Core Life Skill: Critical Thinking

What Is It?

Critical thinking is the ability to take information, assess it for reliability and accuracy, and then decide whether it is sufficiently trustworthy to be accepted at face value, or whether additional information is required to support it before it can be accepted as likely to be true.

Why Is It Important?

A good parent encourages their child to think, but a great one teaches them how to think for themselves.In the modern world, we are constantly deluged with information. While some of this information is undoubtedly reliable, much of it is factually incorrect, biased, or at worst, out-right lies or untruths that seek to spread mis-information. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 was Post-truth. While it used to be that there was at least some sort of filter on the information which was widely available (in the form of editors and ombudsmen), the internet, self-publishing, social media, and corporate and political spin, mean that anyone can now say just about anything with little or no evidence to support it, and little or no recourse if they are simply lying for their own gain. For example, many stories which make it onto the first pages of search engine results and social media news feeds are what are known as Clickbait. These are stories with sensational, and often wildly untrue, headlines designed to make you click on them, so generating an income for the website’s owners money through advertising. It is easy to dismiss these as being easy to spot, but that ability only comes with experience and the development of good critical thinking skills that experience brings, and to make matters worse, advertisers, politicians and newspapers are often little better than such sites. Indeed, across all forms of media, there is now a great deal of confusion between what are facts (things that are actually true, regardless of whether someone believes it or not) and what are opinions (what someone thinks – which may or may not be true), with opinions often being portrayed as facts, even when they are patently false. As a result, it is now incredibly important that children learn, from as young an age as possible, to critically assess and evaluate information in such a way that they can separate out what it true from the myriad of mis-information, half-truths and down-right lies that modern life is awash with.

In this way, good critical thinking skills can be thought of as a coat of armour against some of the more insidious elements of modern life. It will help your child to avoid falling prey to internet scams and fraudsters, it will make them less likely to be led astray by older children and adults who spread mis-information, and it will provide them with a filter that will make them less susceptible to peer pressure, the half-truths of advertisers, and the pervasive and potentially corrosive effects of social media. When they’re adults, it will mean that they’re better able to assess newspaper headlines and political statements for their accuracy, make better financial decisions, and avoid the unhappiness caused by the constant bombardment from all corners of life that we simply aren’t good enough unless we are constantly upgrading to the latest version of everything.

What age should your child start developing it?

Critical thinking is a skill that children should be encouraged to start developing as soon as they become aware of the difference between truth and lies. This will probably be sometime around the age of three or four. This may seem very young to start introducing the concept of critical thinking, but the earlier it is embedded into their way of thinking and viewing the world, the greater the protection it will provide them in later life. By about the age of seven, most children should be able to make basic critical thinking assessments of information they are provided with, particularly by their friends, and by ten, a child should be able to assess whether news stories, or information they find on the web is likely to be accurate. As they move into their teenage years, children should be able to assess not just facts, but also the reasons behind why people may tell them untruths in an attempt to manipulate them so that they can avoid being taken advantage of by others, and indeed avoid being sucked into negative images about themselves and their abilities by those who seek to make themselves feel better by demeaning others.

How can you encourage your child to develop and enhance this skill?

There are two main ways to encourage your child to develop good critical thinking skills. The first is to talk with them about the difference between facts and opinions, how they can work out which is which, and how they can work out whether the opinions of others are reliable or not. The second is to show them good critical thinking skills in action (as with almost all core life skills, your child will benefit greatly from seeing you use critical thinking in your everyday life).

When it comes to talking to your child about the difference between facts and opinions, and how they can work out what’s true, this has to be tailored to your child’s age and stage of development, but it can start off as simply as discussing advertising with them. For example, if there’s an advert that your child finds particularly fascinating, such as for a specific toy, you can talk to them about why the company has chosen to make the advert, and the fact that the children or other people shown in it are just acting rather than necessarily behaving normally. With older children, a good starting point can be any statements that they come up with. For example, if they come home from school saying that they learned about the space race, you can encourage them to think about how we can prove that humans have visited the moon (it’s a surprisingly common belief these days that the moon landings were faked, but when you think about it, there’s plenty of evidence that this did, indeed, happen). Similarly, if they come out with statements such as, but so-and-so said it was true, then you can get them to think about the likelihood of it actually being true based on their own experiences. You can also dissect any news stories, adverts or political pamphlets that might catch their interest, and show them how to do things like assess the reliability of statistics, and double-check facts to see if they actually stand up to any sort of scrutiny (and it’s surprising how many these days don’t!). Finally, as your child approaches their teenage years, you can talk to them about how to filter information on the internet through a critical point of view, and how they can assess whether a specific website is likely to be reliable or not. This is often a matter of sitting with them and going through search results to help them understand things like which ones are sponsored links, which ones might represent clickbait, which ones are designed to mislead, which ones are likely to be scams, and which ones can be trusted.

In terms of demonstrating the use of  critical thinking skills in your own life, this can be done by letting them see you question any misleading statements you might come across, by asking others to provide additional support for any statements they come out with, by having discussions about important news stories in front of them (or, better still, by involving them in such discussions). Similarly, when you are talking to your child, you can help them learn about critical thinking by making it clear when you are presenting them with facts, and when you are presenting them with things that are your own (or others) opinion. This will help them learn how to distinguish between the two. You can also encourage your child to ask you how you know whether the things you say are reliable, and ask you to support your own statements with additional information. This might seem, at first, like a bit of a frightening thing to encourage, but when you think about it, you should be willing, and able, to support anything you say, especially to your children, with facts. The important thing to remember here is to keep any such discussions calm and respectful, to try to avoid sweeping statements, to avoid dismissing any concerns they have out of hand, to avoid belittling them for asking what to you might seem like dumb questions, and to respect their right to come to a different conclusion that you might, given the same evidence. After all, the aim here is to encourage them to think for themselves and not to simply, and unthinkingly, parrot your own opinions back to you. In addition, this will have the added benefit that it will encourage your child to talk with you about important subjects, and any initial uncomfortableness you feel when you start to do this will be more than paid back by the benefits of developing a good communication channel with your child, and giving them the freedom to feel that they can discuss anything with you in a calm and rational manner, even if they think you are likely to disagree with them about it.

Additional Information On Critical Thinking For Kids

  1. Teaching critical thinking: An evidence-based guide: As is so often the case, a detailed and useful article on critical thinking which outlines why it is important and how to encourage it in children. You can find this article here.
  2. Critical thinking activities for kids: as a section devoted to activities which will help your child develop their critical thinking skills, and you can find it here.
  3. The Critical Thinking Community: This is a great web resource covering many aspects of critical thinking, including what it is and how to encourage it in students of all ages. You can find it here.
  4. Critical thinking: How to grow your child’s mind: is another source of very useful informatoin on critical thinking and how to encourage it in kids, including five ways to help your kids think critically, and some useful videos which you can watch with your child as a starting point for talking to your child about critical thinking. You can find it here.
  5. A Field Guide To Lies And Statistics by Daniel Levitin: If you feel like you need to brush up on your own critical thinking skills before trying to encourage them in your own kids, then this book is a good place to start. UK-based readers can find it here, while US-based readers can find it here.
  6. Books by Ben Goldacre: The works of Ben Goldacre are another good starting point if you wish to improve your own critical thinking skills. Bad Science, in particular, is something which I feel is essential reading if you wish to understand how to tell the difference between good and bad science. You can find out more about these books here (for UK-based parents) or here (for US-based parents), or you can watch Ben Goldacre’s talk about bad science in the video below.

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About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.

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