Critical Thinking with Literature: It’s Problem-Solving

Critical thinking tops the list of skills students need for success in the complex 21st century. When it comes to science and math, most people equate critical thinking with problem solving. In those content areas, students apply their understanding of basic concepts to a task for which the solution is not known in advance. By grappling with a challenging problem, students extend their learning. Critical thinking about literature is not so different. With a written work, the problem or task is often an open-ended, text-based question. Students use their comprehension of the text to develop interpretations—or solutions to the problem.

If you want your students to engage in higher-order thinking as they read and discuss literature, include these key elements of problem-solving activities:

Genuine, intriguing questions. To think critically, there must be something to think critically about. With literature, it’s a text that leaves your students puzzling and asking questions about a character, event, symbol, or structure. Predictable or moralistic texts with flat characters don’t generate intriguing questions. When texts are sufficiently complex, the questions that spring from them present engaging problems.

Divergent answers. Just as genuine problems in math or science allow for multiple strategies and solutions, a discussion-worthy question about a piece of literature should invite multiple interpretations or answers. In Shared Inquiry discussions, considering divergent ideas is what drives students to find deeper meaning in a text.

Ample evidence. As in math or science, for an answer or solution to be sound, there must be relevant reasons behind it. Likewise, ideas about the meaning of literary texts must be supported with the evidence from the work itself. Evidence and reasoning make ideas valid and debatable. Without evidence, ideas are simply guesses.

Opportunities to evaluate evidence. Some pieces of scientific or mathematical data are more compelling than others. The same is true when exploring a question about a rich work of literature. Collaborative discussion is a time for participants to share the evidence that supports their ideas, to weigh that evidence, and to strengthen ideas by debating each other’s assertions or suggesting additional evidence.

Collaboration. A good discussion question, or problem, is one that students want to work on together. Just as students benefit from combining their skills and perspectives when solving a math or science problem, discussing an interpretive question as a group yields more thoughtful and considered answers than if students had worked alone. Follow-up questions that ask students to clarify, elaborate, and explain their ideas help deepen and enliven the conversation.

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