October 01, 2015

Atheist Mama: This is the single best advice I can give for encouraging skepticism and critical thinking (and then some)

Fair Warning: I'm still figuring this whole parenting thing out, especially as a secular family.

So in this respect, this is less about advice and more about exploring options. When it comes to encouraging my kids to think critically and be skeptical, the best technique so far has been seven words:

"I Don't Know. What Do You Think?"

Here's some other techniques we are trying.


1. Ask Open-Ended Questions.

This is why "what do you think?" works so well--it's open-ended. Kids get to fill in the answer for themselves.

Bright Horizons, a group that provides early childhood and preschool care, has this to say about encouraging critical-thinking by using open-ended questions:

Help children view themselves as problem solvers and thinkers by asking open-ended questions. Rather than automatically giving answers to the questions your child raises, help them think critically by asking questions in return: "What ideas do you have? What do you think is happening here?" Respect his or her responses whether you view them as correct or not. You could say, "That is interesting. Tell me why you think that." Use phrases like "I am interested to hear your thinking about this."  "How would you solve this problem?"

 For me, this is a daily struggle to remind myself that my kids don't always need my answers. Sometimes, they need to find their own.

My mom often tells the story of my favorite childhood phrase: "Did you know..." followed by some fact, usually about horses. I love having the answers. I love sharing answers. But in my parenting, the same tendency can shut down my kids' ability to think about issues, questions, and information.

Asking them open-ended questions allows them that space to breathe.

2. Encourage Research.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell of Roots of Action wrote this in a blog post about encouraging critical-thinking:

Urge kids to BE ACCURATE, to check to see if something is true by researching the facts.

Research is hard. Indeed, most adults don't do it well. I don't always do it well--I'm still learning, and sometimes it feels like I make more missteps than I do solid inferences.

We've been working on a framework. It looks a little like this:


  • Ask a question. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably remember the days when I was quite hellfire and brimstone. Often, I'd start with a conclusion and then find information that supported it. That's a terrible way to do research, in my opinion. The best way to research is to start with a question, not a conclusion.
  • Look for solid sources. The quality of sources is important.
  • Make a prediction. Making a prediction is not the same, in my opinion, as researching based on a conclusion. To me, the prediction stage allows you to check your own potential biases.
  • Figure out how to falsify. Thinking about what kind of information would make your prediction false is important. It opens your mind to alternative sources that you might not have considered, and it helps make you aware of potential confirmation bias.
You can read more about what research skills kids today need here.

3. Require Logic.

Ask questions that specifically require kids to talk about how they arrived at their conclusions and how those conclusions fit together.

We have a game we like to play. It's called "Who Would Win" and it looks a little like this:

  • Human Torch Versus Ice Man: Who would win?
  • Darth Vader Versus Magneto: Who would win?
  • Doctor Who Versus Doc Brown: Who would win?
  • Voldemort Versus Sauron: Who would win?
You have to give your choice, and then explain why you chose that option. It developed really organically around the dinner table when my older son was about 3 and a half, but it quickly became not only our favorite thought experiment, but a great way to practice stating logical arguments.

And I think that's pretty key: logic, critical-thinking, skepticism...these shouldn't be work. They should be fun. That's how you get to the point where these skills become second nature.

4. Use Writing.

A 2007 study looking at General Education Biology students made this statement:

Writing has been widely used as a tool for communicating ideas, but less is known about how writing can improve the thinking process itself (Rivard, 1994; Klein, 2004). Writing is thought to be a vehicle for improving student learning (Champagne and Kouba, 1999; Kelly and Chen, 1999; Keys, 1999; Hand and Prain, 2002), but too often is used as a means to regurgitate content knowledge and derive prescribed outcomes (Keys, 1999; Keys et al., 1999). Historically, writing is thought to contribute to the development of critical thinking skills (Kurfiss, and Association for the Study of Higher Education, 1988). Applebee (1984) suggested that writing improves thinking because it requires an individual to make his or her ideas explicit and to evaluate and choose among tools necessary for effective discourse. Resnick (1987) stressed that writing should provide an opportunity to think through arguments and that, if used in such a way, could serve as a “cultivator and an enabler of higher order thinking.” Marzano (1991) suggested that writing used as a means to restructure knowledge improves higher-order thinking. In this context, writing may provide opportunity for students to think through arguments and use higher-order thinking skills to respond to complex problems (Marzano, 1991).

The study found what they described as a "modest but significant" improvement in critical thinking that could be attributed to using writing to improve those skills.

Writing allows us to brainstorm. It allows us to organize our ideas and formulate analogies and logical arguments.

5. Model Critical-Thinking.

Make your own statements logical. Explain your conclusions. Don't shy away from discussing why you think what you think or why you make the decisions you make. Kids learn the most by watching us.


Why Is Critical Thinking So Important?

I think Gwen Dewar of Parenting Science says it far better than I can:

In fact, research suggests that explicit instruction in critical thinking may make kids smarter, more independent, and more creative.

The ability to think critically is one of the most important skills we can give to our children.

Just think of how many Facebook hoaxes they will avoid...



And that would be a great gift to the world, indeed.

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