Critical thinking helps us better understand ourselves and the world around us, make the most of opportunities, and increase the quality of both our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
Why Is Critical Thinking So Hard to Teach
Ancient Greeks and Romans taught rhetoric and philosophy; today’s standardized public education seldom scratches the surface. If critical reasoning is so important, why isn’t there a class on it?
The breadth and depth of knowledge for effective critical thinking cannot be assimilated through hypothetical scenarios or classroom instruction. Involving complexities across vast domains of discipline, higher-level thought processes required for effective critical thinking are cultivated by real-life experiences in the real world. Over time, universal knowledge increases, fueling our capacity to flex our mental muscles and form our own conclusions.
Whether straightforward or complex, there are often downstream implications that make a “simple” choice “not so simple.” Who will this decision affect? How long will this impact them? What is the potential fallout? What are the worst-case, likely-case, and best-case scenarios? What do those ramifications look like? Decision-makers strive for the greater good, but according to whom? The answers to these questions set the stage for how we might best proceed.
How to Think Critically
Searching beyond what we already know, critical thinking seeks input and ideas from others. It engages conversations with open-mindedness, curiosity, and creativity. By digging deeper and analyzing things with granularity, we can come up with new ways to save time, minimize mistakes, and make the most of opportunities. If we find ourselves struggling to see the optimal solution, brainstorming through unconventional approaches might reveal a superior choice.
Self-reflection is paramount. Look inward; question our own motivations and beliefs to analyze whether we bring any inappropriate bias or baggage into the decision-making process. Especially with more harrowing challenges, self-awareness is essential. By separating emotion from logic, we tame our feelings, cut through the noise, identify what really matters, and make smarter decisions.
Teaching Children to Think Critically
Children often ask an unending barrage of “why, why, why” questions. These “Why” questions establish the foundation of critical thinking skills. If we answer, “That’s the way it is,” or otherwise blow off their questions, we do them a tremendous disservice. When given the opportunity, explain things in detail. If children stump us with a difficult question, pull up a proverbial seat at their side of the table, view things from their perspective, and say, “That’s a great question—I’m not sure—let’s figure it out!”
The building blocks of critical thinking are 1) open-mindedness, 2) open-ended questions, and 3) limitless curiosity. Investing time in answering our children’s questions (or seeking answers together) will turbo-charge learning. With experience, they’ll learn to mark untrue or misleading information, identify truly objective criteria, and consider multiple variables simultaneously. Remove emotion and subjectivity; the search for answers should be conducted with logic. Recognize the emotion and subjectivity in others and proceed accordingly. Teach a willingness—an eagerness—to seek different information and alternative perspectives that challenge the status quo. Encourage children to question the world around them; help them take their intellectual curiosity and analytical thinking to new heights.
Developing Critical Thinking Skills through Play
Through play, children gain intimate familiarity with trial and error. Among many skills, play teaches concentration, flexibility, time sensitivity, priorities, and differences between logic and emotion. The more fathers play with children, the more quality time we invest, the more we engage in side-by-side examination—looking at things through their lens—the more we are granted the privilege of sharing higher, deeper, and more profound conversations to stimulate critical thinking.
Correlation & Causation
Correlation is when two things happen together, but it does not necessarily indicate causation, which happens when one thing causes the other. Both murder rates and ice cream sales peak every summer. This doesn’t mean that folks who eat ice cream also kill people. As young children develop critical thinking skills, understanding the difference between correlation and causation is a huge developmental milestone.
The Error of Blind Obedience
Demands for blind obedience discourage critical thinking. Retorts such as “I said so,” or “because it’s for your own good” undermine the development of critical thinking and logical reasoning skills. At its essence, the ability to make sound judgments depends on “why.” When adults explain the impact of certain actions or misbehaviors, we teach the “why” behind demands for compliance. Relative to children with more authoritarian or permissive parents, children whose parents offer details and reasoning tend to enjoy greater success academically, have superior critical thinking skills, and exhibit fewer behavioral problems.
Let kids make decisions. Give children a say in how they spend their time. With playdates, parties, and summer camp; ask them what they would like to do and let them take the lead. Do they have chores? Grant them autonomy about what to do with their allowance money. As they make more and more choices, they’ll learn to consider potential upsides vs. potential downsides to make better, more informed decisions.
Be a Good Role Model
Children imitate what they observe; the best way to teach children important life skills is to model them in our own lives. Depending on age appropriateness, we can verbalize our thoughts as we consider variables and work towards a conclusion, inviting children to join us as we engage the critical thinking process.
Critical thinking is a skill set that can demand both abstract and concrete competencies across multiple domains simultaneously. Immersion in the actual process should help children develop capabilities, and eventually, expertise. With a foundation of open-mindedness, the habit of asking open-ended questions, and the adoption of never-ending curiosity, let’s help children develop the critical thinking skills they can rely on to manage whatever life throws at them.
“Only simpletons believe everything they’re told! The prudent carefully consider their steps.”
—Proverbs 14:15 NLT
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PLEASE NOTE: As an Amazon Associate, Fathers Truly Matter earns from qualifying purchases. The information in this post should not be construed as providing specific psychiatric, psychological, or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist.