Increasing emphasis is being placed on teaching critical thinking at schools. While in the past, education has focused more on facts and content, in today’s classrooms, there has been a shift towards critical thinking skills. Critical thinking teaches children how to think, not simply what to think. Critical thinking is now embedded across all learning areas in Australian schools. More importantly, it is a vital skill for life and work.
What is Critical Thinking?
For an area that is receiving a great deal of attention, it can be difficult to define exactly what critical thinking is. For philosopher John Dewey, who is credited for first introducing the term in 1910, critical thinking is defined as: “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends.” Interestingly, he tended to use the term interchangeably with “reflective thinking”, highlighting the important role reflection plays in critical thinking. This can include learners reflecting on the ways they learn best, or on strengths and points for improvement in their work.
Other elements of critical thinking include:
- Decision making: Thinking of different possibilities; giving reasoning and evidence to support a choice.
- Analysing: Thinking about a topic deeply, objectively and critically. This might begin with clarifying the topic and the issues at stake.
- Problem-solving: Thinking of a range of solutions to a problem and being able to identify and apply the most appropriate solution.
- Inferring: Considering the implications of a statement or point of view.
- Interpreting: Determining the meaning of information, including images, graphs, texts, etc. This can include the understandings that there can be multiple interpretations.
- Evaluating: Critically considering evidence to determine the strengths and weaknesses of different points of view.
Why is Critical Thinking Important?
In a rapidly changing workforce where versatility is more valued than ever, employers are increasingly seeking “soft” skills such as critical thinking that can be adapted and transferred into different contexts and roles. For example, over the years 2012-2015, there was a 158% increase in job advertisements requiring critical thinking skills. Critical thinking skills can also support good life choices. Scientists have found correlations between critical thinking, wellness and longevity. A study by California State University has found that people who tested highly on critical thinking skills were less likely to experience a range of negative life events in areas such as academic progress, health, legal difficulties, interpersonal relationships and financial situations. Fortunately, this same study also found that critical thinking is a skill that can be learnt and improved.
HOW CAN READING FICTION SUPPORT CRITICAL THINKING?
For many families, story time is already part of their evening routine. Encouraging your child’s active participation in reading, with discussion and questioning, can help develop their critical thinking skills through fiction.
Explaining: Asking your child to tell the story back to you helps them to develop the skill of summarising. This requires a level of analysis, as retelling the story requires your child to identify what are the most important points.
Predicting: After reading a few pages, ask your child to predict the ending and justify their prediction. On reaching the middle of the book, ask them if they have changed their prediction and, if so, why. After finishing, you can then discuss how accurate their predictions were. This can support the development of inference skills.
Open-ended questioning: Stories can be used as a springboard to ask your child open-ended questions that do not have a single right answer. Open-ended questioning can encourage children to think creatively without being concerned about giving a “wrong” answer.
Suggested text: The Arrival – Shaun Tan
Considering multiple perspectives: Using a story that provides a range of different viewpoints or encourages children to see the world from a different point of view enables them to consider complexities and tolerate ambiguities. Talking about the different perspectives that characters hold can be a rich topic of conversation.
Suggested texts: Mirror – Jeannie Baker Shake a Leg – Boori Monty Pryor The Sandwich Swap – Queen Rania Al Abdullah
Alternative endings: What might happen if the story took place in a different location? Or at a different time? What if one of the characters had not been there? How might that have affected the outcome? Considering alternative endings requires thinking logically about sequences of action.
Suggested text: The Paper bag Princess – Robert Munsch
Justifying: Providing evidence to support a point of view is a core skill of critical thinking. Asking your child to give their opinion using evidence from the text or illustrations helps them to develop their ability to justify. Questions might include: What kind of a character is this? Why? How do you think the character feels here? Why? What kind of an environment is this? How do we know?
Suggested text: Rosie’s Walk – Pat Hutchins
Applying to the real world: Is there a moral to the story? Is there a way your child could apply this to their own life? Is there a situation where they have encountered a similar issue? Encouraging your child to think about how issues in the story might apply to their own life can enhance inference and interpretation skills, as well as enrich the reading experience.
Suggested texts: Lorax – Dr Seuss Last Stop on Market Street – Matt de la Pena Rainbow Fish – Marcus Pfister
Problem solving: Stories are normally based around a problem or conflict. You can ask your child to identify the problem or conflict, along with any solutions that the characters employ. Discussing whether this was a good solution and considering alternative solutions helps your child to appreciate the complexities of a situation and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action.
Suggested text: There was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Spider Alexander’s Outing – Pamela Allen Stuck – Oliver Jeffers
HOW CRITICAL THINKING SUPPORTS NON-FICTION READING AND RESEARCH
Critical thinking skills can also support children in choosing what to read. This is particularly important in the area of non-fiction, which is intended to present factual information and is used for research. Often the Internet is the first port-of-call for children looking for information. And while the Internet gives us access to more information than ever before, sometimes good quality information seems harder than ever to find, with increasing concerns around “fake news” and misleading social media posts. The quantity of information can also be difficult to deal with. As technology entrepreneur Mitch Kapor humorously puts it: “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”
Critical thinking skills equip students to deal with this online information environment. Critical thinking can help children firstly to select what to read, and secondly, to evaluate the quality of what they have read. While it is likely impossible to prevent your child from coming across misinformation or simply poor-quality information, developing a critical approach to text can equip children to identify and avoid poor-quality information in preference for information that is trustworthy and credible.
For many children, the first step to thinking critically about information on the Internet is to slow down. Research indicates that children spend a significantly shorter time on each Internet page than adults. They are less likely to glance down the page, so can easily miss relevant information unless it is in the first or second paragraph. Encouraging your child to spend a little more time on each page and look over the entire page can help them assess the quality of the information source. Considering the following areas can also help to guide your child to find good quality information.
Regardless of your child’s age, reading and critical thinking skills go hand-in-hand. Encouraging your child to engage actively with texts, ask questions of reading material and reflect on its meaning make reading a rich and thought-provoking experience.
- Is the information up-to-date? With rapidly changing fields such as science and technology, this is particularly important.
- Is the information on topic? Does it help to answer the question your child is wanting to answer?
- What is the purpose of the website? Is it trying to sell something?
- Is it trying to persuade its readers of a particular point of view?
- Does it contain bias?
- Does it represent multiple viewpoints?
- Is the information compatible with commonsense?
- Does it match the information in other sources?
- Is there an author? If so, can we find anything out about the author’s credentials?
- Is the website reputable? (Eg. a government site, an education site, a quality news site?)
- If the page recommends other sites, are these also good quality sites?
Anna Seidl is Consultant – Digital Learning and Library Services at Cairns Catholic Education