Spark Curiosity: Strategies to Foster Critical Thinking in Students - Stanfield


Spark Curiosity: Strategies to Foster Critical Thinking in Students

Engaging students in the art of critical thinking is like lighting the fuse of a fireworks display – it sets off a cascade of colors, shapes, and concepts that burst into the intellectual sky. 

In special education classrooms in particular, where some challenges can be more pronounced, overlooking critical thinking is simply not an option. It’s our job to not only teach facts but to spark curiosity that serves as the foundation for lifelong learning.

In this guide, we’ll explore some practical strategies to foster critical thinking in students. Let’s just say these are techniques that go way beyond rote memorization and into the realm of inquiry, analysis, and understanding. 

This resource is a game-changer regardless of whether you’re an experienced teacher or fresh on the scene. 

What Does it Mean to Foster Critical Thinking?

man thinking critically - a statue

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally, to comprehend the logical connection between ideas. 

For students in special education settings, it’s a powerful tool that can improve social skills, self-advocacy, and the ability to make informed decisions. It involves the evaluation of evidence, identifying assumptions, understanding the language of discourse, and the reasoning of others.

Imagine a classroom buzzing with ideas from corner to corner – that’s what happens when we embrace all the different ways our brains work. Think of students’ brains like puzzles; no two are exactly alike. That’s why adjusting our approach to developing their critical thinking is key – it meets them where they’re at.

How Do You Promote Critical Thinking in the Classroom?

critical thinking strategies in class

The strategies we are about to unfold are a blend of theory and practical approach, tailor-made for the special education environment. 

1. Ask Questions – Particularly Open-Ended Ones

The simple act of questioning can open up the floodgates of critical thinking. Instead of asking yes or no questions, ask open-ended ones that require students to explain or provide evidence for their answers.

For instance, “What do you think would happen if…?” or “How might things have turned out differently if…?” are great starters. These questions invite students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information.

2. Invite Students to Question Everything

Encourage a culture of inquiry. When teaching a concept, don’t just provide the information – ask students to think about why it’s true and if there are any situations under which it might not be. This not only fosters critical thinking but also enhances their metacognitive awareness.

For example, if learning about historical figures, encourage students to question their motivations and the context of their actions, not to doubt, but to understand with depth.

3. Engage in Collaborative Learning Opportunities

Collaborative projects set the stage for students to leverage diverse perspectives and problem-solving strategies. Consider creating multi-phase projects where students first brainstorm individually, then join forces in small groups to devise solutions based on a synthesis of their ideas. 


For example, in a science class, groups could design an ecosystem in a bottle, requiring them to integrate knowledge of biological systems and collaborate to address challenges like resource distribution and waste management.

4. Be An Active Listener

Encourage students to articulate their thoughts and opinions. Listen actively, and when appropriate, ask follow-up questions that challenge their assumptions or require further explanation. 

When a student offers an answer or opinion, follow up with prompts such as, “What led you to that conclusion?” or “Can you connect this idea to something we discussed earlier?” This practice not only validates their contributions but also encourages deeper analytical thinking and connections.

5. Use Case Studies and Social Stories

Real-life examples can make abstract concepts more relatable. Case studies and social stories are a powerful tool, especially in the realm of special education, as they provide concrete situations that require critical analysis and decision-making.

For instance, if teaching about social cues and personal space, provide a case study of a student navigating a crowded hallway and ask how they could have handled it better.

Or for a lesson on environmental conservation, you might present a case study about a community facing water scarcity and ask students to propose solutions based on water conservation techniques. This approach helps students apply critical thinking to societal challenges, promoting empathy and a more global mindset.

6. Hold Debates

Debates offer a dynamic platform for students to articulate and defend their viewpoints. 

An example? You can set the stage with a role-play scenario in a history class where students debate the merits and drawbacks of a pivotal historical event from the perspectives of different stakeholders involved. This not only deepens understanding but also fosters respect for differing viewpoints.

