The ability to think clearly, logically and independently are key skills in the modern world. Not only will young people need to think critically in order to sparkle in the workplace, but they will also need to do so in order to avoid being sucked into the gurgling cesspool of misinformation, manipulation, magical thinking, and chicanery which characterizes our age.
First a definition of critical thinking:
In a nutshell, critical thinking is not believing anything… unless the evidence for it is sound. Encoded in this definition are three elements:
- A sustained skeptical attitude towards the ideas and information which come your way.
- The ability to reason, identify and weigh evidence, as well as the capacity to interrogate arguments effectively.
- The formation of a well-founded belief, judgement, opinion or course of action.
So how do you help your kids to think more clearly?
You are a superhero to your child. They will always try to emulate you and will take on board your beliefs. (At least, until they are teenagers!) If you want your kids to think more cleanly, you need to set the example. Do this by filtering out all the dangerous nonsense you may believe in, so that you don't contaminate their thinking.
Some examples of the odious cognitive flotsam you should consider filtering out include:
- Indigo children
- Feng shui
- Crystal healing
- Faith healing
- Lucky charms
And so on.
See this handy image for more.
Again, set the example by reading yourself. Be sure to include some good non-fiction, and discuss what you're reading with your kids. Read to them from an early age, and talk about what's going on in the book. When they are reading independently, encourage your kids to make a habit out of telling you what's going on in the story they're reading, and to tell about the parts they like, and which they don't like, and – most importantly – why. Slowly, and without being too critical at first, begin to question them on their 'why' answers.
I know we're all busy. I know there's never enough time. But kids need to talk things out. Listen to what they have to say and ask them to explain their thoughts carefully. Question them gently on the points of their arguments that don't make complete sense – and encourage them to think and research to back up their thoughts more solidly, even from an early age.
Kids love to ask questions. Yet somewhere along the way, they stop. To encourage critical thinking is to encourage kids not to stop asking questions. As part of this process, kids need to realize that no-one has all the answers – least of all their superhero parents. And they will also come know that this is okay. There is a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips, and teaching children how to ask the right questions, as well to differentiate between valid and questionable answers, is the greatest gift a parent can give their kids in the twenty-first century.
We never really stop learning. We just find fewer and fewer opportunities to do so. There are opportunities for learning critical thinking in almost everything. Building a child's critical thinking acumen means augmenting their thinking by splashing questions over almost every experience they have. Some examples:
- A visit to the zoo. (There are some tough questions you can ask here, including, 'Are zoos a good or bad thing – or a little of both?', 'Why is it okay to eat some animals and not others?' and 'Should animals have the same rights as people – and why / why not?')
- A visit to a museum or a historical site. (Questions here can center around who gets to write history, how we document history, and how we interpret evidence.)
- Watching the news. (There are obvious questions here about media bias, loaded reporting and partisanship.)
- Reading roadside adverts.
- Critiquing restaurant menus.
- Looking at how the aisles and products are arranged in a shop.
- Thinking about how games keep you interested.
- Wondering about why different things cost different amounts of money.
- Debating how movies manipulate us.
- Thinking out loud when playing board games.
- Building Lego. (Ask questions like: 'How can we solve this problem if we don't have the exact piece?', or, 'Which parts of this could be improved and why?')
- Questioning the use of color, images and words on candy packaging.
- Why they learn what they learn at school.
And so on.
Playing is a child's way of making sense of the world. Forcing kids to 'grow up' too quickly, and to adopt a more distilled attitude, slows their thinking. Not to mention what it does to their creative flow. The best option is to encourage them to play with toys and narratives they themselves have made, but games like chess (which involve logical and strategic thinking) are also great. Playing is often messy and chaotic, but just as often, some remarkable insights get sublimated out of the process. Kids have to play to learn. As do we all. The most interesting adults I know still tinker and play.
Much of what is needed to encourage kids to wade into critical thinking requires their adults to question their own beliefs and attitudes. This is less and less easy for many of us as we age as our beliefs begin to stagnate. Yet, if we are reluctant to ask questions and to change our minds, our kids will almost certainly follow our lead. Be brave enough to question how leak-proof your ideas truly are, and encourage them to be too.
The scientific method is at the heart of critical thinking: Form a hypothesis, test, experiment and gather evidence, evaluate that evidence, and then evaluate your hypothesis in line with your evidence. Making this a habit in kids encourages clear thinking, and helps them to understand that they can figure things out independently. And it isn't just limited to 'sciencey' topics. The scientific method can be used as part of any critical literacy activity (see 'Augment' above).
Teaching critical thinking to kids does not run counter to 'letting kids be kids'. It actually builds on their natural curiosity, sense of wonder, and their inclination to question. It allows them to grow their own metacognitive abilities, as well as their courage, confidence and independence.
I am convinced that, as more and more parents encourage their children to become independent thinkers, in a generation or two, we will have a vastly better world: one in which people see themselves as agents in the world, rather than victims of it. And thus, people who can change the world for the better.