“Critical thinking” is one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot, to mean lots of different things. It’s something you’ll see listed as a desired skill on a job posting, or as one of the many things teachers want to instill in your child. It sounds like something we should really want to be good at, and want the same for our children. And, in fact, critical thinking is a big deal. But why? And what does it actually mean?
Definitions of what critical thinking encompasses vary a bit, and can differ depending on the purpose and area in which it’s being used. For me, as a teacher and a parent, when I talk about critical thinking, I’m talking about all of the skills that help my kids view the world critically. Critical thinking skills allow us to look at a problem, and then do all of the things that are needed to solve it effectively: determine the information we need, gather that information, evaluate and analyze what we have, and then decide on a course of action. As we walk through the process of solving a problem, critical thinking skills help us stop and say “Wait, does that make sense?” when we are confronted with information that may not be correct. They are the same skills that help us identify if a source of information is trustworthy, or not. These skills help us to weigh our options, and choose the path that both fits our needs, and makes the most sense in solving the problem. Skills like these help us step back and look at the big picture when it’s needed, as well as focus on the nitty-gritty details at just the right time. Critical thinking skills are survival skills, and they are highly transferable. It doesn’t matter what subject you’re studying, what task you’re trying to complete, or what role you’re trying to excel in - strong critical thinking skills are necessary in every case. And strong critical thinkers get ahead.
While in many cases, critical thinking skills can be directly taught - for example, we can learn how to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable sources - these skills are generally ones that gain strength and clarity through use. That’s right. The more you have to think critically, the better you’ll get at it. The more you ask your child to think critically, the better they’ll get at it. And practicing critical thinking isn’t actually that hard to do.
One of the best parts of critical thinking is that we do it all day long. This means we have plenty of opportunities to help our kids build their critical thinking skills, in many different ways. But what might that actually look like? Here’s an example. My 6-year-old daughter and I were making banana bread recently, and she was helping me to follow the recipe. This is a recipe we use all the time (we go through an extraordinary amount of banana bread). She was calling out ingredients and amounts as I helped her gather them. We had all of the ingredients she asked for in the bowl, and went to mix, but when we looked in the bowl, we noticed that clearly something was missing. She said, “Mom, it looks weird in there” (problem). I asked her to explain. “Well”, she said, “it’s just way too... dry… usually the mix is wet, and this isn’t.” So I asked her what could be wrong. She thought for a bit and decided we missed an ingredient (evaluation and analysis). She went back to the recipe, and sure enough, we’d missed the butter, which we then added in (decision). Then I asked her if she thought it was right this time. She thought for awhile, and then checked the list again before deciding we were set. This is just a tiny example, but it’s one of the many, many times throughout the day where our children stop, think, review, and try again.
So how do you help build critical thinking skills in your child? Make them use the skills they have now, all the time! Something not working out? Ask them to identify the issue. Is there a problem that needs a solution? Have them do the research and outline the options. Find conflicting information? Have them take a closer look at where the information came from, and maybe look at additional sources. Ask them questions like “Why do you think so?” or “How did you come to that decision?” These are just a few of the ways you can strengthen your child’s critical thinking skills. There are lots of others, but it’s okay to keep it simple. Approaches like these are a great way to start capitalizing on the many opportunities sprinkled throughout the day.
I want my kids, and your kids, to walk out into the world ready for anything. I want them to be able to look around for themselves, take in what they see, and make smart choices as a result. I know the way they’ll get there is through practice. And that’s why I didn’t tell my daughter she missed the butter. It’s better for her in the long run, and for me, if she has to figure it out.
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