Critical thinking in children: Are we teaching our kids to be dumb?
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
In his review of critical thinking research, Stephen Norris wrote that critical thinking in children is uncommon:
“Most students do not score well on tests that measure ability to recognize assumptions, evaluate arguments, and appraise inferences” (Norris 1985).
Why is critical thinking so difficult? Some argue that humans aren’t designed for it.
According to this idea, evolution hasn’t equipped us for abstract, logical reasoning. Instead, natural selection has shaped the brain to solve specific, evolutionarily- relevant, problems-- like avoiding predators and identifying which people are breaking the rules (Tooby and Cosmides 1992).
Maybe these folks are right—I’m not going to argue that here. Instead, I want to make a different point:
We often train our kids to think in fallacious or illogical ways.
Consider these real-life examples of how TV, books, educational software, and even some teachers--discourage critical thinking in children.
How to discourage critical thinking in children: The case of Minnie Mouse
How about this a scene from Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Playhouse,” a TV program for preschoolers.
Minnie Mouse—-the chick who looks like Mickey in drag—-has a problem. She has been packaging and wrapping gifts, including a bow (just like the one on her head).
But Minnie forgot to label the packages she’s wrapped, and now she’s not sure which box contains the bow.
There are three possible boxes—small, medium-sized, and large.
Minnie asks: Which box might contain the bow?
Minnie holds out her hands to show us how big the bow is. She compares this with the size of the boxes. The bow seems too big for the smallest box. But it appears small enough to fit in the other two.
So...the answer is that the bow might be in either the medium-sized box or the big box. Right?
Minnie tells us that the bow MUST be in the medium-sized box.
Why does Minnie deny the logical possibility that the bow might be in the big box?
Presumably because the writers weren’t thinking straight and didn’t say what they meant.
Apparently, what they really wanted to ask was this:
“Which is the smallest box that the bow could fit in?”
But then again, there is the possibility that the bow could be in the smallest box. The bow seems too big for the smallest box. But what if Minnie had folded or wadded up the bow to make it fit?
So perhaps the writers should have posed this question:
“Which is the smallest box that the bow could fit in—assuming that Minnie didn’t scrunch up the bow?”
Does this sound nit-picky or pedantic?
Maybe it does to the writers of the Mickey Mouse show. But I’m really just asking for some common sense.
In the real world, people do scrunch and they really do sometimes package items in boxes that are a bit larger than needed. Why should we—the viewers—assume that they don’t?
The answer is that we shouldn’t. Not unless we know something about Minnie Mouse--not unless we know what her unstated assumptions are.
And that’s the point. I don’t know what goes on in Minnie Mouse’s head, and I don’t suppose that my kids do, either. The writers of the Mickey Mouse show asked us to solve the problem based on information about the size of the bow and the size of the boxes.
Critical thinking means that we consider all the possibilities -—not just the one that the nice Mousy thinks is most likely.
What happens when your child watches this sort of thing? It seems to me that the Mickey Mouse show is teaching something very different from critical thinking. It’s teaching kids conformist thinking. Don’t look at problems objectively or logically. Instead, figure out what the authorities want you to say.
Not just Minnie Mouse:
How “educational” experiences discourage critical thinking in children
You might think this sort of problem is rare. But I found exactly the same error in a book intended to teach math concepts to preschoolers. In this case, the reader is asked to find the right birdhouses for an assortment of (differently-sized) birds.
And of there are lots of other illogical or wrong-headed lessons that are kids are asked to absorb.
Want some school-based examples? Consider this story reported by educational psychologists Clements and Sarama (2000):
Young Leah is working on an educational computer game that teaches geometry. It asks Leah to choose a fish that is shaped like a square.
Leah picks a fish with a perfectly square body...one that is rotated so that one of its corners points straight down.
The program tells Leah that she’s wrong. That’s not a square. That’s a “diamond fish!”
Oh dear. A square is only a square when two of its sides are aligned with the horizontal?
Teaching kids misconceptions about geometry
Clements and Sarama report other mistakes, including these misconceptions that kindergarten teachers have been observed to pass along to their impressionable young students:
• All diamonds are squares
• A square is not a rectangle
• If you put two triangles together you’ll make a square
• If you cut a square in half you’ll make a triangle
And so on. You get the idea.
How much does this matter?
Clearly, we don’t want people teaching our kids things that are illogical and wrong. But how much damage does this really do?
Quite a bit, I’d say. In the case of Minnie Mouse, kids learn to think with blinders on. Don’t consider all the possibilities. Stick to the conventional solutions.
In the case of the square that isn’t really a square, kids learn bad facts and they lose the opportunity to build up a coherent theory of geometry.
The consequences may be long-lasting. Clements and Sarama report that 6-year olds may hold their misconceptions about geometry until they reach middle school.
What about Minnie? The kids who pass Minnie’s test are socially perceptive. They recognize their teachers’ implicit assumptions and tell their teachers what they want to hear. And they get rewarded for it until they meet up with a logical teacher. Or a logical test. And then-—perhaps for the first time ever—-these kids start to fail.
What happens then? Do these kids conclude that they aren’t cut out for “hard core” courses in math or science? Maybe.
What can we do?
Experimental studies suggest that we can teach critical thinking skills to middle school students--and maybe even younger kids.
For more information, check out these research-based tips for
teaching critical thinking in children and adolescents.
As I note in that article, it appears that teaching critical thinking in children can actually boost their IQ scores.
And for parents with very young kids--the kids who might be watching Mickey Mouse?
I don’t know of any specific research on the subject. So what follows is just my best guess. But it seems pretty clear to me that we need to monitor what our kids are learning. This means finding out about their classroom experiences, and it also means inspecting the kid-oriented media--books, TV, educational software, etc.—that our kids use.
If we spot errors, we need to discuss them with our kids. We need to teach our kids that books and other media--even adult authorities--can make mistakes.
And most of all, our kids need positive reinforcement for thinking critically, for being logical, and for offering unconventional solutions to problems. Before we correct a child’s wrong answer, we should reflect on whether or not it really is wrong.
References: Critical thinking in children
Clements DH and Sarama J. 2000. Young children’s ideas about geometric shapes. Teaching Children Mathematics 6(8): 482-487.
Norris SP. 1985. Synthesis of Research on Critical Thinking. Educational leadership 42(8): 40-45.
Tooby J and Cosmides L. 1992. Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In: J Barkow, L Cosmides and J Tooby (eds): The adapted mind. New York: Oxford University Press.
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