Schools often emphasize academic subjects, and these are essential skills to develop. Students are also well served to learn how to think critically, a lifelong skill that impacts all of the core academic subject areas and facilitates problem-solving and solid decision-making. Besides seeking a factual answer to a closed-question, teachers want students to understand connections, to integrate what they’re learning into multiple situations, and to see students develop their own opinions and belief systems.
The good news is that critical thinking skills can be enhanced through dialog. Simply by asking and answering questions designed to expand thinking, students can broaden their ability to reason and grow beyond their existing comfort zone. Parents and teachers can assist in the development of these critical thinking skills by incorporating the strategies listed below into daily conversation.
Consider another option
When reading a book or hearing a retelling of something that happened earlier in the day, the parent or teacher can prompt, “What else might have happened?” or “What else might you have done or said?”
These kinds of open-ended questions that require reconsideration of alternative outcomes can help students understand the cause-and-effect relationship as well as increase their creativity. By prompting students to consider a wider range of possibilities, they are empowered and encouraged to be more thorough in their own decisions rather than just accepting the given outcome, especially in situations where they disagree with the stated outcome.
Choose a side
Once students reach high school and are required to write and support a thesis statement, many struggle to choose a side and stick with it. So many academic exercises seek the one right answer while real life includes many scenarios with multiple reasonable outcomes, and this can become uncomfortable for students who hesitate or prefer outside assurance that they are “right.” Dialog can help kids understand that sometimes there is no single right answer, and they still need to choose one path. By choosing one direction, they may be eliminating another, so this can also become part of the discussion.
Practice this skill after listening to news reports or hearing a disagreement by asking, “Which side would you pick?” This conversation is even more meaningful when the teenager can explain what evidence or information convinced them to take this position, as well as understand what future options are eliminated with their choice.
Then flip it
If a student can choose a side of an issue and accurately cite evidence supporting their position, then play devil’s advocate and see if they can still find appropriate supporting evidence if they switch to the other side.
This exercise can be especially fun with personal requests because it helps the child to look beyond their own immediate wants and consider objective reasons why another point of view or position might be valid. For example, if the child asks to spend the night at a friend’s house, the parent can counter with, “Tell me the reasons I should say yes.” This won’t be hard, and the parent is likely to hear an enthusiastic list centered on the happiness of the child. However, if the parent then asks, “Tell me the reasons I should say no,” the child will have to reconsider any factors that might not actually be in the child’s best interest. They will also have to put themselves in the shoes of the parent and consider what the parent might need or want to hear to grant permission.
Over time, parents may notice that they no longer have to prompt for the evidence and a supporting rationale is automatically provided with each request.
Reflect on the process
Teachers have an opportunity to incorporate critical thinking exercises just by including a reflection with each assignment. Besides considering the quality of the final assignment, students should consider any surprises they encountered along the way and what they might do differently with a similar assignment. Even a rudimentary reflection such as, “I should start sooner in the future,” can increase awareness and help the student develop confidence, not to mention better study habits.
Young children instinctively ask why questions so frequently that it often becomes exhausting. Once a child stops asking why, the adult can pick up this question to help ensure development of deeper thinking. This is a great way to fill the time commuting in the car, and if one person responds to a why question, the next can answer a follow-up why question and see how long this can continue. Often, after delving deep enough to answer several why questions in a row, you will have uncovered another topic for discussion or a question that no one can answer. Fortunately, Google should be able to solve that!
Using no equipment other than a conversation, parents and teachers can prompt students and push their thinking into a different direction, helping them consider other points of view, connections to previous learning, and imaginative alternative options. It’s one of the reasons that one-to-one time with an adult can be so valuable, and can help students develop critical thinking skills so that they ask deeper questions and comprehend content more thoroughly.
About the Author:
Ruth Wilson is the founder of Brightmont Academy, an accredited private school offering one-to-one instruction to students in grades 6-12. All aspects of the educational program are customized for the individual student, and 11 campuses are located in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington State are available to families. Since 1999, nearly 4,000 students have achieved success!