In uncertain times, it’s human to react with stress and fear. As school leaders, you’re tasked with making big decisions and providing reassurance to staff, students, and families. Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic require us to lead by example through critical thinking. Critical thinking is a research-validated tool in crisis management because it helps us sort through information, gain an accurate view of the situation, and make decisions.

Tapping Into Critical Thinking

Critical thinking requires us to dig deep and focus on facts and credible sources. Applying critical thinking skills helps us wade through uncertainty and reach sound conclusions.

As a reference point, consider the “9 Traits of Critical Thinking™” from Mentoring Minds:

  1. Adapt: I adjust my actions and strategies to accomplish tasks.
  2. Examine: I use a variety of methods to explore and to analyze.
  3. Create: I use my knowledge and imagination to express new and innovative ideas.
  4. Communicate: I use clear language to express my thoughts and to share information.
  5. Collaborate: I work with others to achieve better outcomes.
  6. Inquire: I seek information that excites my curiosity and inspires my learning.
  7. Link: I apply knowledge to reach new understandings.
  8. Reflect: I review my thoughts and experiences to guide my actions.
  9. Strive: I use effort and determination to focus on challenging tasks.

These traits can help individuals of any age navigate unfamiliar circumstances. The pandemic has had an undeniable impact on education, but critical thinking can help us all cope with the changes and challenges presented by COVID-19.

To keep education moving forward during COVID-19 while also supporting your school community, consider the following tips:

  1. Seek out factual information, not fast information. Make reasoned, informed decisions by understanding facts, evidence-based data, and credible sources. While it is essential to gather and rely on a variety of information and data, critical thinkers know it’s necessary to check the accuracy and bias of what is read and heard.
    Inquire: Encourage parents, teachers, and students to ask questions. A crisis causes anxiety, stress, and fear if individuals don’t feel permitted to investigate essential questions. Here are a few examples: How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact jobs? What instructional changes might occur? How will grading procedures change? Technology allows us quick access to an abundance of information, some contradictory and misleading. If we forget to pause and carefully review information, it can be dangerous to us and others.
    Examine: Caution the use of believing everything that is presented in the media. Remind others of the importance of examining information first. Seek out a variety of credible sources. When information is accurate, it can be used to resolve challenges. Misinformation is common, and it’s also harmful. In fact, the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently remarked that the “global ‘misinfo-demic’ is spreading … hatred is going viral, stigmatizing and vilifying people and groups.” While networking platforms such as Facebook work to combat the overabundance of false content, it’s up to us as consumers of media to assess what we read first—and then share it with others.
    In a crisis, information changes by the minute. A critical thinker knows updates will be forthcoming and how crucial it is to assimilate the latest facts. Because of the vast amount of content available to us, we must continuously remind ourselves to listen to those in the know and to source trusted information—such as the COVID-19 resources NASSP is compiling.
  2. Practice proactive planning. Be ready to adapt routines as situations change. School leaders have been tasked with hefty responsibilities. As a principal, you’re accountable for the success of your students and staff—a daunting task on the most normal of days.
    Link: Use your prior knowledge and experiences to problem-solve. As a school leader, you recognize the importance of making connections—if a crisis exists, then effects appear. Discuss potential barriers and challenges with staff members and identify the various ways students and their families may be impacted. We must prepare our school communities to embrace disruption as learning takes on a new image. Educators are not only trying to plan and deliver academic lessons, but they’re also addressing the social aspect of learning in an entirely new format.
    Collaborate: Offer guidance and support to your colleagues. Set an example by showing how collaboration can help us navigate the new modes of teaching and learning in which we currently find ourselves. Some parents or caregivers might be recently unemployed, others may be struggling to hold onto their jobs, and some may not have the right equipment for remote learning. There are even parents—and teachers—who are trying to manage their schedules while supervising nonschool-aged children.
    Communicate: Pave the way for two-way communication. Ensure that information sent to students and families is clear and concise. Offer a range of ways for students to interact and ask questions. Provide an avenue for open communication with parents and teachers. As leaders, we must guide our teachers to support parents in establishing new routines while welcoming flexibility in tasks and choice in activities. Remember to integrate time for reflection or downtime within home-based learning. Help parents see the importance of maintaining certain hours for completing tasks or assignments and managing workload.
  3. Prioritize positive relationship-building. Be confident and recognize the importance of validating the feelings and perspectives of others. Educators are going the distance to keep learning moving forward while maintaining excellence. School leaders realize the importance of retaining the human element in education. Offering reassurance to one another, our students, and their families is vital.
    Create: Invite faculty to contribute their ideas for the summer and fall semester. Are there instructional practices that should change? Innovative thinking will be a critical piece of successfully returning to school. Never has it been more important to connect with parents and students. We must encourage them and thank them for embracing this new partnership of virtual communication. We must recognize that all situations and classrooms at home are just as diverse as the classrooms in brick-and mortar buildings.
    Adapt: You have the power to guide others in adapting to new situations. Educators are teaching from their homes; students are learning in their kitchens and living rooms—diverse, at-home situations require flexibility. We can use this as an opportunity to adapt our practices. Whether it’s offering support for parents, hosting “office” hours for students, or providing devices to those in need, change may be required. Let’s work to openly communicate and collaborate, examine the pulse of others, and frequently inquire about their thoughts. We should model talking about today’s issues so we can emulate the importance of analyzing and interpreting information to solve problems—big or small.
    Strive: Principals recognize the importance of modeling. While planning high-quality online learning isn’t the easiest task, it is possible when you remain focused. When students see their principal and teachers demonstrating “strive,” they can follow suit.
    Reflect: Take time to reflect on how you can take care of yourself. Crises are draining. We can easily become impatient, weary, and reactive, which makes situations even more problematic. We must pace ourselves, taking moments to pause and consider our own needs as important. Reflecting helps us push through challenges, improve upon past actions, and face our fears. How can we make better choices? How has COVID-19 changed our lives? What support do we need? By voicing our personal experiences, we can dig deeper to reveal strengths and opportunities.

Put Critical Thinking Into Practice

No matter the crisis, the nine traits can assist individuals of any age in making important decisions about their actions or finding an approach for resolution. We all have the capacity to think skillfully. When we incorporate critical thinking into our personal and professional lives, we can better support the growth of ourselves and our school communities. A critical thinker does not give up, but instead seeks ways to improve or resolve problems. Now is the time for principals to recognize the relevancy of thinking beyond the surface.

Sandra Love, EdD, is the director of education insight and research for Mentoring Minds, an organization that provides critical thinking resources to educators. She is a former elementary principal and recipient of the National Distinguished Principal Award.