“What Do You Think?”: Critical Thinking and Your Young Learner

As a part of Walker’s continual pursuit of growth, faculty members have been looking at how to better develop critical thinking skills in our students. The entire school met for a talk about critical thinking skills, addressing questions like what is critical thinking, what makes a critical thinker, and how do we as teachers encourage critical thinking.

In this presentation, we were introduced to Dr. Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills Needed For the 21 Century. These skills are as follows:

1) Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
2) Collaboration Across Networks and Cultures
3) Agility and Adaptability
4) Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
5) Effective Communication Skills
6) Accessing and Analyzing Information
7) Curiosity and Imagination

I loved this list because I see these skills being accessed and developed every day in the Preschool. Yes – our young students use critical thinking skills too; I would venture to say they are even better at it than we are as adults. Preschoolers have not developed a fear of failure yet and are willing to explore their world in a way that allows them to learn and grow.

Here is an example. To set the stage, I was eating lunch with the Early Learners class this week; while we were eating, there was a repair man dressed in a blue uniform working in our kitchen. The critical thinking went something like this…

Child One: “Mrs. Stoll, why is there a policeman in the kitchen?” Curiosity
Me: “You notice that man in the kitchen and he looks like a policeman to you.”
Child Two:“Is he a policeman, Mrs. Stoll?” Analyzing Information, Curiosity, and Collaboration
Me: “What do you think?”
Child Three: “Why would a policeman be in the kitchen?” Problem Solving
Child One: “He is wearing blue. ” Accessing Information
Me: “Oh, you know that policeman wear blue so you are thinking he must be a policeman.”
Child Two: “I think he is fixing something.” Problem Solving
Child Three: “Looks like the refrigerator.” Accessing Information
Child Two: “The refrigerator must be broken.” Analyzing Information and Problem Solving
Me: “So you know that when things are broken someone has to come fix them. I am wondering if policeman fix refrigerators?”
Child One: (laughing) “No, Mrs. Stoll!”
Child Two: “He must be a man who fixes refrigerators.” Analyzing Information
Me: “Ah ha! Do you know what we call people who fix things?”
Child Three: “What do we call them?” Curiosity
Me: “We call them repairmen.”
Child One: “Repairmen.”
Child Two: “Oh, he must be a repairman.” Analyzing Information and Adaptability
Child Three: “Fixing the refrigerator.” Problem Solving
Me: “You guys figured it out! He is a repair man, and he is fixing the broken refrigerator.”

And there you have it – Preschoolers at work using collaborative critical thinking skills and effective communication to draw conclusions about the world. I love eating lunch with my students!

As a parent, how can you encourage this kind of interest in problem solving using critical thinking skills?

First, stop answering all your child’s questions before giving them time to think through a solution independently. This is most easily accomplished by restating the question as an observation. I like to use the go to phrase “You are wondering about…”.

For example:

Your child asks, “Why do I have to eat dinner to get dessert?”
Your answer is “You’re wondering why there is a rule about eating dinner before you can have dessert.”
Your child says, “Yes.”
You respond with “What do you think?”

Then, follow this up with questions like why do you think that? How do you know that? Can you tell me more?

These students I wrote about today are three and four years old. If they can engage in a critical thinking conversations then anyone can! When we encourage our children to use Dr. Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills to search for the answers to their questions, we are sending the message that we believe they are skilled and capable learners. We are modeling the value in accessing prior knowledge, gathering information, problem solving, and using persistence to reach our goals.

Slow down. Give your children time to think. You will be amazed at the knowledge they give back to you.