When it comes to reasoning, kids can surprise us. They ask penetrating questions that seem to come out of thin air. But this kind of progress in reasoning doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
To develop reasoning skills, children require the right kind of environment and support from schools, teachers, and parents, as well as the right kinds of challenges, discussions, and even arguments.
Especially now—with so many obstacles to clear and critical thinking placed in children’s way—schools should be proactive and help guide children’s critical thinking development.
To that end, the Reboot Foundation, which I founded to support research and development in critical thinking, recently published an in-depth, research-based guide to critical thinking for children of all ages. Here are three takeaways that schools can deploy to help kids think better:
1. Encourage Curiosity
For the most part, young children under the age of nine are not ready for high-level abstract reasoning. But young children are eager to know about the world and ask questions endlessly. Why is the grass green? Why do zebras have stripes?
As adults, it can be easy to dismiss these questions, but it's vital that we make time to indulge and encourage the curiosity of young students.
Open-ended discussions are an excellent way to spark curiosity. Books can be a great starting point. To spark a discussion about morality, for example, try using Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. When the class reads about Mr. Fox stealing to feed his family, ask students if Mr. Fox’s stealing is justified.
With these kinds of discussions, children will begin to develop what’s called “metacognition”—or thinking about thinking. A foundational part of critical thinking, metacognition emerges when we are forced to justify our beliefs and think about why we hold them. Kids will also begin to build confidence in their own ability to explore ideas and express opinions.
2. Work on Managing Emotions
The emotional lives of kids may seem disconnected from their ability to reason, but the two are intimately linked.
Genuine critical thinking is emotionally difficult. It requires a mixture of confidence and humility along with the ability to step back from emotions. Critical thinkers do not accept everything that they’re told, nor do they assume everyone who disagrees with them is wrong.
Educators can foster this humble confidence through carefully scaffolded lessons that nonetheless challenge students to leave their comfort zone. We must find a balance between, on the one hand, realism and limits appropriate to children’s abilities and, on the other, encouraging them to try new things and advance.
This structured approach also helps children learn to manage their emotions. They will avoid feelings of frustration and inadequacy, but they won’t become complacent or self-satisfied either.
The goal is to give children a sense of competence. To become critical thinkers, children need to know that they are worthy and capable of questioning the accuracy and value of information. They need to know that if they apply themselves to issues, they can become skilled and informed enough to make important contributions.
3. Argue With Students (Thoughtfully)
Around the age of 11 or 12, children enter what the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget referred to as the “formal operational stage.” Before this age, children are rooted in the concrete world. They tend to solve problems only on a trial-and-error basis and struggle to solve problems that require abstract thought.
But adolescent kids can begin applying general principles. They are able to discuss abstractions like justice and beauty, and their argumentative skills improve.
Schools and teachers can support the development of abstract reasoning by introducing logical problems and concepts. Especially around age 12 and up, children can tackle basic logical concepts and syllogisms, and work on identifying flaws in various kinds of logical reasoning.
Too often, we think of courses in logic, philosophy, or critical thinking as only appropriate for advanced high school and college students. But, encouraging students’ critical thinking at a young age can be extraordinarily beneficial.
Instruction in logical argument can be particularly useful in helping children learn to identify the false and biased thinking they will inevitably come across online. Teachers can help them apply their new skills by analyzing arguments in articles and other media.
Recently, we’ve seen public discourse marred by fake news, social media wars, incivility, and worse. The need to step back and think critically about the problems we face is clear. But, critical thinking takes practice and guidance starting at a young age.