of this study indicate a significant decline of creativity among American students in recent decades, which the authors describe as a “creativity crisis.” They attribute this decline to overemphasis on standardization in curriculum, instruction, and assessment in American schools—with emphasis on acquisition of information, facts and details, and finding “the right answer” rather than critical analysis and evaluation of content or creative exploration of ideas and innovative thinking. The answer to this crisis, they say, is teaching critical and creative thinking skills in context of content instruction.

Critical and creative thinking strategies are not merely “fun” or “cute” activities to be pulled out at the end of the week or semester, or after the state tests are over for the year in order to fill time and entertain students. They are ways of deeply engaging and interacting with ideas and concepts in meaningful context, building meaning and understanding through multiple processing of ideas and information in increasingly sophisticated levels of thinking, adding depth and complexity to the content being learned, and finding personal relevance in the learning process. In order to teach any skill or content effectively, we must first have a clear understanding of the nature and purpose of the skills and/or content to be taught. Employing critical and creative thinking strategies without first understanding what is involved in these skills and processes or without connecting these thinking skills to appropriate content is likely to result in missing the point and wasting time. Students may have fun playing around with such activities, but may not actually address content in a meaningful, purposeful way, nor actually engage in the higher order thinking intended.

Critical thinking involves analysis and evaluation rather than merely accepting ideas or information: understanding of relationships, similarities, and differences; looking for patterns; classifying and categorizing; understanding cause/effect; seeing trends and big ideas; predicting outcomes; considering multiple perspectives; making judgments; and questioning and reasoning. Creative thinking requires all of these critical thinking skills and goes beyond, generating something new and useful in a particular context: generating innovative ideas, products, and solutions; expressing ideas in innovative ways; and communicating ideas, solutions, or products to an appropriate audience. These, of course, are the higher order thinking skills of Bloom; these are the thinking skills necessary for meaningful learning in all disciplines.

How can we manage all this within the constraints of assessment-driven standardized curriculum and instruction? How can we truly engage even our most creative and advanced thinkers in analytical thinking, making informed judgments and evaluation based on critical analysis, and the creation of innovative ideas, perspectives, and products that actually solve problems? How can we encourage students to express unique and original points of view and communicate with audiences in valid and defensible ways to increase truly meaningful, personally relevant learning? The answer is that we must incorporate effective critical and creative thinking strategies appropriately into content instruction. When thinking skills are taught in relevant content, students practice higher order thinking skills to the point of developing creative thinking habits, while at the same time playing with ideas and processing content information in multiple ways. They find personal meaning and relevance in the learning. They experience the joy of learning!


One sequence of critical and creative thinking activities that incorporates some of Taba’s strategies for concept development can be effectively applied to many different content topics and purposes. This sequence of activities involves students in playfully generating and examining data in a variety of ways, requiring both divergent thinking (fluency, flexibility, elaboration, and originality) and convergent thinking (evaluation, providing justification for choices, drawing conclusions based on evidence presented). The activities can be adapted for almost any content at various levels of complexity: literary or historical events or characters, contemporary or historic issues or problems (literature, social studies); concepts or operations, inventions or discoveries (math or science); or almost any other content that is a focus of study.

Basically, the activities involve generating or gathering data. This means that students are evaluating and prioritizing data, analyzing and organizing that data into data sets and naming the sets, generating questions, drawing conclusions based on data analysis and evaluation, and communicating the results. In general, the process includes these steps and thinking processes:

  • Step One: Data Generation/Data Gathering. Knowing, understanding information or data
  • Step Two: Ranking. Evaluating, prioritizing, justifying, defending data choices
  • Step Three: Grouping, Labeling, Regrouping, Subsuming, Re-labeling. Categorizing, analyzing, synthesizing data
  • Step Four: Asking Questions. Knowing, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing information and ideas
  • Step Five: Drawing Conclusions. Knowing, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing data and ideas
  • Step Six: Communicating Results. Creating an appropriate format or product to share the results or express major ideas to an audience

Depending on the complexity of the concepts and/or data to be used as a basis for the activities, all of these steps could be used in a single lesson, or the sequence could be broken into several subsequent lessons over time, with more time for reflection, sharing, and elaborating on first thoughts with more complex ideas and more time for creative incubation as the content demands.

