Supporting Critical Thinking with Rich Academically Productive Talk in Middle and High Schools


Thursday, October 7, 2021

Critical thinking is one of the skills students need to be successful in the 21st century (, 2009). The need to prioritize critical thinking in schools has become even more apparent in the last decade with the proliferation of unchecked information online and content filtered through hidden algorithms. Search engines, social media feeds, and news websites use personalized filters to deliver unique content to each user, based on what they are most likely to interact with - usually information that is familiar or confirms our existing beliefs (Pariser 2011, Pasquale, F., 2015). These personalization filters create echo chambers that undermine critical thinking by amplifying students' pre-existing positions. Students' prior attitudes tended to influence their interpretation of evidence. This bias to find evidence that confirms what we already think is called confirmation bias. Taber and Lodge (2006) found that confirmation bias strongly affects university students. Surprisingly, this bias was strongest among the most informed and knowledgeable participants.

The term critical thinking evokes images of the ancient town-squares of Athens or the salons of the Enlightenment. In our increasingly digital "town squares," we may have limited contact with those who hold opposing views from our own or even be oblivious to the existence of divergent views. How can we develop a nuanced understanding of a topic in digital spaces filled with people who only agree with us? Schools provide one place where students from diverse family and neighborhood communities can articulate opposing views and alternative perspectives. In schools, students can and should confront evidence contrary to their own prior beliefs, understand alternative arguments, and develop an appreciation for being challenged and learning from alternative perspectives. Through the give-and-take of academically productive dialogue, students can learn about other perspectives, practice clarifying their own arguments, and assess the degree of relevance in response to objections. In this article, we will look at ways to bring critical thinking to the classroom through academically productive talk, but first, we will explore conceptions of critical thinking.

Conceptions of critical thinking

There are several related definitions of critical thinking. In social science, for example, critical social theory, emphasizes an understanding of the word critical as being critical of the power structures in society and taking political action. Critical thinking in mathematics means students make logical decisions about what to do and think. In other words, students are not merely guessing or applying a rule without assessing its relevance but rather consider the criteria for making a thoughtful decision. The disciplines require specialized skills that become increasingly important in middle and high school (Ippolito, Dobbs, & Charner-Laird, 2019). For instance, students may be asked to justify their claims across content areas, which can mean different things depending on the subject. The justification used to support a claim about the interpretation of a poem is different from the justification used to support an inference based on findings from an experimental trial. Because of the way critical thinking is interwoven with subject-specific skills it is not easy to define critical thinking as a standalone concept. However, teachers across content areas seem to agree that critical thinking has something to do with interpreting, analyzing,  evaluating, and drawing logical conclusions (Facione, 1990).

  • Interpreting is about clarifying opinions and deciphering the importance of convictions, experiences, events, data, rules, procedures, and criteria.
  • Analysis is about identifying the intended and actual relationship between statements, questions, concepts, information, experiences, reasoning, and opinions. An example of this may be, identifying the statement's claim and basis.
  • Evaluating can involve assessing the degree of credibility, relevance, probability or truth, and accuracy of an argument.
  • Drawing logical conclusions is about seeing consequences, and reaching alternative hypotheses and solutions.


Bringing critical reading to our classrooms


But which kinds of specific classroom practices may support the class of dispositions and skills aligned with critical thinking? In our work with teachers, we found that the particular disciplinary and curriculum goals shaped ways that teachers wanted to support critical reading. In social studies classes, some teachers used organizers to display causal connections in their textbooks and asked students to debate the relative importance of various causes of historical events. The math team developed an alternative approach to collaborative problem-solving. Still, there were some commonalities in the approaches taken across groups and supported by the current research. These include:

  • Using strategies to promote academically productive classroom discussion and consider other perspectives
  • Opportunities to read about and defend alternative positions and formally examine complex chains for reasoning
  • Support for the academic language of argumentation which is related to the use of more complex argumentation

In what follows, we present a brief summary of the research into academically productive dialogue.

