The old adage that children should be seen and not heard is nothing but wishful thinking. Children are naturally inquisitive and they usually can’t help verbalising their curiosity.
Asking “why?” is the most natural thing that children can do as they attempt to make sense of the world. This simple – and tough – question allows them to construct a wide range of knowledge and to build a depth of understanding.
But “why?” is often met with resistance. For many parents their final word on the matter is “because it just is” or “because god made it that way”. Perhaps their patience is at an end, or maybe that really seems to be the best way to understand the matter.
Once they are old enough to attend school, students are almost immediately crushed under an avalanche of content knowledge and standardised testing. It’s not surprising that children can lose their passion for inquiry.
So how can we make the most of the “why?” years and develop our children into effective inquirers, critical thinkers and autonomous actors? This is an important question: people with these characteristics have the potential to contribute strongly to our economic and political future.
Here are a few suggestions for parents and teachers.
1. Be wrong
One of the strongest characteristics of good thinkers is their willingness to change their minds based on finding new evidence or better arguments. Many adults are scared to change position lest they be thought of as fickle or weak, too readily swayed by the opinions of others. But often what they are displaying is nothing more than fixed thinking and stubbornness – politics provides many examples of this.
Admitting to wrong thinking displays honesty and intellectual integrity. Refusing to change position in the light of better information or stronger arguments shows self-deceit and belligerence. If we want the former for our children, we need to model it.
Parents and teachers might worry that being wrong lessens their standing or authority in the eyes of their children. But this is a doomed position: there is no chance that we know everything, or that everything we know is correct and will remain so. Modelling how to deal with being wrong – admitting it and taking steps to correct it – is a vital skill in an age of rapidly changing information.
Embrace when you are wrong, explain why you might have come to the wrong conclusion and celebrate the fact that you are in a better position than before.
David Goehring/flickr CC-BY
2. Value inquiry above knowledge
It is possible to change your mind every day and still be entirely consistent. Consistency here is about the process of inquiry, not the outcome. If a better argument or new information comes along, accommodate it rather than denying it.
Being able to change position is a valuable skill. Be known for your ability to inquire and to adapt to circumstances, not just for the scope of your knowledge. After all, inquiry demands a broad range of cognitive skills like deducing, categorising, inferring, analysing and synthesising. Knowledge just needs recall.
A dedication to clarity, accuracy, coherence and precision in thinking is a far more impressive intellectual achievement than simply knowing more than someone else – or worse, pretending to.
3. Embrace uncertainty
The core of resilience is comfort with uncertainty. A tolerance for ambiguity and the confidence to deal with it can only be developed through experience.
If we take this away from our children, their later and inevitable learning experiences will be more costly.
We therefore need to admit to our children when we don’t know something, or that we might need to look to others for answers or guidance. Doing so does not show a lack of confidence. It shows that you know the path from uncertainty to belief.
4. Show empathy
Children need to move from an egocentric worldview to one in which the positions and ideas of others help make up the substrate of intellectual engagement. We need to know how others might think if we are to expand our own ability to think effectively. We also need to know how to use their thinking to improve our arguments.
One of the keys to social cognition is empathy, in which we are able to imagine the mental states of others and to use this as part of our developing understanding.
Learning to think effectively is similar to learning a language: it needs to be done through interaction with others. It is a social more than an individual competence.
Empathy is not just about understanding how others feel. It is also about understating how others think, and about how this can affect their emotions and their actions. Empathy is how we can internalise what we learn from others so we can be better individual thinkers.
5. Be tough
Perhaps most critically, you must insist on children doing the intellectual hard yards themselves. Do not feel that the obligation is on you to provide all the answers. Encourage children to find out for themselves, using the skills and attitudes that you have modelled for them.
Shift the burden of discovery back on to them. Ask questions even more penetrating than they have. Share their curiosity and insist that they finish the line of inquiry they started. Insist they lay out their thinking and arguments for you. Challenge lazy approaches or easy conclusions and make them accountable for their decisions. Let them know when you’re not convinced.
Teach them what it means to be sceptical. Teach them also that being sceptical means not only asking questions, but listening carefully to the answers.
Every child will demand a unique approach, but good thinking does have a common ground. We need to teach children that if all ideas are equal, then all ideas are worthless. As soon as we accept that, we begin the long process of sorting out which ideas are better than others.