Critical Thinking: Kids Can Do It (Sometimes), But Adults Often Fail At It
Daniel Willingham says of critical thinking, something like, a 3 year old can sometimes do it, but adults often fail at it. I think it’s quite a profound statement about the novice/expert divide, and the generic teaching of thinking skills.
My own Kindergarten age son is capable of many profound breakthroughs and “a-has” about the world, but about many things, he simply doesn’t know enough. Knowledge leads to greater amounts of thinking, I think.
Every new piece of knowledge, of knowing things about the world, that he incorporates into his worldview, he finds astonishing. We learned that salamanders live under logs, and that we can flip logs over and find them. With more practice, he will get even better at finding salamanders.
But he can’t think critically about Israeli settlements. He literally knows nothing. He knows nothing about the 1947 boundaries or the 1973 war or World War II or the struggle for Palestine statehood or the first and second intifadas, or US/Israeli relations. I define critical thinking as “making sound judgements with all available evidence”. He can reasonably tell me if a log is a good candidate for being a salamander home; he can’t tell me anything about Israeli homes.
But then, he and his friend had a conversation that “infinity plus infinity is twofinity”. Alec said no, that’s wrong. He and I have chatted about infinity. The other kid’s conjecture is reasonable, but wrong. Alec has no idea why it’s wrong, he just knows that I told him that infinity plus infinity is still infinity. We have played with the idea a bit, so has some knowledge. Over time, he can learn more about the concept of infinity, and make more judgements about it. I am just happy he used what knowledge he has to rebuke the idea of “twofinity”.
Critical thinking is thorny. We don’t do it about NOTHING. We need an object of thought. Let’s give 4 and 5 year olds interesting objects of thought. There’s an idea. Let’s give them the knowledge and tools to make sound judgements about many things around them. Children are frequently underestimated. Treat them as capable thinkers, and help them find the information they need to make good judgements. That is how to teach critical thinking. Activate their faculties of judgement as much as is possible. Make rational evaluation of choices a part of their daily lives.
No, I am not saying they should pick their own bedtimes. They don’t really have enough information to make good judgements about how much sleep young human brains need. We can help them with that.
Likewise, if you are asking a 10 year old, say, “should we colonize Mars?”, that’s a great opportunity for critical thinking, but I would expect that she would be armed with lots of lots of knowledge gained through research to help her make her decision.
Treat young human beings as beings capable of rational thought. Give them lots of opportunities to make judgements. Note that, maybe the act of providing these opportunities IS teaching critical thinking. But do not, under any circumstances, pretend that critical thinking is a generic faculty of humans that doesn’t need to be practiced.
Sometimes it seems the default state of the world today is reasoning *without* evidence. We have echo chambers, social media shaping our worldview, and “fake news”. Knowing enough “things” in order to make sound judgements about those “things” is most definitely a 21st century skill- but then again, it was in the 20th century as well. Gather evidence, weigh the evidence, and make sound judgements.