7. Practice Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a visual way to represent connections between ideas. It allows students to organize thoughts and see relationships between different concepts, which is a foundational skill for critical thinking. Have students create mind maps to summarize discussions or while working on projects.

For example, after a class discussion on renewable energy, ask students to create mind maps that link renewable energy sources to potential impacts on society, the economy, and the environment. This visual exercise encourages students to see the broader implications of their ideas and how interconnected topics are within their learning.

8. Take Advantage of Gamification

Gamification can turn the theoretics of critical thinking into engaging, real-world problem-solving games. Use educational games and puzzles that require students to think critically and make decisions based on evidence.

For instance, you can use an online simulation game where students must manage a city’s energy resources to teach critical thinking related to urban planning and sustainability. This hands-on approach makes learning engaging and applicable to real-world contexts.

9. Engage in Problem-Based Learning

Present students with real-world problems that challenge them to think critically and come up with solutions. This method helps them to see the practical applications of their knowledge and the value of critical thinking in navigating everyday challenges.

In math class, you could introduce a scenario where students must use geometric principles to design a community park, accounting for space, budget, and materials. This method makes math tactile and shows students the practical application of mathematical concepts.

10. Reflect

Reflection solidifies learning. Facilitate classroom discussions where students reflect on their problem-solving process after group projects, discussing what worked, what didn’t, and how they can apply these lessons to future challenges. 

This critical reflection hones their ability to evaluate their own thinking critically.

11. Connect Concepts Back to the Real World

Whenever possible, tie lessons back to the real world. In literature lessons, compare the themes of a classical novel with current global issues, encouraging students to explore how these themes manifest today. This not only enhances engagement but also helps students develop a more nuanced understanding of the text and its relevance.

12. Ignite Curiosity

Curiosity is the engine of discovery. Alternate between different teaching modalities – such as interactive labs, virtual reality explorations, and field trips – to cultivate a sense of wonder and inquiry. 

For instance, a virtual reality tour of the human body can spark fascination and questions about biomedicine and health.

13. Practice Critical Writing, Too

Encourage students to express complex ideas through writing. Assign op-eds where students analyze a current event through the lenses of what they’ve learned in social studies, advocating for a particular viewpoint while considering counter-arguments. This exercise not only sharpens writing skills but also critical thinking.

14. Teach Information Literacy

In an age of information overload, teaching students to discern credible sources is vital. 

Organize workshops where students evaluate various sources’ reliability on a controversial topic, guiding them to identify biases, cross-check facts, and question the authority of the information presented.

15. Encourage Decision Making

Decision-making simulations, such as managing a virtual business or leading a humanitarian project within a game, allow students to experience the consequences of their decisions in a controlled environment.

Key Takeaways

brain at work

It’s clear – embracing these practices means you can guide young minds toward both school success and help them become resilient future leaders, ready to face any challenge head-on.

Implement these strategies – and watch the intellectual fireworks burst into the night, ignited by the minds of tomorrow.


The Stanfield Way

The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.

Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.

Stanfield Special Education Curriculum

VideoModeling® Programs

VideoModeling® is a ground-breaking teaching concept originated by the James Stanfield Company that’s used in thousands of public and private schools across America and Canada for special education needs.

Read More
Journaling, mediation, and intentional talk aren’t just for adults. 5 ways we can facilitate healthy management of mental health in our children.

James Stanfield Co.

My students were glued to the screen. Love Stanfield’s humor. This is the way to teach social skills.

Susan Simon, Principal

Using Humor to Teach Social Skills

Humor = Retention

We believe you learn best when you laugh. By making the classroom experience more comfortable and enjoyable, humor can make teaching and learning more effective, especially for the K12 segment. At Stanfield, we use humor as an integral part of our curricula.

If you as a speaker don’t help your audience to remember your lessons, then you’re wasting everyone’s time. Humor… can help accomplish that needed retention…

Gean Perret, Screenwriter
Learn more
Newsletter Image
Newsletter Image
Sign Up to receive news alerts, special offers & promotions.
Sign up now!

As a thank you for signing up for emails, you’ll have advance notification of exclusive offers, new offerings, and more.