• Amy MacKinnon

How to Gently Teach Critical Thinking Skills

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

In this blog post, I'm going to show you how to get started teaching critical thinking skills by helping your students see the connections between stories.


I'll show you by using examples from a few different stories, each from a different genre, and how you can draw comparisons between them while also getting your students to engage in the stories themselves while they begin to discover the deeper meanings of the stories, and engage in creative thinking at the same time.


You can also use any story or combination of stories that you want, but the ones I'm showing you here are ones that I've specifically chosen to show you how to make comparisons between stories that seem to be very different from each other.


Feel free to use these examples in your own class (with proper attribution to the authors of the stories and to my site).


What do you see in common between these opening lines?


A long, long, time ago, in a galaxy far, far away


Once upon a time, in a faraway land


It is an ancient Mariner,

And he stoppeth one of three.

'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

I’m pretty sure you recognized both the first and the second story, but did you recognize the third?


Even if you didn’t recognize any of them, did you see what they have in common?


The first, a science fiction story, is the famous opening line from the first Star Wars movie (the first movie that was made in the series; Star Wars: A New Hope).


The second is the traditional opening line of classic fairy tales.


The third is the beginning of the poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (you can read the whole poem here: https://poets.org/poem/rime-ancient-mariner).


So what on earth do these have in common?


All three start with a similar pattern:

  • They begin with a reference to the distant past

  • They take place somewhere that is definitely not here—wherever “here” is

  • They prepare you for the story by drawing you into something unknown and mysterious

A reference to the distant past!

The story is so far in the past that it’s lost in the mists of memory. It's not in any history book or newspaper, it's only by listening to the storyteller that you'll find out what really happened.


Think about that! WHEN is:

  • A long, long time ago

  • Once upon a time


They aren’t at any time that you can think of.


It’s literally not any time. That's part of the mystique of the story!


We can read about ancient civilizations, but those civilizations were in a specific place and at a specific time (or range of time). They can be interesting, but they are still within the realm of possibility: it's possible to see or touch things from history, or to visit a place where past events occurred.


It doesn't have to be an either/or when teaching critical thinking skills and creative thinking. When you use fiction to teach critical thinking, you can teach creativity at the same time  #how to teach critical thinking #printables #faithreasonandfiction
How to Teach Creativity and Critical Thinking Skills

That's not possible for stories that start out with "once upon a time," which are also outside the realm of possibility.


After all, WHERE is:

  • A galaxy far, far, away

  • A faraway land


They're not any "where" at all. It’s literally not a place: it’s “no place.”


That introduction is inviting you into the story because after reading or hearing so many stories that have a similar beginning, you’re already prepared to join in with some kind of magical tale.


When you read Coleridge’s poem, you may or may not notice at first that it starts the same way.


The “Ancient” Mariner with the “long, grey beard” is from a long, long time ago. The character he meets is at a wedding, and the Mariner is outside of that celebration. He’s not appropriately dressed, and he’s obviously not from around here.


The character who is the Ancient Mariner is bringing the tale to the guest in the story, and through that guest, to you as the reader.


You can draw a lot of similarities between any of those three stories, as well as other stories. If you read to the end of the Ancient Mariner, you’ll see:

  • Part of the story line in “The Pirates of the Caribbean”

  • The bird that looks like a cross, and leads the crew of the Dawn Treader to safety in the “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (Narnia Chronicles)


You’ll also see the differences.

How do you learn to see those symbols in stories?

  • First, read a lot of stories

  • Read stories you really like

  • Read stories you don’t like

  • Read stories from different mythologies

  • Read stories from lots of different times

  • Read stories from lots of different genres

  • Read the books of the Bible

That’s how you develop a good foundation for being able to see the symbols and allusions in stories. But it may not be something that you saw at first, or even after awhile. You may have needed someone to show you how to see those connections.


People usually do; that’s why we need teachers.


I certainly wasn't able to see it or think that way until someone taught me how to see those connections and to understand how symbols work.


Symbols aren’t just one thing standing in for another, although that’s part of what they are. Symbols have multiple meanings (they're multivalent). Sometimes they’re obvious in their meaning within a story, but not always. When they fit really well into the story you may not even notice it unless someone points it out.

For example, think about the interaction between the wedding guest and the Ancient Mariner. How many references to the Bible can you see in that interaction?

  • A wedding feast (communion of saints in heaven)

  • Three persons at the feast (Trinity), one of whom speaks to the Mariner (the Son of God who is Incarnate)

  • A person who is outside the wedding feast because of his own actions (direct reference to the parable of the guest who wasn't properly clothed)


How about the beginning of “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis? How does that compare to the traditional beginning of fairy tales?


  • The children are separated from their parents and taken to a place that seems very far away from home

  • It was

Learning how to make the connections between stories is something that I had a really hard time learning! I always loved reading stories, but I had no idea at all how to read them at anything other than the surface level: I could tell you what happened, and whether or not I liked it, but that’s pretty much it.


I’m a very, very literal thinker. Thinking about the symbolic meaning of things in stories was completely over my head because it requires the ability to think abstractly. Finding symbols, allegories, the deeper meanings in stories? Nope, never used to do be able to do that!

That’s something I developed the ability to do, but it’s still a real effort for me to be able to do that.


It requires critical thinking skills.


But critical thinking is hard. Trying to think through ideas or figure things out can completely wrench your brain—at least, that’s how it felt for me!


Being able to see the symbols, allegories, and the deeper meanings in stories takes more than just understanding the definition of symbols and how they work to really see how they work: it takes concentration, reflection, and help.


It’s not an easy thing to figure out, especially if you’re a very literal person like me.

But it’s necessary…


This is how you develop critical thinking skills

before you take any formal classes in logic

or develop the ability to analyze ideas using logic

in a formal way


That’s especially important now, because there are too many people who either don’t like math or don’t have a natural aptitude for math and think that means they have to just be creative instead of logical.


It’s not an either/or for human beings, even if either logic or creativity comes naturally to you while the other does not. They’re muscles that you can choose to develop. That’s why I’d like to help you learn how to delve into the deeper meanings of stories, and discover why authors write the way they do when they tell their tales. It opens up your mind so that the world of stories becomes SO MUCH BIGGER than it was before.

Teaching your students how to develop that ability is what I help you to do in the series of lesson plans,

Teaching Critical Thinking with Stories


This is how you can gently teach critical thinking skills

The series of exercises in these series are about training your mind how to think, instead of telling you what to think. This is why the exercises work for any story. They also work in classrooms or homeschooling, because they have different levels for many of the exercises to challenge students and draw them deeper into the story while engaging in more complex thought.


In a classroom setting, the entire class can read the same story and do the same exercises, but the challenges give the fast finishers and those who are “gifted” more to think about, at the same time that those who need more time or are at a different level can still read the same story and go through the same basic exercises.


In a homeschool setting, you almost always have children at different ages and levels (unless you have twins), so this allows you to have all of your kids reading the same story, but focusing on different aspects or levels depending upon what they’re ready for.



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