Consider how this sequence of critical and creative thinking activities might be applied with math content in a study of percents. This idea was suggested by one of my graduate students, a middle school math teacher, to encourage students to play with the concepts related to understanding and using percents while developing recognition and understanding of many of the ways in which percentages are used in everyday life and how this affects them personally.

Step One: Listing (Individual Brainstorming)

Begin by having students quickly list as many situations as they can think of in which percents may be used in real life. This step could be a short timed activity, perhaps 3 minutes, with no talking or sharing allowed during this step. Set a goal based on the time allowed (eight listed items in 3 minutes, for example). Keeping the time short for this initial listing of data keeps students on task. When time is called, ask for a show of hands for students who achieved the goal that was set, and then tell students that from this point on, they are encouraged to add to their original list if they think of any new ideas or if they hear any good ideas they hadn’t thought of. The more data students have to work with on the topic, the better. Unique or original ideas that fit are especially valued as they reflect flexibility in thinking.

Step Two: Ranking and Prioritizing

Next, tell students to consider the items on their list and, without any discussion or sharing, to rank them in order of most significant to least significant (they may determine “significance”). They must be prepared to explain and justify their top two or three choices. Allow a few minutes for this ranking process. When students have completed ranking at least through their top three items, have students volunteer to share their top one or two items and explain their reasons for those choices. To stimulate discussion based on the reasons they provide, and to add to the playfulness of the activity, this could be put in the form of a game (Top That!) in which a student offers a number one item from her list and explains the reasoning for the choice, and then other students take turns trying to “top that” with their own choices, with emphasis on their reasoning for their decisions. Anticipate some lively discussions at this stage, which is a good thing as students defend their reasoning and hear others’ points of view. Again, encourage students to add anything that they hear and like to their own lists (fluency, flexibility). Remind students that unique or original ideas are particularly valued, but all items offered must actually fit the parameters that were set for the database.

Step Three: Grouping and Labeling

Students are now told to group the items on their list according to whatever criteria they choose. They are then to create an appropriate label for each group they create that encompasses all of the items in that group according to the criteria they have determined for their sets. These groups and labels will then be shared, discussed, and evaluated by the whole class, as other students consider the appropriateness of sets formed and comprehensiveness of labels. Sharing and discussing different ways of grouping their ideas and evaluating the appropriateness of their labels expands flexibility in thinking, while expanding everyone’s understanding and realization of how often they encounter percents in their own world and in what contexts they might occur. This step might be an activity for which the teacher would choose to allow additional time for display and review of individual groupings and their labels, perhaps a gallery walk so that students can share and consider the ideas of their peers. Grouping is, of course, creating categories based on analysis of similarities or differences – critical thinking skills that are inherent in every discipline. Observing, discussing, and critiquing various ways in which students have chosen to create and label these data sets offers opportunities to expand the flexible thinking of all students.

Students might then be asked to try to find ways in which they can subsume one or more of their groups within another group. This increases the analytical thinking involved, requiring students to process the same ideas again in multiple ways, to look at that data from multiple perspectives to find new, hierarchical relationships, and to synthesize new labels as appropriate. A discussion of the various ways in which the data were grouped and the appropriateness or uniqueness of the labels given helps students think more analytically and flexibly about their own ideas as well (fluency, flexibility, and elaboration).

Step Four: Asking Questions

Students are encouraged to generate as many questions as they can about percents, with emphasis on why, how, why not, when, what if, etc. questions that require higher order thinking. Asking such questions elicits critical analysis and evaluation or creative synthesis thinking and provides teachable moments to clarify misinformation and misunderstandings. As with the previous step, this could be a simple class activity or could be expanded over time with students encouraged to add their questions to a growing list on the wall or board. As before, particular value is given to unique or original questions that go beyond the simple or obvious (elaboration, flexibility, and originality). Asking good questions is a critical and creative thinking skill requiring all levels of Bloom and requires both modeling and practice; questions generated by students are likely to show what they know or need to learn or want to understand about the topic.

