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Critical thinking in kids: why we love it and think you should too!

What is critical thinking? Critical thinking is comprised of a number of different skills that help us learn to make decisions. It is the ability to question information, issues or problems presented to us and to determine right from wrong, truth from lies and suitable responses and resolutions. As a child grows up, their critical thinking skills will help them to make decisions and judgements independently of parents and adults.

Why is critical thinking so important for kids? One of the reasons is that in the digital age, there is so much information available, but we know as adults that not all of it is true or useful. If you find it on the internet, does that means it’s true? Of course not. There is a lot of nonsense out there, and much of this has a hidden agenda. Think of social media, 24-hour news, political parties and commercial advertising. There is lot of judgement required to cut through some of the claims made by some organisations; the information that just wants you to believe something, buy something or get you to support a cause that is sometimes less than genuine.

As we grow up, and continue to mature, we develop our critical thinking skills through education and experience. Critical thinking skills don’t fully develop until adolescence but the foundations can be encouraged and developed in young children. Deliberately teaching and supporting a child to learn critical thinking skills can do three things:

  • limit the amount of wasted time, money, energy and emotional effort spent on misleading, damaging or false information,
  • empower young people to practice critical thinking early in life, and
  • protect their natural sense of wonder and openness by teaching them to direct their curiosity constructively.

Identifying truth and lying

Kids manage to identify truth, lying and “fairness” by the age of three. They are also exposed to concepts of manipulation and trickery through everyday life: playground games, fairy tales, kids TV shows and more. But detecting information that has a hidden agenda is slightly different from simply making the distinction between truth, lies and tricks. It involves a different level of critical thinking.

The beauty of questions

Teaching a child to ask questions is a necessary tool for critical thinking, as well as being a key life skill. To teach children to question, try asking them open-ended questions, such as:

  • Wow. That’s amazing. Does that seem real to you?
  • What do you think is actually going on here?
  • I wonder how they know that…
  • Why do you think she is saying those things?

Instead of giving the child an answer, encourage them to delve further and explore ideas. Making jokes about misleading information or extraordinary claims can be a fun way of exploring issues. For example, a product labelled “As seen on TV” could be a great target for exploration – and humour. Does the fact that the product was on TV make it any better? What if it actually wasn’t on TV?

Try investigating things together. Check out what is written about a topic or an idea on reliable internet sites to see if claims have any merit. Make it a game, and turn investigating the facts into something fun, even cool!

Older children & teens

As children mature, you can be more specific about applying critical thinking, such as looking out for:

  • vague language and cliches – essentially words that mean nothing,
  • friendliness without friendship – be aware of those that fawn over others that they don’t know, as they most likely want something from you,
  • claims of authority without expertise – who is this person to say such things? How do they know so much? and
  • claims without facts (or ‘opinions’ on topics that are scientific facts and not up for debate).

Healthy scepticism versus cynicism

When teaching children these skills, it’s important to delineate cynicism from scepticism. Healthy scepticism is an ability to question, while cynicism is more a negative attitude of distrust and disbelief. Instead, we want children to question what is dubious, but also to learn to trust certain professionals that are more experienced or educated than ourselves. If children become fearful, cynical adults, they’re more likely to conform than question, and never truly develop the critical thinking skills to evaluate for themselves.

Learning to identify truth from all the other stuff out there takes time, practice, understanding, and the confidence to think and question. Developing these important critical thinking skills will also help children to detect sincerity and gratitude.

healthy skepticism - Sage Institute of Child CareGiven the volume of information that we are exposed to today, particularly on the internet, it’s now more important than ever that children are taught skills around critical thinking. Developing the skills of critical thinking in early childhood are skills for life, which in later years will enable them to make smarter choices with their health, finances, work, community and personal relationships. Only good can come out of that.

Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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