Seven Questions (and One Strategy) to Build Critical Thinking Skills | exSTEMsions

Seven Questions (and One Strategy) to Build Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking matters...

Critical thinking is all the rage in education, and that’s a good thing. But for a parent, the term “critical thinking” can be kind of vague. If I asked you if you wanted your child to be a strong critical thinker, you’d say yes. But what does that actually mean, and how can you, the parent, actually help your child think critically?

First, let’s reach back to a previous blog about the difference between problem-solving and critical thinking (you can read it here) to define “critical thinking skills”. Critical thinking skills are habits of mind that help us be thoughtful, rational, creative, and curious.  Critical thinking cuts across all the different subjects kids learn in school, and can involve collecting information, organizing what we collect, analyzing and evaluating the information we have, making connections between different ideas, understanding what’s relevant and what isn’t, and so much more.  All of this work provides a basis on which we can make informed decisions when we need to. We each use our critical thinking skills all day, every day, in just about any situation we encounter!

How do we help kids build critical thinking skills?

Critical thinking skills are important, and helping kids be strong critical thinkers is a worthy goal. Great… we should help our kids be better critical thinkers. But, there’s actually a lot involved in developing great critical thinking skills. So how can you and me, as parents, help our kids develop these vital skills?

One of the most straightforward ways you can help your child to enhance existing critical thinking skills, and build new ones, is to actually make them use the critical thinking skills they currently have. I have two kids, and I know firsthand how difficult it can be to get my kids to think. But I want them to grow, and ultimately become thoughtful, reasonable adults whose decision-making skills I trust. And that means I need to help them build these skills now, even sometimes by letting them figure things out for themselves!

Staying out of the way as your kids grapple with a problem is one way to build critical thinking skills. But to be honest, letting kids struggle on their own is a very passive approach for the parent, and won’t always be successful. Often we need to actively engage our kids around how they think, make decisions, and solve problems, but we still want them to be the ones doing the thinking. This is where questions come in!


Questions to build critical thinking skills

When you find yourself wondering how your child figured something out, why they did something a certain way, or how they knew what to do, stop and ask. Have a brief conversation where you ask a question about how or why something clicked in their heads, and see what you get back. Then, share what you might have done, how you would have figured it out, or why you thought about it differently (while being aware that it’s a conversation about thinking - not a lesson on how to think). And now you are actively helping your child build critical thinking skills, because you are helping them to collect, organize, evaluate and analyze information about their own thinking!

When I am nurturing critical thinking skills in my children, I find that I have a handful of tried and true questions that I ask again and again, in different versions. They’re simple, and they can work for you too:

  1. How did you figure that out?
  2. What did you learn from the experience?
  3. (After someone (me, or a sibling) shares how they might have solved something differently:) How are the methods/approaches different? How are they similar?
  4. What’s another way you might do ____ ?
  5. How do you know your answer is correct?
  6. What did you already know that helped you figure this out?
  7. Where do you think you will use what you just learned, in the future?

There are certainly other questions that would work, and this is not an exhaustive list by any means. These are just the questions that I find myself asking my kids (and my students!) when I want to help them dig into their own thinking a bit more. In the end, if you want to help your kids build stronger critical thinking skills, you have to give them the space to think critically, and then help them to think critically about their own critical thinking. If you wonder what they did and why, ask. If you need a question, use one of the above, or come up with one that makes sense in the moment. Like so many other things in life, the key to stronger critical thinking is doing more of it!

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