The Director's Corner on Critical Thinking

If you have spent any time in any of our classrooms, you have no doubt heard: “Where should you be?” You may, however, also have heard: “[child name]? You need to be right here!” The ultimate purpose is the same: the child ends up where he or she is supposed to be. So are those phrases used interchangeably depending on the teacher’s mood? Or is there a good reason to choose one over the other? We will assume the teacher is not stressed and is pronouncing the second phrase assertively but not in a snappy way. Teachers choose assertive commands when, for whatever reason, a child is a bit out of sorts. Assertive commands remove the need for the child to think or choose, activities that are taxing when his or her nervous system is already stressed. So, typically, assertive (firm, not mean) commands are calming. What, you will ask, if the child is totally out of sorts? In such case, it is certainly not time to teach, not time for assertive commands either (although a simple assertive statement such as “You may not do this” may be in order). It is time to chill, keep the child safe, model calm and work on restoring calm in the child. If, or once, a child is calm and feels safe, it is time to teach.

Using an indirect question such as “Where should you be?” engages the child into looking around, making a deduction from what he or she observes, and making a decision, all the components of critical thinking. Critical thinking (analyzing information and making informed decisions) is a very important skill to develop, and there are lots of opportunities to foster it throughout the day, whether at school or at home.

We need to be patient (if we want a child to think, give him or her time to do so!); justify our answers to the child’s questions; think aloud; make connections using prior knowledge or analogies (“It reminds me of …”); take advantage of a child’s interest to ask open-ended questions (“I notice… What if…?”); we also need to let the child make mistakes and learn from them (“Does your answer make sense?”).

We encourage you to be on the lookout for opportunities to develop your child’s critical thinking skills at home, so as to multiply the opportunities teachers seize throughout the school day. Just remember it is not always as simple as it sounds: unless the topic is fun or very motivating to a particular student, he or she may very well make statements such as “Just give me the answer; I do not want to think”, in which case insisting may backfire.

Ref. Visible Thinking, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero.