While learning a social-studies unit about the Revolutionary War, a student in Lisa Wilson’s fourth-grade class at Arroyo Seco Elementary School, in Livermore, California, asked: “Why did people want to fight for the loyalists?” Wilson’s response: “What do you think?” She then instructed her students to pair with classmates to discuss the topic and present their ideas.
Like a growing number of schools, Arroyo Seco allows its students’ curiosity to drive the lessons. The teachers also downplay memorizing facts. This approach is just one component of a bigger educational concept called critical thinking. Although it has been the subject of educational conferences for nearly 35 years, the movement has recently picked up steam. “This way of learning encourages children to become investigators, which helps their creativity and innovation blossom,” says Amy Seely Flint, Ph.D., professor of education at Georgia State University, in Atlanta. And you can boost this skill at home.
1. Help her strategize. Do you swoop in when your child isn’t sure about what her homework assignment is? Come up with a plan if she has to attend a friend’s birthday party and play a soccer match the same day? If so, you’re not helping. “Critical thinkers solve problems more easily, and kids will never be good at coming up with solutions if we don’t give them practice,” says Wilson. Instead of offering ideas, ask your child what she thinks would be a good fix. If she’s stumped, encourage her to consider whether a friend might have the same homework assignment or to figure out how long it takes to get from the party place to the soccer field.
2. Find books with a cliff-hanger finale. Stories with an ambiguous ending inspire kids to analyze more than ones that have an expected conclusion, says Dr. Flint. Examples include The Watsons Go to Birmingham, The Giver, and Black and White; read them with your child, and then ask him if there are any clues within the text or his own experiences that hint at what might have happened. You can also steer him to a series to help him anticipate what might transpire in the next installment. Some that fit the bill besides Harry Potter: The Chronicles of Narnia, Percy Jackson & The Olympians, and The School for Good and Evil. Also look for apps, like Sock Puppets (free, iTunes) and Comic Life ($5, iTunes) that inspire kids to create their own stories.
3. Expand her thought process. Schools that emphasize critical thinking want kids to consider different points of view. “I often break up my second-grade class into small groups,” says Aimee Brenn, a teacher in Boston. “Kids this age seem more willing to express their opinions with a few classmates rather than in front of everyone, so the discussion is richer.” Help your child seek out diverse opinions. Look for articles that contain both the “pro” and the “con” of a subject. And at gatherings with family and friends, pick a relatable topic (such as whether schools should have a dress code) and suggest that your child solicit opinions.
4. Discuss the news. Current events are a natural way to engage your kid in a conversation that can easily go beyond the “yes” or “no” responses he tends to give at this age, says Kitty Rotella, Ed.D., principal of St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale. Visit kid-focused news websites, such as magazines.scholastic.com or timeforkids.com, and find some articles to look at together. “News sites often raise a lot of questions for our family to talk through,” says Heather Marzano, whose daughter, Sophia, is a fourth-grade student at St. Mark’s. “The other day, we read about people who were looting from a store—and then we explored the reasons why they might be doing it.”
5. Look back. “Reflecting on successes and failures is a big part of building critical thinking skills,” notes Rachel Griffin, head of the Lower School at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School, in New York City. However, helping kids get in a reflective mind-set may require a little prompting: When your child makes a craft, builds a Lego tower, or reorganizes his game collection, probe him during the process -- when he can still implement ideas -- and afterward. Then ask him what worked and what he wished he hadn’t done, so this thought process comes more naturally at school -- and any time he’s in a pickle.