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Critical Thinking in Your Social Studies Lessons

July 21, 2021 No Comments
social studies critical thinking activities

If your state is like mine, you’re expected to teach critical thinking skills in every subject. And it makes sense why! We want our students to be evaluating content and creating solutions – not just memorizing facts. Today, I want to share some easy ways to get your students using critical thinking skills in social studies.

What Critical Thinking Skills Can I Teach?

Practically all of them!

Here are just a few skills you can integrate into your history lessons:

  • ask questions
  • determine credibility and evaluate bias
  • intrepret sources
  • recognize a variety of perspectives
  • analyze choices
  • compare and contrast
  • determine relationships
  • sequence events
  • draw conclusions based on evidence
  • differentiate facts from opinions
  • explore impact

A lot of the social studies activities you’re using probably include some critical thinking skills! Let’s take a look at some simple strategies you can try to include more critical thinking opportunities in your lessons.

Critical thinking skills in history poster

Ask Questions

A simple way to encourage students to dig a little deeper when they learn about history is to use higher-order thinking questions. Once they know the what, where, who, and when, you can guide students to explore the HOW and WHY. What were the causes of these events? What effects did they have? How did they impact different groups of people then and now?

Inquiry-based lessons are a great way to get students using these skills. Plus, they give them ownership of what they’re learning and help to increase engagement.

If you want to start a little more low-key, you can use some HOTS question prompts. A simple “parking lot” or bulletin board where students can record questions is also a good place to begin.

Analyze Primary Sources

I LOVE using primary sources to teach social studies. Primary source analysis requires students to use their background knowledge and observational skills to draw conclusions about history.

I almost always have students collaborate when they work with primary sources so they can bounce ideas off each other. I also usually use DBQs or question prompts so they have some direction. Afterward, I like to follow up with a whole-class discussion to debrief.

Primary source question cards with document

Compare & Contrast

A simple Venn diagram or t-chart is a great way for students to compare people, places, civilizations, artifacts, inventions, events, and time periods from history.

Digital critical thinking skills social studies graphic organizer on ipad

Plus, comparing helps students identify connections between people/places and over time.

Use Sorting Activities

Sorting activities are one of my favorite ways to get students thinking critically. They’re hands-on, interactive, and perfect for kids to do with a partner or in a small group.

You can assign an open sort, where students sort cards with words and/or pictures according to their own categories by looking for connections or patterns. I love this activity because it helps me see how students think.

Another option is to do a closed sort where you can ask students to sort according to specific rules. For example, they might sequence events into a timeline or sort them into cause-and-effect relationships. To make it more challenging, you can involve some inferencing scenarios. For instance, you can have them match quotes to the person or group that would’ve been likely to say them.

Explore Perspectives

We want students to consider a variety of perspectives and points of view when they learn about different historical events or periods. Primary sources are very helpful here, especially if you can find letters or diary entries. Picture books are another good option if you can find ones that provide different perspectives on a topic.

An easy activity is to use two different quotes about an event (that represent two points of view) and have students analyze their differences. Again, guiding questions or prompts will help them to understand the perspectives of different groups of people. One activity I’ve used is to explore the English colonization of Jamestown from Captain John Smith’s perspective compared to Chief Powhatan’s.

critical thinking skills activity of comparing historical perspectives

Even creating a fake social media profile for a historical figure can help students think critically about someone’s needs, wants, and point-of-view.

Look at Cause and Effect

I think that exploring cause and effect relationships in history helps students understand the impact of events that have taken place. I like using a simple graphic organizer that has room for multiple causes and effects. (Cause and effect is also a good place to tie in perspectives and connections.)

Analyze Decision Making

Another critical thinking activity you can use is to analyze specific choices that people made.

A decision-making model graphic organizer helps students determine the costs and benefits of a choice or event. For example, they can weigh the costs and benefits of the 13 Colonies declaring independence from Great Britain.

A good extension activity is to have students discuss alternate decisions that could have been made. They can hypothesize how different choices would have changed history.

Investigate the Impact of Geography

Geography has played such a huge role in human history, but it’s not something our students always think about. It helps to use activities that encourage students to consider the specific ways geography has affected people. Comparing early maps to current maps is one option. And I love having students explore locations with Google Earth.

You can also practice this skill with the 5 themes of geography.

5 themes of geography worksheet

Research and Create Products

Finally, social studies research projects are a great way to use critical thinking skills. Students can take their research and create an artifact or product to apply their knowledge. They can also design solutions for the future based on what they’ve learned.

I’m all about finding ways to make social studies engaging. Incorporating critical thinking skills into your social studies lessons is a great way to challenge students, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. I hope you give some of these activities a try!

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