Critical thinking gets a lot of attention in the homeschooling world. You can find all kinds of workbooks, dealing exclusively with teaching critical thinking. Maybe one of the problems I have with these is the way critical thinking is isolated from all other thinking and learning. It’s really a part of everyday living.
Last Friday, little Anthony decided to join me running an errand. Anthony will turn four this month, and he’s just beginning to really start conversations and tell us what he’s thinking. I told him we could go out for lunch when we finished, and asked him where he’d like to go.
“McDonalds” jumped out of his mouth.
“Why McDonalds?” I asked.
“It’s my eating place.” It was hard to suppress my laughter, “My eating place,” where do they come up with these?
“What do you like about McDonalds?”
There was this wide-eyed, awe struck, “deer in the headlights” look coming from the backseat.
“Why is McDonalds your eating place?”
More wide-eyed awe, with an open mouth added. Nothing came back as a response.
Then I had one of those “Aha!” moments. I was asking Anthony to make an evaluation, to engage in critical thinking, without any basic knowledge and analysis. These are absolutely necessary steps.
“Anthony, what’s one food you like at McDonalds?”
What’s another food you like to get at McDonalds?”
“I know you like juice or milk to drink. Which do you like best?”
Now we’ve laid the groundwork. I’ve allowed him to identify three foods he likes, and make a choice on drinks.
“Anthony, you like chicken nuggets, apples, and chocolate milk at McDonalds. Which one makes McDonalds your eating place?”
“Okay. That’s a good reason.”
And just like that, Anthony was making critical decisions and evaluations. At almost four, he’s critically thinking. Is he unique? Not at all—critical thinking is part of life at all ages. It seems to me that often in our conversations with children we don’t provide them the structure, the questions to guide them to these higher levels of thinking; and, we haven’t labeled it. Anthony had already decided he liked McDonalds, but he didn’t know why. When I asked him open-ended questions (Why McDonalds?) he didn’t know. It’s like asking your spouse, “What do you want for dinner?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. You choose.” There are too many options. If you narrow the choices, chicken or pizza, peas or corn, potatoes or rice; then, people make choices. They do critical thinking. Inside of each choice, there’s a flurry of mental activity before they say “Chicken.”
“What did I have for lunch? I’m having pizza tomorrow. Pizza is expensive. Chicken rice casserole is budget friendly. I like the color of peas with rice.”
What ever these thoughts were, they happened in a flash. It’s more like a micro-flash, so fast we aren’t consciously aware of what’s going on up there in the gray matter. A fascinating book of the subject of flash decisions is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I find his writing and research intriguing, and Blink is an amazing study of human behavior on decision making (critical thinking at its upmost).
Back to Anthony and all the other young learners: it’s easy to teach critical thinking. Just think and ask them simple questions that build up to more complex conclusions. Gather basic information or facts from them. Then review and let them analyze the information. Finally, they can make a decision, think critically and evaluate.
Here’s something to try with your young thinkers. Let’s say you’re at the local grocery and you need laundry detergent. Let one (or more) of the children decide which one to buy. Perhaps you set guidelines, like price “Nothing over $6.00” or size, “Nothing over 64 ounces.” If the child understands the unit price of detergent, ask them to make that one of the decision-making factors. Ask them to consider at least four detergents. Also tell them beforehand that you want to know what they were thinking and the decisions they made during the process. Then when they return with 64 ounces of lavender vanilla Sun detergent, have the conversation. And, guide the conversation. Their choice may give you clues. Is the bottle a favorite color, or perhaps the fragrance is special? You know your children.
Be aware of the small decisions we make everyday. Talk with your children about these. They will become experts at critical thinking and being able to explain their process. You’ll smile and feel that warm proud-parent glow. They will be blooming!