Throughout their time at school, learners are expected to compare, contrast, evaluate, understand, organise, and classify information – in other words, think critically. This empowers students to make decisions and deal with problems confidently, which are essential skills in school and the rest of their lives. But how soon can we start encouraging our children to think critically about the world around them? It seems like a lot to ask of a 6-year-old, but by taking some small steps, we can develop our children’s critical thinking skills from an early age, setting them up for secondary education, higher education, and eventually a career.
In the primary classroom, teachers use many different techniques to encourage critical thinking, especially in English language teaching, as language is a gateway for understanding other subjects which require a critical thinking mindset. One technique used is to give students tools in order to think critically, such as giving students questions that they should use when faced with a problem, like ‘How would someone else feel about this?’, ‘Is it fair?’, or ‘What can I do about this?’ These, and other questions, can be displayed around the classroom for students to see and use throughout the lesson, until they are in the habit of using them automatically.
Giving students critical challenges is often difficult, but vital in pushing children to think more critically. Teachers should ask for answers which go beyond repeating information or expressing likes or dislikes, as we want students to be challenged to think about what would make the most sense, or to decide between multiple options. This also extends to assessing performance. When making quizzes and tests, teachers need to make sure that questions are designed to show critical thinking skills, as opposed to purely memory. Sometimes, a wrong answer with an interesting explanation shows a stronger mastery of critical thinking processes than a correct answer with no explanation.
Most importantly, teachers need to create a supportive environment in which students are free to use their critical thinking ability without fear of getting the wrong answer. This is done by praising effort as well as accuracy; asking students for their opinions; and encouraging students to give reasons for their choices.
To continue the work of your child’s teacher at home, there are many things you can do as a parent to foster critical thinking skills in your child. The most important is to allow your child to try things without fear of failure. When children are scared of failure, they are more likely to turn to memorisation, which feels safer, as opposed to analysis. You can also ask, and get your child to ask, the big 6 critical questions: ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘why’, and ‘how’. As parents we can often be scared of being questioned, but questions show that our children what to gain a deeper understanding of their world and become independent thinkers. Finally, you can encourage your child to study a range of topics, consume media from different platforms, and play many different games. By broadening their experience, children will start to make links and comparisons, aided by your questions and encouragement.
At the British Council, our primary teachers use these techniques and many others to help your children develop a key skill they need to become successful young people. The materials for our primary courses focus not only on language acquisition, but also on analysis, making connections, and formulating opinions, in order to set our students on the path to becoming independent and critical thinkers.