The Importance of Critical Thinking

Recently, my son and a friend came home with a project assigned by their social studies teacher. They had read "The Cay,” by Theodore Taylor — a story of adventure and survival during World War II. The teacher asked them to write a book report and design a cover page depicting their favorite scene. My son drew Timothy pushing a sleeping Phillip on a raft towards the shore, while his friend decided to draw Phillip sobbing on Timothy's grave. In the midst of preparing dinner, I overheard a discussion between the two boys:

My son: Why is Phillip smaller than the tombstone?

Friend: Because...

My son: Because of what?

Friend: Because I want to show how important Timothy was to Phillip.

My son: I guess you could do that since it's your project and you can be creative. But I don’t think Mr. B cares so much about the drawing. He’s not an art teacher.

Friend: I think you’re right. He wants to know if we understand the story and can represent it our own way. He will probably grade us on that instead of the cover alone.

This conversation relays a clear example of critical thinking. The boys concluded that it was their understanding of the story that matters — the process of their thinking — not just the final product. As a society, we tend to value end products — a good mark on an exam, a beautiful drawing, a well-researched science project — and not think about what leads to that culmination: the learning process. With the advent of the Common Core benchmarks, learning standards have come under renewed scrutiny. Educators must look at the whole child and how best to educate him for living and working in a society where problem solving and critical thinking are central to success.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, jobs that consider critical thinking important have doubled since 2009. What makes these skills so important to employers? Critical thinkers are open to new ideas and perspectives. They are willing to challenge belief systems and investigate contrary evidence. They ask questions and they analyze, using strategies to decipher new meanings. In short: they are active learners. Employers seek employees who never stop learning and are able to analyze a wide range of subjects.

Several years ago, before 9/11, I worked with a sixth-grade class in Queens. After two weeks of studying the engineering of skyscrapers, students were assigned a final project. One student turned in an almost perfect model of the Twin Towers; everyone was impressed. But at that point, we hadn’t covered all the concepts needed to build such an accurate and detailed model. I asked him how he managed to do it, and he admitted he had a lot of help from his parents. They concentrated on how it looked, but not on the process.

As an educator, it was my job to make sure the child and his classmates understood the concepts inherent in developing the model, such as scale, proportional reasoning, and model making. I'm not saying that educators shouldn’t encourage a stunning end product, but the how and why of getting there is key. Teachers should allow their students to make mistakes, apply different strategies to discover meaning, question their process, and nurture the critical thinking skills necessary not only for the assignment at hand, but also for their future success as contributors to society.

Critical thinking must be nurtured. Adults should ask questions that require kids to think and come up with answers that are full sentences and carefully thought out. When reading at night for my son or when he's reading to me, I stop from time to time to ask him what he thought about the last passage, or what he thought the character meant. Sometimes I ask him what he would do in a similar situation. This allows him to think critically about applying his learning to real life situations.

Children are sponges. They are "moldable." They should know that it is okay to think outside of the box. They need to understand that, although the end result is important, the road they take to get there is even more critical. They can then apply this approach to new classes, new challenges, and to their everyday lives. Whether we are educators or caregivers, we all want our kids to be actively engaged in their education: to ask questions and problem-solve to uncover meaning. We want them to take an analytical view of learning. We want them to be critical thinkers.