Teach children to think critically, not to memorize information

Jul 13, 2022 | 17 comments

By Jeff Van Pelt

Critical thinking seems to be in short supply across the planet. One reason is that, too often, we teach children to memorize information (and disinformation) instead of teaching them to think critically. In other words, we teach them what to think, not how to think.

This is my definition of critical thinking:

When analyzing a situation to decide on a plan of action, one thinks about the likely outcomes of each possible choice, and then thinks several steps ahead about the possible subsequent outcomes of each choice. They take into account all available credible data. They may consult others, but do not blindly follow their advice.

The following are some examples of a lack of critical thinking:

In April 2022, my wife and I were stranded in Buenos Aires, Argentina, because Ecuador had closed its borders due to Covid. We were in quarantine, but we were allowed to go out to buy food. I passed a pizzeria that had the door cordoned off and chairs on the tables, but they were making pizzas fast and furiously. A sign said “delivery only.” I tried to order a pizza to go, but the worker said “it is delivery only.” I was tempted to say, “Okay, I’ll be across the street waiting for my delivery,” but instead he lost my business.

I don’t think anyone needs an explanation as to why this rooftop pool is dangerous to the child and the people below. Water weighs eight pounds per gallon (one kilogram per liter).

You may remember this photo of Michael Jackson holding his son over the edge of the terrace.

I took the next photo in a museum bathroom because it amused me. I joke that they are toilets for close friends.

I have seen students given homework that simply consists of copying text from a book into their notebook. When I was in elementary school, I was given an assignment to write a report on ancient Greece. I copied an article word for word from the World Book Encyclopedia. I received an A+, but a more useful assignment would have been for the teacher to have had the class read the original article and then led a discussion about it. The teacher could have asked the class what they thought about specific points in the article, and why. We would still have learned some history of ancient Greece, but we would also have had to analyze the information.

Several US senators have proposed that global warming is due to increased body heat due to the increase in the planet’s population, and that rising ocean levels are due to rocks falling into the oceans.

There is no shortage of naïve people willing to pay handsomely for some unproven “alternative medicine treatment,” and people who refuse legitimate treatment because they think they are smarter than the scientific and medical establishments.

Then there are all the anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, fake news, and conspiracy theories on social media, and millions of people who believe them. My motto is that if it sounds too stupid to be true, it probably is, so fact check it and investigate the credibility of the site that posted it.

The development of critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal in progressive educational systems. How can teachers and parents improve children’s critical thinking?

It should start in elementary school or earlier. Just making children read, memorize, and regurgitate information, or copy facts from a book onto paper, does not help them develop intelligence, wisdom, judgment, or maturity. We need to teach them how to think for themselves, not just what to think.

The following are some strategies for teachers and parents to develop the critical thinking skills of their students and children:

Ask questions. Asking questions, especially open-ended questions, causes students to think about the subject. It requires them to analyze problems, to think on their feet, and to become more comfortable expressing themselves in front of a group. Spend as much time asking questions as you do presenting information. This is the Socratic method of teaching.

Encourage decision making. Since a large part of critical thinking skills revolves around applying knowledge and evaluating various possible solutions, teachers should give students the opportunity to make decisions as often as possible. This allows them to apply what they have learned to different situations, weigh the pros and cons of a variety of solutions, and then decide which ideas are best. Decision making is the end result of critical thinking.

Work in groups some of the time. Group projects and discussions involve active and cooperative learning. They teach social skills that are necessary for work and relationships in adulthood. They expose students to the thought processes of their classmates, broaden their view of the world, and teach them to negotiate with others to reach a consensus.

Encourage creativity. Imagining and generating ideas about different courses of action are important in learning to think critically. Teachers should look for ways for students to use old information to create new ideas. Art projects, writing a story or poem, creating a game, and solving puzzles are some ways to do this.

Teachers can find thousands of educational exercises, puzzles, and games on the Internet to teach children critical thinking skills. The following are some exercises to that end:

Teach the habit of paying attention to details around you, as it is a prerequisite for critical thinking. Here is an exercise to do that:

Give students a piece of paper on which you have written the following at the top of the page: “Please read the entire paper before answering the questions.” Then provide a list of questions related to a recent lesson or whatever you want – the topic is not relevant. At the bottom of the page, write the following: “I just wanted you to think about these questions. You don’t have to answer them. Please be quiet until everyone has finished their work.” When everyone has finished, lead a discussion about the importance of paying attention to detail in everything you do. Ask for some examples where inattention could lead to problems.

Alternatively, you can make this exercise fun. Start with a similar statement, such as “Read the entire paper first.” But instead of probing questions, tell them funny things to do, like stand on your chair and make the sound a cow makes. At the end, write: “Ignore all of the previous exercises. They are only for people who do not pay attention to instructions.”

There are many simple questions, riddles, and brain teasers that you can ask the class in order to get them thinking. For example:

What weighs more, a pound of rice or a pound of oregano?

When the fishermen tie their boats to the buoys, why do all the boats point in the same direction?

If a plane crashed on the border between Ecuador and Peru, where would the survivors be buried?

Next are some more elaborate exercises to teach critical thinking skills. These can be done individually or in groups:

Give these instructions: “You are stranded on a desert island and can only take 5 things with you. What would you take and why?” Facilitate a discussion about their answers and their reasons. One modification is to give them a list of 25 items from which they must select five. And again, it could be done in small groups, who inform the rest of the class of their decisions and reasons.

The following is a somewhat complicated exercise. It can be done individually or with the class as a whole. It helps if the teacher finds pictures of the components (a farmer, a fox, a chicken, and a sack of corn) as visual cues for students:

Instructions: “There is a farmer, a fox, a chicken, and a bag of corn. They have to cross the river, but they have a small boat that can only carry two of these things at a time. The farmer must always be in a boat to row and steer. How do they all get across without the fox eating the chicken or the chicken eating the corn?”

Solution: First the farmer takes the chicken to the other side. Then he carries the corn to the other side. Then he takes the chicken back to the first side so it doesn’t eat the corn. Then he takes the fox to the other side. Finally, he returns for the chicken.

Learning to play chess can help children learn to consider various options and think ahead to where each might lead. Talk to them about these mental processes and ask them about some situations in life where you have to think this way.

The promotion of critical thinking in society should begin in elementary school (and at home). To do this, teacher training programs in universities should seek to develop this mind set and teach the methods described here. On-the-job training programs for current teachers should do the same.

Jeff Van Pelt earned his master’s degree in social psychology from New York University and his doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of William and Mary in the United States. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca since 2013.

Jeff Van Pelt

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