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  • June 2007
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What is “critical thinking” and how do I teach it?

     “Critical Thinking” “problem solving” “deductive reasoning” these are all nice phrases, but what do they mean? Everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that the public schools completely fail to teach these skills. The problem is, no one seems to be able to actually define what they are. Sure, the schools pretty much only teach “facts” (many of which are simply opinions, PC ideology, or simply wrong), but they can’t really be blamed for that – they are evaluated based on how many of these ‘facts’ a kid can vomit onto a standardized test in a given time period. The schools rating, budget, and the staffs job security depends on the students being able to perform on the test, so the school teaches exactly that.
          So, Back to all those cool phrases. I think people agree that they are not the spewing of factoids that the schools teach. That’s a start, but still isn’t a definition. Exactly what is it we want our kids to be able to do? For me, the answer is actually fairly simple. I want my kids to be able to apply what they know (facts and experience) to real world situations. I want them to be able to use their knowledge and skills to figure out how to do something they have never done before. I want them to be able to approach a new situation or problem rationally, and apply a set of skills and tools to achieve the goal that they want. Having a library of facts at hand may make this a bit easier, and is probably an essential part of it. But by itself, the library of facts is useless. The critical skill that is not being taught is the ability to apply those facts to new situations. My daughter knows beyond doubt that 10+10=20. She learned this is school as a fact. As a matter of fact, she learned her addition and subtraction tables up to 15+-15. What she did not learn at school is how to add other numbers. Or why A+B=C. She learned that at home. She also learned (at home) why AxB=Z, and understands the theory behind multiplication. She has not learned her multiplication tables yet, but I’m sure the schools will drill those facts into her. If they don’t I know I can teach them to her at home.
          Well, we still haven’t figured out how to teach “critical thinking”. The methods I use at home will probably not work in a classroom, as they are customized to meet the abilities of my kids. One thing I do know for sure, is that when a school or a teacher says “your child could not possibly understand/do that because (s)he is not developmentally ready for it”, what they really mean is “I’m not going to spend time teaching that” (or quit possible “I don’t know that”). I have had numerous conversations with educators, school administrations, and “learning specialists” who have explained to me time and again that a child that age couldn’t possibly learn about that. Some examples?

·        supposedly, a kid is mentally incapable of understanding the concepts of multiplication before the third grade. The fact that my kids figured out counting by groups (count by 5, count by 2, etc), and had grasped the concept that counting by groups could be represented by the number of times you counted (“if I count by 2s 6 times, I’ll get 12”) by the time they were starting 1st grade is irrelevant. Kids can’t possibly really understand that stuff.

·        A child simply can not understand how to break a task down into its component parts (steps) before the 4th grade. They haven’t developed the skills yet. Of course, the fact that my second grader can program her lego robot simply proves that my kid is a super genius. (Yeah, right, like I believe that) 

     The reality is that the kids don’t have the skills, but it is not because they are not developmentally capable of it – it is because they have never been encouraged to develop the skills. As a matter of fact, in most cases, they have been actively discouraged. Think about it. Spend some time with a toddler – say a 2 or three year old. How often do you say “you can’t do that yet” or “you’re too little for that” or some other phrase that could really mean “stop trying to figure out how to do that”.  Now, take a look at a daycare, preschool or elementary school classroom, and see how often that message is driven home to the kids. Kids have a natural curiosity, and a natural tendency to experiment and try new things. If we want our kids to learn to problem solve, we have to let them actually do it, and encourage them to do so. As your kid grows, it the parents job to ensure that there are always challenges available. Of course, you also have to be willing to let your child fail – trying something that doesn’t work can provide as much useful information and skills as trying something that does work.         
     Blocks, legos, and other building toys automatically teach critical thinking. When your child wants to build something, work with them, but let them make the design and construction decisions. When they gat halfway through the construction, and it falls to pieces, or something doesn’t work, or whatever, don’t point out why it failed. Ask them why. Ask them if/how they are going to fix it. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they start figuring things out for themselves. And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Teaching them to figure it out.


One Response

  1. The “problem” with critical thinking – and why it isn’t taught well (if at all) in schools, is that there really is no catch-all definition and, therefore, no good way of assessing whether or not it’s being done – or being done well…

    My own explanation of what critical thinking is involves taking new information and holding it up against what you already know/think/feel/believe and deciding if – and if so, where – that new information fits into your being. It involves not swallowing wholesale whatever is handed to you. It involves making connections between this and that – and maybe even THAT, WAY over there – in ways that maks your understanding of each discrete thing richer. It involves questioning, making assumptions – and testing those assumptions – and being willing to restructure your knowledge/thoughts/ feelings/ beliefs if the new information warrants it.

    Almost all of my classes end up being classes in critical thinking. I teach Gen. Ed.s, and I know better than to think that my students are going to come out the other end able to tell me FACTS about what I’ve taught them. What I REALLY want them to know is how to think their way through new experiences, how to find the answers they need if they don’t have them inside themselves already, and how to talk to people in effective and respectful ways. If I can manage those things with even a few of my students, I’ve done my job well.

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