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How to Empower Young Learners: Debunking Myths on Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking is a buzzword which frequently appears when we are speaking about 21st century competencies. With Critical Thinking now featured in the PSLE English Language examination testing component, how do we prepare our young learners to be Critical Thinking and Creative Thinkers?

A well-known study on cognitive acceleration by Adey and Shayer have shown that students who focus on skills in thinking show greater achievement in nationally-set and marked measures of achievement in Science, Maths, and English. The transfer of this skill was also apparent in the students’ performance in national examinations at the age of 15 and 16.

As we work together to encourage and empower our young learners in becoming Critical Thinkers, here are some myths on Critical Thinking that we will be debunking.

#1 Critical Thinking is complicated thinking

At first sight, Critical Thinking may seem to be a complicated concept which is difficult to grasp. However, Critical Thinking involves both simple and complex thinking as it is a set of thinking skills that is concerned with the significance of claims. In a nutshell, the question which our learners should be asking is “What is this sentence telling me?”

At a lower primary level, this form of thinking can be applied in the grammar questions that involves subject-verb agreement. Here is an example.

There are two parts of simple thinking that will help our learners get to the answer. The first part of the sentence indicates that Gerald and Jerome are two people, which will give the student a hint that a plural verb should be used. The use of the phrase “just now” provides us with the significance of time, which suggests that a verb in the past tense should be used. With the two parts of simple thinking connected now, students should be able to work out that the correct answer is ‘were’ (complex thinking).

At a higher level when students would have developed a good foundation in grammar, this thinking will involve asking questions about the connections or making predictions based on some given evidence. This is more commonly known as inference questions in open-ended comprehension. Parents can spur their child to be Critical Thinkers by encouraging them to look for clues in the passage, and asking them what they think the clue is telling them. Let’s look at an example of such questions which will appear in Primary 5.

The statements which will be crucial to answering the question are ‘staggered clumsily’, ‘apologised profusely’ and ‘hurriedly wiped his pants’. The statements imply that the waiter did something wrong, which caused Michael to wipe his pants. A critical thinker would draw the correlation between the two forms of simple thinking and come to the conclusion (complex thinking) that the waiter had accidentally spilled coffee on Michael.

#2 Critical Thinking is abstract thinking

There are many misconceptions of Critical Thinking, with many considering Critical Thinking to be an abstract form of thinking or simply about criticising. Much to the contrary, Critical Thinking requires and reinforces clear thinking because it encourages learners to ask questions that are designed to clarify what a claim means. A Critical Thinker recognises that claims and arguments have to be presented in the most unambiguous way possible, and they should ask questions that will help them make sense of the content which they are reading.

Let’s use a classic example of an event that will surface at some point in every family – a child who is asking for a particular item (it may be a toy, a snack or simply the use of the tablet device). We can encourage our children to be Critical Thinkers by providing a basis of why they would like that particular item. It can be a simple reason such as a request for a birthday gift, but the active participation of the child in explaining why will help them create healthy habits of Critical Thinking in the long term.

As the child grows in clear thinking, parents can then ask further questions to reinforce clear thinking. In Critical Thinking terms, would your reason be strong enough to support the conclusion that you would like me to reach?

I would like to have a minion plush toy because I really enjoyed the movie.

The child has essentially given a reason (I really enjoyed the movie) to reach a conclusion that they would like for you to agree with (you should buy me the minion plush toy). Parents can encourage their children to think further by providing alternative options, or ask them to provide more basis for you to reach the conclusion that “the child should have minion plush toy”. Some questions that parents can ask include:

  • There are many items that features the minion, such as minion stationery sets, minion shirts and minion bags. Why would you like a minion plush toy?
  • Why would the minion plush toy remind you of how much you enjoyed the movie?
  • There are many movies which you have enjoyed. Why did you specifically ask for the minion plush toy?

The test format for the PSLE examinations requires for the students to exhibit the ability to clarify a claim which has been made, but is presented in true or false questions in the open-ended comprehension. The question is essentially asking for students to clarify whether a statement is true or false, and requiring for students to search for answers to support the claim if it is true (and vice versa). The simple inculcation of a habit will help the child to be naturally trained in the way they present themselves, and this will definitely help the child to process their thoughts and present their answers in a relevant manner.

#3 Critical Thinking will complicate decision making
We have touched on cultivating Critical Thinking habits in our young learners to help them present their thoughts in a coherent manner, but Critical Thinking is also crucial in helping our learners become more independent thinkers who are able to make effective decisions.

As learners grow in Critical Thinking skills, a natural cognitive development is the ability to compare and evaluate options. In simpler terms, the child will be able to consider a range of options and ask relevant questions about each of them before reaching a decision. While this means that there will be more options, it does not mean that students will not be able to make a purposeful decision.

For example, how would a child react if he/she had to choose between (1) walking away from a bullying incident to inform the teacher; or (2) helping the student who was being bullied? A Critical Thinker would look beyond the technical rights and wrongs and consider the situation at hand before making a decision. Some questions which they may consider include:

  • Was the student grievously hurt?
  • Are there any other students who can help in the situation?
  • Are there any teachers in the immediate vicinity?

Critical Thinking will also help our learners to grow practical thinking, because there may not always be a clear right or wrong in many problems that our children will have to deal with in life. It is imperative that we nurture out young learners to have a multifaceted approach of how they perceive and make sense of the world, engaging with the complexity of the different situations before making sound decisions independently.

#4 Critical Thinking works against Creative Thinking
One common question which many parents ask us is “Would Critical Thinking be so structured that it will quash my child’s creative thinking?” While there is a structure of thinking process which we can follow, a good Critical Thinker would recognise that there is no singular correct way of thinking. Since Critical Thinking is concerned with the significance of claims, asking relevant questions will lead us to a variety of possibilities in explanation and inference.

One phrase which repeatedly appears in compositions among our students is “My body was shaking like a trembling leaf”. This is an example of an analogy, where students are saying that one thing is like another. However, beyond recognising that this is a common phrase, how can we use this to encourage our students to be more creative in their writing?

What parents can do to help their child is to allow them to see that the analogy is saying the movement of their body is similar to the irregular movement of a trembling leaf due to an external force that is beyond their control. Can they think of a better comparison for this analogy? Our students came up with the ­phrase “My body was shaking like a blob of wobbly jelly as I made my way sluggishly onto the stage”.

What would be your child’s creative expression that is unique to them? We would love for you to share with us the creative and effective phrases which are original to your child!

#5 Critical Thinking is an innate quality

Just like many skills which can be acquired, Critical Thinking is a skill that can be cultivated in our young learners. It is crucial that the Critical Thinking skills are explicitly taught at a young age, so that our learners are exposed to a thinking structure which they are rely on in every subject and every circumstance.

The Critical Thinking skills of the ThinkWRight Programme was developed by Dr Roy van den Brink Budgen, who has worked in the field of Critical Thinking for more than 30 years. He has worked on the development of assessments in Thinking skills for eighteen years, part of which was spent developing the academic subject of “Critical Thinking and Communication” at the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.

If you want to learn more about how your child can learn Critical Thinking skills and practically apply them in their English Language examinations, contact The WRight Approach today at (65) 6262 6612.

This article has been written using curriculum from the ThinkWRight Programme. Offering a cutting edge Critical Thinking programme that students can practically apply to their academic studies, The WRight Approach has helped many students grow leap and bounds as adroit learners.

The WRight Approach is part of The Phrontistery @ Cairnhill CC
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