Critical thinking, also known as problem solving, is an essential life skill. Not only can it help us get the best out of our studies and careers, but the ability to objectively evaluate our own behavior is crucial for self improvement, leading to better relationships and happier lives.
And of course, at a time when there is so much misinformation coming at us from the news, from official bodies, and from social media, critical thinking is essential for anyone who wants to understand the world.
Yet in America, nearly one-in-five 15-year-olds are unable to solve baseline critical thinking problems, according to a 2012 study by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Although that was slightly above the OECD average, it was well below Japan’s rate of just seven percent.
What is critical thinking?
In simple terms, critical thinking is the ability to look at a problem or situation from multiple perspectives, to evaluate all the available information, and to come up with a range of possible solutions or outcomes. In this respect, it goes way beyond simple problem solving of the 2+2=4 kind. Rather, a critical thinking problem would be one in which there is a range of ways to reach the number 4, including using negative numbers.
The American Philosophical Association defines critical thinking as a combination of six key skills: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation and self-regulation. When we teach children critical thinking skills, therefore, we are not teaching them how to memorize the ‘right’ answer. Instead, it’s all about encouraging children to independently think for themselves to come up with their own solution.
Although this sounds complicated, critical thinking can and should be taught from a young age, in an age appropriate way. In reality, what you’re aiming to teach is independence. Simply encouraging even small children to figure things out for themselves, like how to get the square block in the square hole, lays the foundations for teaching critical thinking.
All children at every age learn by example, so the other key foundation stone to teaching critical thinking is to model your own thinking by doing it out loud. With smaller children in particular you can turn this into a game. For example when tidying up, you can ask (out loud), “Where could the book go? Does the book go in the wardrobe? No, there are clothes in the wardrobe. Does the book go in the bed? No, we sleep in the bed. Does the book go on the shelf? Yes, the book fits on the shelf!”
With older children, you can start to help them model their own thinking by asking open ended questions. If they’re telling you about something they find interesting, ask questions that encourage them to think critically about that topic. Why do they like it? What don’t they like about it? Do they think others might also like it? Why? How could it be even better? What would make it worse? And so on.
Reading encourages critical thinking
The most effective critical thinkers are those who can draw on a very broad range of experiences, circumstances, and points of view to help them come up with new ideas and responses. We can’t all travel the world in person, but books are an excellent way to see the world from others’ eyes, to challenge our own assumptions, and to widen our knowledge base.
Encouraging children to critically read a broad range of fiction and nonfiction children’s books such as the Heroes of Liberty series is a key element of encouraging critical thinking. But critical reading goes beyond simply reading the text.
“If you have understood a piece of text, you’ll be able to rewrite it after reading. But that is simple reading,” says Steven West, author of Critical Reading Skills. “When you read with critical thinking skills, you’ll be able to interpret the text and add your own thoughts and opinions.”
West advises that critical reading can be thought of as ‘reading between the lines’. Instead of taking the text at face value, encourage older children to think about what the author could be trying to say. What can we infer from what is being said in the text? What is being left out?
The prevalence of misinformation nowadays is due to people not being able to evaluate what they read effectively. Too many people are bamboozled by official looking text, both in print and online, without stopping to question whether the information is credible. No matter what the source, encourage your children to think for themselves about what they are reading, to do their own research, and to make up their own minds about what they are being told.
Teaching critical thinking should be fun!
Children have wonderful imaginations, and they love to problem solve. Let them use their imaginations to do just that! Critical thinking needn’t always be a serious affair.
There are all sorts of games you can play to encourage your children to problem solve, from setting them novel challenges such as moving an object from one side of the room to another without touching it, to using toys such as lego, which can be used in countless new ways each time.
Arts and crafts, especially those that use tools such as woodworking, are also superb for encouraging children to use their imaginations, to problem solve how to craft whatever it is they want to make, and how to improve upon their efforts the next time.
While guidance on how to safely use tools is essential, resist the urge to step in and do the task for them. Let them figure it out for themselves! That’s what critical thinking is all about.