Talk Moves

Skilled classroom teachers use a range of "talk moves" to both engage students and to press them to extend their ideas and build on the ideas of others. Michaels and O'Connor (2012) reviewed some of the conditions for productive classroom discussion and some of the specific talk moves that they observed used by skilled teachers. A “talk move” may be as simple as asking a student to elaborate on their answer ("Can you say more?") or rephrasing a response to ensure it is understood by the class ("So, are you saying…?"). Another set of moves asks other students to extend the contribution of a participant ("Who can repeat or rephrase what Peter said?” "Who can add on?"). Talk moves can also be used to push students to articulate their reasoning (“Why do you think that?” “What convinced you?” “What is your evidence?” “Can you prove that to us?”). Michaels and O'Connor pointed out that students need time to prepare their contributions before being called on. As teachers, we need to watch our pacing and ensure that students are given sufficient wait time, the time between conversational turns. Teachers need to be patient. It may be tempting to jump in at the first sign of a lull in the conversation, but this is counterproductive to good classroom discussion.

Classroom Discussion

Providing formats for peer-to-peer discussion can transform student learning and improve reading outcomes (Lawrence & Snow, 2010). Students can get off track in small groups, so we must support these formats carefully. When we ask students to complete a writing assignment, we often provide examples, clear expectations, and clear grading expectations. This kind of scaffolding helps students to understand what the academic task is. Similar support is needed if student peer-to-peer discussion and debate is to be productive. Teachers we have worked with have found that it is essential that they provide explicit scaffolding for students and examples of what a quality discussion looks like. For this reason, many teachers use established protocols for discussion.


Traditional Debate: Teams are assigned to one of two sides on a position. Exact order and time constraints.

Four Corners Debate: Students can move freely across positions which are indicated by standing in a corner of the room. The teacher facilitates the discussion as students move between positions.

Four A's Protocol: Text-based discussion built around a pre-reading activity. Students need to find something in the text they Agree with, Argue with, think indicates an Assumption, and Aspire to. They discuss in small groups led by a student facilitator.

Four A's Protocol

Download the Four A's protocol at

Text Rendering Experience: Text-based discussion built around a pre-reading activity. Students come to class prepared to discuss one word, phrase, and sentence in the text.

The Last Word Standing: Text-based discussion built around a pre-reading activity. Each student finds an important point they want to discuss. In rounds, there is timed discussion on each topic which ends when the presenting student gets the “final word.”

Continuum Dialogue: Whole class discussion facilitated by the teacher. Students place themselves in a line that indicates how they think or feel about an issue. The teacher selects members across the continuum to explain the reason they choose their position. This is a non-evaluative discussion to enhance understanding of other perspectives.


We recommend that teachers establish a student facilitator in each group when doing small group work.  This simple move will help keep groups on track. We recommend teachers take their time introducing a new discussion structure.  They might present the protocol one day, demonstrate it with a small group on the next day, and implement it on day three, by which time students should have a clear idea of the format and expectations. Teachers who rush into new discussion formats often report that students get off track, and student learning is compromised. Ample research demonstrates a relationship between reading comprehension, critical thinking, and well-structured classroom discussion when it is done well (Murphy, Wilkinson, Soter, Hennessey, & Alexander, 2009). Carefully implementing a new discussion format in your class is well spent.


Closing remarks

The world of reading has changed, and schools are changing too. We need to provide students with a wide range of texts, perspectives, and arguments if we hope they will be able to read critically in today’s digital reading environments. Research suggests that teachers can and do support critical reading and thinking skills, but that these skills develop slowly. The approaches suggested here can integrate with teaching content standards. They highlight the importance of discussions and debates about science or social studies content using the norms appropriate for the discipline. Still, these approaches also take class time, and teachers and schools are struggling to find the right balance in supporting student background knowledge and critical skill development. The approaches outlined here may be part of the solution.

References (2009). College- and Career-Ready Standards. Retrieved from

Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical Thinking -- the Delphi Report: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. California Academic Press LLC.

Ippolito, J., Dobbs, C. L., & Charner-Laird, M. (2019). Disciplinary Literacy: Inquiry and Instruction. Learning Sciences.

Michaels, S., & O'Connor, C. (2012). Talk science primer. Cambridge, MA: TERC. Retrieved from

Murphy, P. K., Wilkinson, I. A. G., Soter, A. O., Hennessey, M. N., & Alexander, J. F. (2009). Examining the effects of classroom discussion on students' comprehension of text: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 740–764.

Pariser, E. (2011). The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You. Penguin


Lawrence, J. F., & Snow, C. E. (2010). BC1. Oral discourse and reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, E. B. Moje, & P. Afflerbach (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research: Vol. IV. Routledge.

Pasquale, F. (2015). The Black Box Society. Harvard University Press.

Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 755–769.