How to Raise Critical Thinkers in a New World that Needs them
The ability to think critically is one of the most crucial skills our kids need to become lifelong learners with infinite curiosity and an inquiry-based approach to the world. But what is critical thinking? What are the traits of critical thinking, and can it be “taught” to children?
The ability to think critically is one of the most crucial skills our kids need to become lifelong learners with infinite curiosity and an inquiry-based approach to the world.
What is critical thinking?
Simply put, critical thinking is the ability to think objectively and logically in order to make an informed decision.
It enables the mind to be flexible, push its own boundaries, challenge the norm, and analyse all facets of an issue before coming to a conclusion, independently. A child with well-developed critical thinking skills can understand the logical connections between ideas. At the same time, he/she is wide-open to other ideas and viewpoints, enabling him/her to make balanced judgments and decisions.
Why is critical thinking so important?
The ability to engage in critical thinking has immense benefits for a child’s cognitive and socio-emotional development.
A toddler who is starting to think critically, understands that he/she must go around the table to get the toy on the other side, rather than stand in one place and throw a tantrum in frustration at the obstacle in the way.
A pre-schooler with blossoming critical thinking skills might attempt to answer his/her own questions, rather than ask you each time. And a primary schooler who can think critically will be able to pick apart the plot of a story and even conduct a basic analysis of it.
However, the power of critical thinking extends even further than this, enabling a child to expertly tackle a new world that presents new challenges, both now and in the future.
Our children are now exposed to more facts and figures than we ever were. They are exposed to situations we never experienced as kids, that require them to think on their feet. Our little ones need to learn how to make sense of all this information, and how to critically evaluate and understand situations at home, at school, and in society.
We can also take an educated guess that there will certainly be more change in the years ahead, that our children may have to navigate alone, without us.
How do we prepare our kids for a world that is constantly changing and presenting new and complicated challenges — including us, their parents, not being around to guide them? A new world in which future employers will likely value attributes like curiosity, self-confidence, and the ability to think through a problem, as much as academic prowess?
To confidently function and create change in this world now and in the future — to be truly exceptional — our children need to hone their critical thinking skills.
How to nurture traits of critical thinking in our children
We consider the ability to think as intimately linked with brain function. And while a healthy brain can be nurtured with proper nourishment, good thinking skills need more than that.
Robert Fisher, a leading expert in developing children's thinking skills, says that thinking is not a natural function like sleeping, walking, and talking. Thinking, he stresses, is a skill that needs to be developed.
Here are five effective ways to awaken your child’s critical thinking skills. The most optimal period to practise these ideas on your child is when he/she is between two and seven years old, and highly receptive to learning.
1. Use playtime as a lesson in problem solving
When kids play, whether alone or with others, they encounter challenging situations often. “How do these puzzle pieces fit?” “Why won’t these blocks balance on top of each other?” “Why won't she let me play the leader this time?”
Playing presents them with many opportunities to solve problems and helping them through by working out the solutions is an effective exercise in developing their critical thinking skills. While play is best when child-led, you can help nurture your little one's problem-solving (and critical thinking) skills by following these tips:
- Name the problem. Whether it's why the puzzle piece won't fit or why your child cannot be the leader when role-playing with others, help your little one understands the root of the “problem”. Do not give the answers, though. Encourage your child to think instead by asking specific questions. Ask prompting questions like, “Is the edge of this puzzle piece curving outward or inward? How about this other piece you're trying to connect it with?” “Is this bottom block bigger or smaller than the top block?” “Who played leader last time? Do you think you should take turns?” Ultimately, you want your child to be able to think through and solve problems logically, without your help.
- Brainstorm ideas together. Once your child has identified the problem, list down possible solutions. With younger kids, you can initiate the brainstorming and ask your child whether he/she would like to try your suggestions. For instance, say, “Shall we line up the remaining puzzle pieces and match them one by one with the piece you're holding?” “How about we sort the blocks from smallest to biggest?” “What do you think about taking turns and playing leader for five minutes each round?”
- Implement the solution. Encourage your little one to test the solution. If it does not work, then see the next point!
- Try again! If one solution doesn't seem to work, then ask your child to think about why not, hence, taking you back to Step 1 to do the exercise over again.
As you can see, critical thinking and learning eventually become child's play!
2. Encourage your child to ask questions
Those “why's” you have been running away from need to be addressed for little minds to function better.
Children are naturally curious. They want to know how the world works and why. Young kids learn in three ways—through exploration, observation and, of course, questioning a trusted person. And that trusted person is you.
But to encourage your child to be a critical thinker, don't just provide answers. You should ask your child questions in return, too. This will force your child to think differently and more deeply, and to find a better way to express him/herself. In effect, they're also learning how to create a hypothesis.
Here are some simple ways to do this:
- Ask why, what, and how: “Why do you feel that way?” “What do you think is happening here?” "How would you solve this problem?"
- Ask for clarification: “Can you say what you mean by…?”
- Ask for more: “Can you say more about that?”
- Ask for an example: “Can you give me an example?” “Can you show me what that looks like?”
Respect your child's responses, whether you view them as correct or not.
3. Let your child argue
It might hurt your ego a little bit but being able to say that he/she disagrees with something actually shows that your little one is thinking critically.
Encourage your child to explain or give reasons as to why he/she agrees or disagrees with you. Let's say your seven-year-old is facing some peer pressure about getting the latest “cool” backpack and insists on having one, too. Explain to your child why you can't buy a new one, but actively listen to his/her opinion, too.
Ask questions like, “Why do you think you should have one, aside from the reason that your classmates have one?” “How would it benefit you to have that backpack?” “Why do you think Mummy and Daddy can't buy you that backpack?
This allows your child to learn that there are always two sides to a story and, more importantly, learn how to critically view and assess both these sides.
4. Talk about cause and effect
Critical thinking also involves thinking about the consequence of an action or a statement. It makes your child ask him/herself the question, “What would happen if you did this?”
Storytelling or reading time is the perfect opportunity for you to teach your child about cause and effect. Stop reading at the crisis moment or decision and ask your child what he/she thinks will happen next, and why.
With younger kids, you can pause at moments where a character reacts at a situation, and ask what just happened in the story to prompt the character to behave in that manner.
5. Teach children how to think through a tricky situation
As the world changes and advances, so do the many challenges our kids face. From tackling bullies in school, to staying safe when online—our children need to be armed with the correct skills to think their way through such situations, especially when we are not around to protect and help them.
As parents, our role is to teach our kids how to navigate the present and future world, safely. They can learn how to do this through the ability to connect the dots or think critically.
Teach your little one how to critically evaluate a situation:
“You know the usual characters in your favourite programme. So, if someone scary appears who doesn't belong in it, you need to tell Mummy and Daddy, okay?”
“Only Grandma, Mummy, and Daddy pick you up from school. What should you do if someone else asks to bring you home?”
“If you ever see something that bothers you, or that makes you feel yucky, please tell me, and I will help you.”
Eventually, your child will develop a logical mind that can sound an alarm when something doesn't make sense in what is familiar and known to them.
We don't know exactly what the future holds for our children. But if you nurture critical thinking skills in them early, know that you are firmly cementing part of an important foundation for lifelong learning and inquiry in your children. You are, in other words, nurturing the exceptional in them.
With this in place, your little ones will confidently move forward on the road to success, navigating and thriving in this new world, both as older children and as adults.