Using Stories to Develop Critical Thinking Skills
It is no secret most people enjoy stories with a mystery or a riddle to solve. When I tell riddle stories in schools I see an increase in the level of interest, particularly when I ask students to guess how the problem in a story might be solved. A riddle story is seldom perceived by students as part of the formal learning experience, so kids relax and participate with enthusiasm because they are having a good time.
Riddle stories are found in every culture and can be used to enhance units in language arts, math, science and social studies. The good news is that once a riddle story has been introduced critical thinking naturally comes into play, even for those youngsters who do not venture to guess a solution. When one student voices an idea others in the room agree, disagree or are surprised. The discussion that follows demonstrates how well everyone has listened and considered the facts presented in the tale.
There are many other ways a story can be explored to help develop critical thinking skills for even the most reticent student. Youngsters with visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles can be included in small group improvisations to re-tell or act out the basic story (a) from a new point of view, (b) in another time or place, or (c) with an entirely different outcome. Group exercises allow students to select how they will participate, and give opportunities for individual ownership during the experience. When this occurs, student confidence grows and the abilities to listen, evaluate, communicate and make decisions are strengthened.

Over the years I have worked as a storyteller and artist-in-residence at more than 100 different schools, libraries and community venues around the country. During that time I have found stories to be an underused but wonderful teaching resource. With the current focus in improving student reading and writing comprehension, educators need as many creative tools as possible to teach kids how to evaluate and reason with clarity. This is why I believe adding stories and related exercises to the critical thinking tool box is such a effective and natural fit.
Useful Links
A list of 35 dimensions of critical thought.
An excellent article on teaching critical thinking skills.
A site dedicated to measuring critical thinking worldwide.

An award winning commercial resource site for parents and educators.
Suggested Books
Kendall Haven, Write Right! Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques. (ISBN: 1-56308-677-8. Teacher Ideas Press, Englewood, CO, 1999)
George Shannon, Stories to Solve: Fifteen Folktales From Around The World. (ISBN: 0-440-84396-0. Greenwillow Books, New York, NY, 1985)
George Shannon, More Stories to Solve: Folktales from Around the World. (ISBN: 0-440-84674-9. Greenwillow Books, New York, NY, 1989)
George Shannon, Still More Stories to Solve: Fourteen Folktales from Around the World. (ISBN: 0-688-04619-3. Greenwillow Books, New York, NY, 1994)

George Shannon, True Lies: 18 Tales for You to Judge. (ISBN 0-688-14483-7. Greenwillow Books, New York, NY, 1997)

Story Related Links – Art Projects and Math
When students make a paper lantern, a paper cup and/or a paper fan, concepts in mathematics are ever present.  Students will recognize familiar shapes (square, rectangles, and triangles) as well as the use of measurements.
If students have been working in inches, the link below from England contains a reference to centimeters and shows easy steps on how to make a paper lantern. I see this to be an invitation to talk about the metric system with students.
The following link is an excellent example of how mathematics can be applied when making paper cup
Here’s a slightly irreverent video on how to make apaper fan. The best part of this short instructional video is the way Robert Segundo slips in a quadratic equation reference.
Last year, my October newsletter included (a) information about why we tell ghost stories (b) a scary story to tell and (c) instructions on how to tell a jump tale. If you have not yet seen this 2009 edition, just click on the link below.

A Story to Tell:  Three Impossible Gifts
(An adaptation of a folktale from China by Glenda Bonin, 2010)
Long ago in ancient China two sisters married the oldest sons of a prosperous man in a village about a day’s journey from where they were born. As was the custom of the day, the young brides moved into their husband’s family home. The sisters were glad to have married into such a fine family and be able to see each other every day. Things seemed to be perfect for them in their new life, but it wasn’t always easy to please their father-in-law who was the head of the household.
Before long they both became homesick and asked if they would be allowed to go see their mother and father. In those times, they needed to have permission from the head of the household to go anywhere beyond the walls of their new home. Their father-in-law agreed to let them go for a short visit.
After they got back, the sisters asked to visit their relatives on a regular basis. He began to get weary of all the requests, so the very next time they asked to leave he asked them to bring him three gifts. If they could not find what he wanted, they would never be allowed to visit their parents again.
The girls were so excited about seeing their relatives again that they did not think much about what the old man had requested. But on the day they were to return, they realized he had asked for three impossible things: he wanted them to bring him fire in paper, water in paper and air in paper.
They both sat down at the side of the road and started to cry. It wasn’t long before a girl on a water buffalo came by and asked the sisters why they were so upset. When she heard their problem, she laughed and helped them find what exactly what they needed.
When the sisters returned carrying the gifts their father-in-law had requested, he was surprised and pleased. No one else had been able to bring him fire in paper, water in paper and wind in paper, so he agreed to allow them see their relatives as often as they wished.

What did they bring back to him?
Story Synopsis and Answer to the Riddle

In ancient China, the two oldest son’s of a prosperous man married and brought their brides to live in the family home. The head of the household was their father-in-law. The brides had to ask his permission if they wanted to visit their relatives, as was the custom in those days. He asked them to bring him three gifts: fire in paper, water in paper and air in paper. If they could not return from their visit with these gifts, they could never leave the household again. The brides agreed, but when their visit was over they realized the gifts he wanted were impossible to get.

A clever girl helped them find fire in paper (a paper lantern), water in paper (a paper cup) and wind in paper (a paper fan), and their father-in-law was pleased.

Decorative lanterns light up the night.
Decorative lanterns light up the night.
Story Related Critical Thinking Connections

Social Studies: Thecultural/historical references and social expectations found in this folktale from China provide many opportunities for critical thinking. This story is an excellent springboard for students to compare, contrast and evaluate the culture presented with what they know of their own. Students will enjoy using art to make and decorate paper lanterns, paper cups and paper fans as they learn more about China and its people.

Although the story provided herein is an abbreviated version of the original tale, expanded versions of the story can be easily found. Some texts contain additional riddles to solve – seeThe Young Head of the Family in Wise Women: Folk and Fairy Tales from around the World by Suzanne I. Barchers. (ISBN 1-56308-592-5. Libraries Unlimited, Inc., Englewood, CO, 1990). Different versions of this story can also be found under the following title: House of No Sorrow.

Language Arts: As students explore this story, re-tell it or act it out, their communication skills are enhanced and enriched when they discuss what they have learned. By encouraging further reading, students are able to compare and contrast the various adaptations of this story. If student groups take on the challenge of creating an adaptation of their own, they might enjoy writing and illustrating their work.

Science: Most students know what it’s like to feel homesick, so it is not difficult for them to understand why the sisters wanted to visit their family so often. Today, modern technology (telephones, Internet, audio recordings, video, etc.) provide options to communicate with our loved ones that were not available in the past. A discussion of thescientific contrasts between then and now will result in students using visualization, making comparisons and drawing conclusions from what they have learned.