Teach Your Kids How to Think

by Andy Akhigbe

Teaching kids how to think should be the most important task today because we are all swimming in an avalanche of clickbait headlines, deepfake videos, filtered photos, distorted GIFs, random memes and pesky sound bites from the so-called thought leaders on social media and the internet.

There has never been a time more critical than now to teach kids how to think. COVID-19 makes this a priority. So is racism. Poverty. Modern-day slavery. Inequality. Vaccination. Climate Change. Fake News. Mercy killing. Gun control. Voter suppression. The times are indeed perilous and it is only by teaching kids how to think that they can make sense of what’s going on in the world and how to find their place in it.

If we agree that the issues of this present age makes it imperative for a child to learn how to think, then we can’t escape the advise of Dr. Justin Couchman, professor of psychology at Albright College, who said that the “ability to make correct intuitive decisions is increasingly becoming one of the most critical skills to have in the modern information-technology age”. Kids can only make correct intuitive decisions if they know how to think.

Why Teach Kids How to Think?
Aside from these times being perilous, teaching kids how to think should sit side by side our need to teach literacy and numeracy. To be a full functioning adult tomorrow, a child must not only know how to read and write, but must also be able to know how to think.

Many kids will be born into a world of unprecedented change never before witnessed by any other generation. It’s only by teaching kids how to think that these changes can be understood and embraced.

The kid of today would grow up to use modern technology and these new technologies will come with their own issues.

Take, for instance, the issue of privacy. Technology appears to operate in an insidious manner. Many will give up their privacy by signing terms and conditions hidden in small prints. The information we provide will end up in the hands of advertisers and politicians for targeted adverts and political campaigns without any recourse to the owners of those valuable information.

For a long time, teaching kids how to think is often dropped as a hint, or as an adjunct, or even an afterthought to the core Education curriculum. In these times, thinking will have to take center stage.

Subjects will have to be taught from the standpoint of critical thought and not from the place of regurgitation of preconceived notions and knowledge.

The issues would be laid bare by the teacher before she meets face-to-face with the students through a video, or a podcast and the teacher will thereafter hear first-hand from the students their own impressions about the subject.

Where the teacher and the student are both learning from each other, the distinguishing factor will be the capacity for self reflection and critical thought. Thinking will change the dynamics of learning and the teacher-student relationship.

What Constitutes Thinking?
The best way of imagine what constitutes thinking is for us to compare what goes on in a reflective mind with that of an unreflective mind.

To be reflective is to be able to sit down and ponder and to be intentional and deliberate concerning one’s decision-making process and actions. The reflective mind is the one which thinks. If a man is incapable of moments of reflection, such a man will be incapable of clear thinking, posing a danger to himself and to the society.

Let’s delve into more specifics to better understand, in my opinion, the five (5) important ideas behind what constitutes thinking:

System 1 and System 2
Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, in his groundbreaking book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, talked about the two thinking systems – the impulsive, automatic, or intuitive System 1 and the thoughtful, deliberate, calculating System 2.

As both systems play off against each other, their interactions determine how we think, make judgments and act.

At all times, Kahneman advised that System 1 should yield to the more contemplative and deliberate System 2.

Mental Models
There is also the need to deal with our Mental Models – deeply held beliefs, often biased, that affect our thinking about how the world works. Through our mental models we make meaning about the world, our relationships and our place in the world.

Most times, these mental models are faulty and we think within them. It’s proper to be aware of these mental models so that we are able to reduce our biases and reach good judgments about the world.

A mental models in the area of Economics will be the concept of Demand and Supply. By understanding how Demand and Supply works in an Economy, we are able to understand how these two concepts affect our ability to make choices concerning goods and services we purchase.

The Dunning-Krugger Effect
Then, we must take cognizance of the Dunning-Krugger effect in helping us never to overestimate our competence – in essence, a quack, or an incompetent individual is too incompetent to know she is incompetent, but worsens his circumstance by overestimating her competence.

The Dunning-Krugger effect has an impact on our ability to think. Simply put, those who overestimate their cognitive abilities and competence are incapable of intuitive thinking.

Critical Thinking
Thinking must be also be critical. We must be able to take our thinking apart to unearth the important components of every single thought – the purpose/the question/assumption/concepts/point-of-view/information and conclusions reached in order for us to ascertain how well our thinking holds out.

In taking our thinking apart, we must also ensure that our thinking meets the universal intellectual standards of clarity/accuracy/precision/relevance/depth/breadth/logic/significance and fairness.

Computational Thinking
With the pervasiveness of computers, it has become imperative to infuse our thinking into the thought process involved in how a computer solves problems and expressing the solutions we obtain in such a way that a computer can potentially help us tackle the problem using decomposition, pattern recognition, algorithm and abstraction.

Putting all these five ideas together, it becomes obvious that to teach kids how to think, we must understand the following:

1. How kids can take their thinking apart (critical thinking);
2. How kids can reason within a framework (mental models, systems and the Dunning-Kruger Effect); and
3. How kids can use their thinking to solve problems (computational thinking).

The key word in all of these five ideas is Metacognition which simply means the ability to “think about our thinking” – to always be aware and understand our own thought processes.

How to Start?
A good place to start is from the home. Parents should first see the importance of teaching kids how to think. Thinking can prove challenging to teach, but, if started early, it can become a lifelong learning experience for both parents and their kids.

Parents should discuss with their kids in the same manner they would discuss with adults and share their everyday challenges with their kids so that they can elicit from them the habits of mind of a good thinker.

Kids should be taught to always ask, “Why,” and “Why Not”.

Kids can be introduced to challenging literature that demands deep analysis of issues bothering on ethics, philosophy and existential questions like how to get justice in the case of a policeman who fatally shoots a harmless black youth because he pulled his gun wrongly, while trying to reach for a taser.

Kids can be introduced to books like Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, a great book that examines the impracticality of humans living forever.

Both parents and kids should read together and analyze books and other challenging texts and contents.

What Problems Are Ahead?
Thinking, like many other pivotal subjects, isn’t on the National Curriculum. So, it may never be mentioned in the classroom. Many teachers aren’t also trained to teach thinking. Schools have to be deliberate and intentional by introducing thinking in schools and getting teachers encouraged to take online courses in thinking and also attend annual conferences organized by Thinking Institutes in our local universities.

Schools can also create opportunities for reflective thought and encourage good, clear thinking within the school environment by organizing debates where tough issues of the Age are discussed in a manner that allows students to collaborate and analyze the issues involved in those tough subjects.

This way, both parents and schools will help kids to learn how to think and how to navigate and succeed in the world.


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