To make the “game” more interesting, try presenting an answer (e.g., .25) and allow students to generate as many possible questions or computations as they can for that answer (fluency, flexibility, elaboration). Any reasonable question that fits the answer is acceptable, but again, unique or original questions that encourage divergent thinking are most valued. If points are awarded as in a game, all correct questions might receive 1 point, but unique questions are worth 3 points. Unique could be determined by the criterion that “no one else thought of that” or “we agree as a group, that question is unique.”

Step Five: Drawing Conclusions

Students are asked to consider what conclusions they might reasonably draw about the topic of percents based on the discussions and activities to this point. This process of drawing conclusions and developing generalizations requires synthesis of ideas and concepts, the highest level of Bloom (create). Any reasonable conclusion that can be supported by the student based on evidence to this point or original reasoning may be accepted as valid.

Step Six: Communicating Results

As a further creative elaboration, encourage students to express their conclusions and supporting evidence in an original product or appropriate format of their choosing. They may consider a concrete or metaphorical expression to communicate their ideas. For example, they may create cartoons, drawings, scenarios or dramatizations, speeches, rap, rhyme, or song. Or they may develop presentations using technology, art, or whatever form of creative expression the student finds personally interesting or most appropriate to communicate their generalizations and ideas to an audience.

Through this series of activities, students conclude that knowing and understanding percents and how to compute and compare them and use them is useful, personally relevant, and significant in their lives. Students have been engaged in higher order analysis, evaluation, and synthesis in the learning process, and they have had fun playing with the data and concepts in multiple ways.

The same sequence of activities could be applied to almost any content in any discipline and modified for any grade level. Playing with information, ideas, or data sets in these ways involves students in processing information in multiple ways. It allows for a reexamination of the data and their own understanding, analyzing, and evaluating and justifying their choices and ideas. They are observing and thinking about how others view the same information from different perspectives, and they can raise new questions and elaborate on their own original ideas. Even though the curriculum content determines parameters for the initial data-gathering or listing, encouragement of unique or original ideas throughout the series of activities encourages divergent thinking within those parameters.


Another strategy, often used in creative writing to examine narrative structure and sequence of plot development, could also be adapted to enhance critical and creative thinking about concepts in many content areas with a particular focus on cause/ effect and problem/solution relationships. Engaging in this strategy in a variety of appropriate contexts can be useful in developing skills for creative problem solving.

The process is simple. One student writes an opening line from a story she would like to read at the top of a page, folds it down, and hands the page to another student. That student then writes the closing line of a story he would like to read at the bottom of that same page. The two students then work together to fill in the plot points necessary to develop the story from the opening line to the closing line. This creative writing activity engages students in developing narrative structure, cause/effect, and problem/solution; predicting reasonable outcomes; and using elaborative thinking as well as divergent, convergent, and higher order thinking skills.

This strategy could be adapted to science, social studies, math, music, and art. Student One could be asked to write an event from the past, a historical situation or problem (social studies, science); number, number equation, musical line, or figural drawing (math, music art) at the top of the page and fold it down. Student Two could then write a contemporary event, situation, issue (social studies, science); another problem, number, equation, musical line, or figural drawing (math, music or art) at the bottom of the page. Then the two students could work out the cause-effect, problem-solution steps, and make the connections necessary to go from the first statement to the final statement.

As a further extension in analyzing and developing ideas constructed in this activity, students might be asked to create a graph or chart to illustrate the plot curve, cause/effect, problem/solution sequence, or connections within the relationships they have constructed. This could be a visual graph or three-dimensional structure, a dramatic performance, or a musical or artistic representation— as long as it represents the sequential or developmental cause/effect relationships involved. Collaboration as well as critical and creative thinking at the highest levels of Bloom are involved throughout these activities.


