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Enhancing Critical-Thinking Skills in Children: Tips for Parents

August 29, 2006

Critical thinking is a buzzword among educators, but parents may wonder what it means. Critical thinking has been described as nonlinear, open-ended, and complex thinking; it allows for multiple responses, unspecified answers, various perspectives and interpretations, and recognition of order among chaos. Often regarded as equivalent to higher-level thinking, critical thinking requires individuals to engage in more complex processes, frequently connected with the upper domains of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy (table 1): analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. This kind of thinking assists individuals in their quest for greater understanding and responsible, independent inquiry.

The application of different levels of thinking can vary by environment. In the general education classroom, most activities take place in the knowledge and comprehension range with few opportunities for more advanced thinking. However, teachers of the gifted are encouraged to keep lower-level thinking exercises to a minimum and to design most learning activities for higher-level domains. Otherwise gifted students may become bored, frustrated, or unmotivated. Whether gifted learners are served in a full-time gifted program, a once-a-week pull-out gifted program, or a full-time mixed-ability classroom, their teachers should modify the curriculum appropriately to nurture critical-thinking skills.


Identifying Critical-Thinking Tasks

Ask to volunteer at your child’s school so you can gauge the level of critical-thinking skills cultivated there. By spending a few hours in the classroom, you can see whether students spend most of their time on less challenging cognitive activities, such as recalling facts and retelling stories in sequence, or participate in more advanced work, including analyzing readings by exploring character motivation, comparing story plots for similarities, and evaluating their own performance in various skill areas. These types of higher-level thinking assignments can be quickly recognized by the way the teacher gives directions or poses questions aloud. Other indicators of critical thinking can be identified through the types of activities in which the teacher engages the students. For example:

  • Are in-depth group discussions provided during class time?
  • Are students coached to question their thinking processes and those of their classmates?
  • Are students afforded opportunities to evaluate their progress regularly?
  • Are students encouraged to pose questions regularly in class?
  • Are students provided with guides to help them reflect on their thinking (such as Bloom’s Taxonomy)?
  • Do class projects engage students in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation?
  • Are students given opportunities to consider various opinions and to justify their own beliefs?

For parents whose schedules do not allow them to visit the classroom during the school day, viewing their children’s schoolwork and the prompts for assignments is a way to identify the level of challenge expected of students. Refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide and evaluate the prompts accordingly. Most tasks assigned to gifted learners (or, ideally, selected by them) should be in the range that includes analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.


Nurturing Critical Thinking at Home

Parents should also foster critical thinking at home. Ask questions that lack a single correct answer, and ask them casually, rather than quizzing your child. For example, if your child is a chess aficionado and likes to play it on a chessboard or a computer, you may want to make the following inquiries:

  • Why do you think you are more successful in face-to-face chess matches than in electronic chess games? (Analysis)
  • If you could develop a new format for chess that would appeal to those who haven’t yet discovered its allure, what would it look like? Why would you pick those design features? How would they intrigue novices? (Synthesis)

If your child is interested in social issues, then engage him or her in thoughtful discussions about them. The personality and interests of children are the keys in interacting with them and addressing critical thinking at home. If interacting aloud is not appealing, take a less direct route by observing your child at play, with others or alone, and determine the level of complexity he or she shows during these activities. Using Bloom’s guide, note if the child is comparing or evaluating the functions of toys (toddlers and young children), computer programs (young children to teens), or social events (through phone calls or discussions with siblings or friends). Listening to your child and gauging how he or she makes sense of the world will enable you to understand what critical-thinking skills your child uses and whether your intervention is needed at home to extend his or her level of thinking.

Parents can demonstrate critical thinking by pondering aloud the most efficient way to do household chores, considering the most economical purchase to make at the grocery store, monitoring your progress toward your personal goals, or approaching social issues in your community. Describing how you think and solve problems is the best way for you to instill similar thinking patterns in your children.

The process of thinking, as well as its uniqueness to each individual, should be emphasized through these interactions.

The ultimate goal is for youth to employ critical-thinking strategies in everyday life without prompting from parents and teachers. Reasoning at high levels is one of the most valuable skills parents can foster in their children, one that will prepare them for success.

Elizabeth Shaunessy, PhD

Elizabeth Shaunessy is assistant professor in the Department of Special Education and coordinator of the Gifted Education Program at the University of South Florida. Prior to teaching in higher education, she taught Advanced Placement language and composition and other courses in secondary language arts at the high school level.

 

Table 1 Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy

Competence

Description

Question/Prompt

Knowledge

Dates, events, formulas, other facts

When did the United States become an independent country from England?
What is the formula for area?

Comprehension

Recognize meaning, sequence, events, interpret information, compare ideas, make inferences, predict ideas

What is the author's purpose?
How are these numbers related?
Is water of sunshine more critical to plant life? Human life?

Application

Use of information and concepts to solve problems

Using your knowledge of calories and your physical makeup, calculate how much energy you must exert to lose three pounds per month.
Demonstrate your understanding of how to create a Web site.
Analysis Recognize patterns, parts, components Considering the stock market, examine which investments were the most lucrative this quarter.
Organize these games by level of difficulty.

Synthesis

Use of information to create a new system, generalize, draw conclusions

When did the United States become an independent country from England?
What is the formula for area?
Evaluation Assess concepts, weigh opinions for subjectivity, select items, judge Which type of dog would be best suited for your family, given your lifestyle and housing?
Which local newspaper is written the most objectively?
Table 2 Internet resources for developing critical thinking

Site

Description

Free items For-purchase items Grade levels

Riverdeep Interactive Learning

Provides access to critical thinking games

X X Pre-K to 8

Don't Buy It

Encourages children how to evaluate products and become informed consumers; parent guide included, with talking points for children about media

X   K to 12

Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources

Provides information that guides thinking about Web site credibility

X   K to 12