The Importance of Critical Thinking in a Child’s Education
Critical thinking is an essential part of engaging with unfamiliar situations. A child who has a strong command of critical thinking skills can become an active reader and is unfazed when experimenting with foreign stimuli. These skills are an important part of being able to engage with texts in an intelligent way, effectively self-direct one’s learning, and succeeding academically and professionally.
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is about questioning everything that you encounter. When we use it in reading, it helps us to go beneath the surface of a text. It is about tackling unseen material with logic and rationality, and reasoning through a problem until you arrive somewhere you never expected. It is about really justifying why you believe something.
Being able to think critically is less about the amount of knowledge you have about a specific subject, and much more about how you approach a new subject. A critical thinker feels ready to tackle even unfamiliar matters. They are able to confidently use the knowledge they already have and apply it to fresh situations, and to make links between bigger ideas.
Being an Active Reader
When an active reader reads, they also focus on reading between the lines of a text. This includes applying their pre-existing knowledge to new ideas, connecting the dots between what they have already read, and understanding the text from the author’s perspective. An active reader will ask themselves questions such as: Who wrote this text? When was this text written? Who is the text intended for? Why was this text written? Does this text link to anything I have read in the past? Do I agree with how this content is being presented?
Through asking these questions, an active reader will come to sophisticated conclusions and be able to make predictions regarding the text. Exploring these questions vastly improves the quality of an essay-type response or debate-type discussion about a given topic. A key way to encourage the development of this habit is to constantly look at a variety of texts.
At i-Learner our courses are designed to expose students to a broad scope of material, such as newspapers, historical writing, poetry, websites, journals and different genres of fiction. To look at a specific example of this, we have the Level Two course which discusses poetry, fiction, and non-fiction through reviews, text annotation and making predictions, in order to develop the skills to become an active reader from a young age.
Building Empathy Skills
An important part of critically approaching a text comes from empathy skills. An active and effective reader will engage with a text at a high level to be able to deduce the author’s motivation and to use fine details to make predictions about a text. They will understand why the author has written their text, what the purpose of the text is, and what the underlying meaning could be.
An example of tackling unfamiliar topics comes from our Level One course where one of the selected readers is Becky has diabetes, an account of a young girl and her life with diabetes. We chose this text because it is an area that most students are unfamiliar with, and is a good chance to develop their empathy skills. Students engage with the text at various levels, including looking at the grammar that Becky uses, the key details in the text that let us understand Becky’s situation, and move to more empathetic questions such as “can Becky make friends with other children?”
It is our goal to foster these skills that not only vastly improve students’ appreciation, enjoyment and ability to engage with texts and unfamiliar subjects, but also their capacity to write effectively, being able to place themselves in a reader’s shoes.
DSE Exams and Critical Reading and Writing
Always important in a students’ school career are exams. A typical area where students tend to come unstuck in exams is when they encounter material that they have never seen before. This is something that can feel intimidating; especially if they have developed the habit of studying only what is necessary to pass a single exam’s strict requirements. The solution to this problem is to not only teach content, but also skills – critical thinking skills! These can be drawn upon at any given time to tackle a new problem, across a range of subject matters and text types.
An example would be the wide variety of topics that are touched on in the English DSE papers. The subjects covered in this paper can range from dystopian societies to English quilts. A strong student will feel comfortable in the face of even the most unfamiliar topic, as they will be able to reach into a bank of skills and knowledge that they can apply to any challenge with ease.
The Level Three course at i-Learner uses the topic of Ancient Civilisations as a springboard for critical discussion. In most cases, we will explore areas of knowledge that students may have limited factual information about, but which enable us to jump into deeper discussions that scrutinise ideas such as multiculturalism, the rise and fall of civilisations, technology and the nature of human societies. It is this process of becoming accustomed to discussions about unfamiliar topics at a young age that prepares students for their future exams.
The Oxbridge Model
Elite international universities will expect applicants to be able to think critically about the material they encounter, and to be able to engage with unfamiliar and difficult topics, from the moment they set foot in the interview room. The admissions process to Cambridge University, for example, involves an interview with two or three professors who are top academics in their field of study. These professors are not looking for applicants who can regurgitate a well-remembered model answer, but rather who can formulate an intelligent response to an unfamiliar item or question, and to be able to justify why they hold that opinion. The questions are designed to test your thinking process. Further to this, many courses require that the candidate successfully sit a Thinking Skills Assessment, where their ability to understand argument structure and reason are specifically examined.
During my interview for linguistics, I was asked some rather strange questions whose purpose was to really make me think. For example:
Why is language like a jug?
If language were a town, what would the composite elements be?
What makes a sentence interesting?
There was no perfect answer to any of these, but rather, I was expected to come up with justified responses that could ignite deeper discussions about language. Once at Cambridge, my weekly supervisions were no different. Week on week I was presented with challenging material which was chosen to push me to question all of my own opinions and beliefs.
We have modelled the way we teach this course on the supervision system at Oxford and Cambridge, based on the experiences of our teachers. We encourage our students to question what they believe, to be able to justify their opinions, and to challenge what they read. They learn to tackle unseen material in an intelligent and systematic way, to engage in constructive and rational discussions, and to present their arguments in a convincing and logical manner. In this way, we aim to foster exactly these valuable critical thinking skills that will serve our students so well.
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