Local experts give advice on teaching children to think critically

November 15, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
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Americans are addicted to proclaiming firm conclusions:

  • • President Obama is a socialist.
  • Mitt Romney is a cold-hearted capitalist.
  • A black cat crossing your path will give you bad luck.
  • Deaths always come in threes.
  • Global warming is caused by human activity.

Having firm opinions and beliefs gives us something to say in the conversations we have in everyday life.

But belief is not the same thing as truth, according to North Hagerstown High School International Baccalaureate teacher Steven Heller. He teaches Theory of Knowledge, a class that encourages students to think critically about what they believe to be true.

"We talk in class about how there are some things you can believe, but there's no way to know," Heller said. "But truth has to be based on more than a gut feeling. You have to have facts to verify it, or some type of evidence to consider it true."

It's important to be able to tell real facts from false facts, opinions or superstitions. Being wrong about whether black cats cause bad luck is no big deal. But being wrong about global warming could have huge costs to human civilization.

So how can parents help teach their children to tell fact from fiction or opinion? To compile suggestions for teaching critical thinking skills, The Herald-Mail spoke with Heller, a therapist and two pastors. They are:

  • Danielle Roncone, inpatient therapist, Brook Lane North Village near Hagerstown
  • Pastor Brian Kelley, generations discipleship pastor at Faith Christian Fellowship near Williamsport and former principal at Grace Academy
  • The Rev. Ed Poling, pastor at Hagerstown Church of the Brethren

Encourage kids to deal with difficult issues.

Heller: "It seems that it helps you grow as a person. Real growth seems to be through undergoing the challenges of just being (curious) as opposed to accepting what everyone else tells you. So that you become what it is you want to be."

Start by teaching kids your own beliefs.

Poling: "Immerse them in your culture. Your tradition. You immerse them in it and then you let them make their own decision about it."

Urge kids to find facts to back up their beliefs.

Kelley: "It's not enough just to say, 'I believe in God.' What happens when you sit across from someone at college or at work who's not Christian? You're going to run into people who don't believe in the Bible. (I worked with students so they could say) 'Here's what I believe and here's why and here's the information I based this on.'"

Be available for kids' questions.

Roncone: "Part of (developing critical thinking) is finding those people you trust and talking with them, checking in with yourself and what you know and feel to be real, and trying to go from there. If you're a parent to your child, just (tell) them, 'You can check in with me, and I am available.'"

Ask your kids questions.

Roncone: "Ask kids questions early on. If they're 3, 4, 5, you're going to get a funny answer. But you're encouraging them, a) I want to actually hear what you think about that that, and b) getting them to think: 'I don't know, what do I think about that?'"

Let children learn on their own, even if they explore something different from a parent's tradition.

Poling: "My second son became real interested in some kind of a pagan thing, became interested in Buddhism. So I talked with him. 'What's the interest there?' I tried to talk to him about what interested him and not be afraid of it."

Double-check sources of information.

Kelley: "I tell kids to dig, dig and dig more. Chances are there other opinions. They tell me, 'This guy said it.' Well, who is this guy? Where did he get his information from? Go deeper. Eventually, you'll have an origin for it."

Admit when you don't know the facts.

Heller: "I'll admit, there are things I don't know and I can't completely understand. And there's nothing wrong with that, provided you can be honest with yourself and say I don't know."

Encourage kids to take responsibility for their beliefs.

Roncone: "It's hard to really do that self-responsibility, and not just blame it on bad luck. I think it's the overall, consistent message you're sending. When something bad comes your way, are you throwing your hands up in the air and saying, "It's someone else's fault! The universe always dumps on me!" instead of taking responsibility and saying, "'How do we handle this? How do we move on with this?'"

Don't mislead your kids.

Poling: "We're not even aware of the times we use a child for our purposes. We tell the child a reason why they can't do something, not because it may be bad for them, but because we don't want (them) to do it. It's inconvenient or something."

 Look for things that don't fit existing beliefs.

Heller: "Look for the anomalies, and ask, is this just a random coincidence that happened or does it indicate there's a bigger issue underlying the topic? Maybe we don't know as much as we think we do."

Encourage kids to question authority figures.

Heller: "We look at experts in one field and we think we can follow them in every field. As brilliant as Einstein was, should you trust his political beliefs or his opinions about art?"

Apologize to your child when you get something wrong.

Poling: "As a mentor or parent, it's really a power relationship you have with that child. (Be) able to ask for forgiveness. (Be) able to acknowledge your mistakes. (Be) humble enough to say, 'I blew it. I messed up. I'm sorry.' That kind of humility is what we need in these relationships, because we're not always going to do it right."

 Show that it's OK to change your mind.

Heller: "Knowledge and certainty aren't one and the same. Our knowledge seems to change over time. With technological developments comes an increased ability to gather evidence  and examine that evidence, so our beliefs have changed. Things we believed to be true once upon a time aren't necessarily true any more."

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