Strategies such as the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) model (Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 2003), SCAMPER (Eberle, 1977), or Six Thinking Hats (de Bono, 1999) encourage flexibility and elaboration as students consider issues or concepts from multiple points of view. These thinking strategies are familiar to many gifted teachers, but are rarely applied in contexts by content teachers. Students can employ the problem-finding step of the CPS model by asking themselves “In What Ways Might We . . .?” to help identify potential problems within larger issues, listing as many ideas as they can relative to the situation and then evaluating those ideas to determine a problem they might pursue. SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify/Magnify/Minify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Reverse/ Reorder/Rearrange) is a useful tool for encouraging flexible thinking, as students examine and analyze situations or issues and generate innovative ideas and solutions. In small groups or as a class, students might try on de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats as they examine potential issues from multiple perspectives: gathering and examining facts and evaluating sources and objectivity of facts (White Hat); considering possible emotions involved (Red Hat); considering possible benefits (Yellow Hat), as well as possible negatives (Black Hat) related to the issue; generating creative ideas, even far-out wild and crazy ideas (Green Hat); before finally considering possible solutions and developing a plan of implementation (Blue Hat). In each of these strategies, students consider issues and possibilities from multiple points of view, discussing, analyzing, and processing data and information in multiple ways to move from vague, broadly-conceived issues into more clearly-defined problem statements, potentially leading to useful, creative solutions.


In all of these critical and creative thinking strategies, students gather data or information related to issues that they find to be significant or personally meaningful. Students are encouraged to evaluate sources of data and to consider bias and objectivity or accuracy of information—critical thinking skills particularly necessary in today’s world. By analyzing and categorizing data, they can begin to sort through relevant and irrelevant information pertinent to a problem that they might effectively address. By considering multiple perspectives related to the problem, brainstorming, and sharing multiple possible solutions, students can think more fluently and flexibly and then begin to choose among alternative possibilities and propose a likely course of action. All of these processes involve higher order thinking skills of analysis, evaluation, and creative synthesis at every step. Students learn to ask good questions, considering relationships such as cause/effect, make reasonable predictions, draw conclusions, generate innovative ideas and products, and support and defend decisions and choices.

Students should also consider an appropriate audience for presentation of their proposed solutions. How will they communicate the problem they have identified, the pertinent data they have found, and ideas for possible solutions to the target audience? Presentation of an identified problem within a larger issue accompanied by relevant supporting data and a considered approach to a potential solution is an important leadership skill that crosses all disciplines, particularly critical in contemporary times.

When these kinds of critical and creative thinking strategies are practiced frequently in purposeful content instruction, content learning is enhanced, not only in terms of more meaningful development of concepts, but also in terms of skills required for reading, writing, speaking, listening, research, and presentation. Thinking skills of cause/effect, predicting reasonable outcomes, analysis of data and multiple points of view, evaluation, making judgments, and creative synthesis can be developed through frequent opportunities to explore and express opinions and ideas in a receptive, collaborative critical and creative thinking learning environment. Not only are students given opportunity to develop these higher order thinking skills through these kinds of practices, but they also develop leadership skills of teamwork and collaboration and presentation skills in speaking, writing, and use of technology for authentic purposes.

Critical and creative thinking strategies should not be merely an afterthought to instruction. Critical and creative thinking are the ways in which real learning occurs. When strategies for critical and creative thinking are tied to appropriate content learning objectives, content learning becomes more meaningful, more challenging and interesting, and therefore, more engaging. By engaging students frequently with a variety of critical and creative thinking strategies applied to appropriate curriculum content, we encourage students to think more divergently and meaningfully about content. We also enhance skills of analytical and evaluative thinking and creative problem solving. This implies a classroom atmosphere of inquiry, discovery, and acceptance of expression of new ideas and exploring questions. In this atmosphere, gifted learners are better prepared for authentic problem-finding and developing innovative solutions and products, and for communication of those results and ideas to appropriate audiences: the Joy of Learning!

Benny Hickerson, Ph.D., a former TAGT President (1998) and TAGT board member, is an adjunct professor of gifted education at Southern Methodist University. She is also a presenter and speaker for G/T staff development and serves as a consultant in gifted education in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area. Dr. Hickerson has been a K–12 G/T district administrator, a campus administrator, and a classroom teacher in both public and private schools, including having taught at every grade level K–12. She has also taught both undergraduate and graduate levels in college, in both reading and gifted education. She can be contacted at or

Permission Statement

Permission to reprint this article has been granted to The Davidson Institute for Talent Development from Tempo Magazine, a publication of the Texas Association of the Gifted and Talented (TAGT) This material may not be reproduced without permission from TAGT.


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