Teaching children to think

Teaching children to think

For children to grow into life-long learners, they need to understand the purpose of their education

Representative Image. Credit: iStock Photo

While thinking, in a deep sense, should be pivotal to education, our schools still prioritise rote or mechanistic learning. Though most Indian Boards now include HOTS or questions that require “higher-order thinking” wherein students have to analyse, apply, deduce, critique or synthesise information, the bulk of questions still focus on factual recall. Moreover, teaching practices haven’t necessarily changed dramatically even as teachers may now include a few HOTS questions in assignments, quizzes and exams. 

Aside from one or two cursory workshops, teachers aren’t necessarily trained on how to impart critical thinking skills. Perhaps, educators can use the break in rhythm that the pandemic has forced upon us to critically evaluate their own pedagogic and assessment practices so that critical thinking may be more central to the education we impart to children.

In her book, Education for Thinking, psychologist and educationist, Deanna Kuhn, provides a roadmap for nurturing deep thinking in a more systematic way. She argues that inquiry and argument are the two main skills that developing minds need to acquire.

As knowledge is dynamic and constantly shifting, knowing “any particular body of factual knowledge” cannot be the core tenet of education. Instead, if we focus on cultivating the skills of inquiry and argument, we are preparing children to become active, engaged citizens who can question assumptions, solve problems, evaluate claims, infer conclusions and contribute to individual and societal welfare.

Life-long learners

For children to grow into life-long learners, they need to understand the purpose of their education and see how it connects to their lives. When children are asked why they need to study, many of them cite getting into a prestigious college as a reason. 

According to Kuhn, when students believe that the goal of education is more education, they are unlikely to appreciate the larger significance of the activities and tasks they do at school today. Moreover, when they have an instrumentalist or utilitarian conception of education that suggests that they have to study to get a well-paying job, then the activities they do in school are valued only because of the future payoff. This type of prospective thinking undermines the intrinsic utility of the tasks and projects they engage in at school on a daily basis.

If we are able to provide children with activities that they find intrinsically meaningful, then learning, for its own sake, is what is prized. If we want students to buy into the idea of education being an end in itself, we must choose tasks whose value is evident to them. Ultimately, we want children to “construct meaning” of the world so that they can navigate its varied contours and find their own, unique place in it. Kuhn strongly believes in children appreciating the worth of what they do in school for schooling to be a meaningful experience.

Interacting with surroundings

Curricula that emphasise inquiry skills are not limited or circumscribed by any specific body of knowledge and can span various subject areas. But what exactly is inquiry learning and how do we facilitate it in children? Kuhn observes that any “change in understanding” is learning. And, children, right from infancy, start forming ‘theories’ of the self and the world around them as they interact with their surroundings. 

As they encounter contrary evidence, they keep revising their mental schemas or theories. However, this process of constantly updating mental theories based on confirming or disconfirming evidence does not occur consciously or explicitly.  Recognising this metacognitive process and exercising conscious, deliberate control over it is one of the significant cognitive milestones that occurs during the late childhood years and beyond. According to Kuhn, it is “this intentional, controlled, theory-evidence coordination, and resulting conceptual change” that constitutes inquiry learning.

Kuhn divides the process of inquiry into three stages of inquiry, analysis and inference. So, in the first phase, students must be motivated to find out something new and be able to distinguish their learning from “what they already know.” 

In the next step that involves analysis, children may then “examine and interpret the evidence” they have gathered to see whether it confirms or disconfirms their hypothesis or thesis. The last stage of inference entails students articulating and justifying their conclusions. 

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