Preparing kids for the future
Everybody talks about critical thinking, but how do you actually teach it?
Adults have an ability kids do not—the ability to make anything into work.”
When Taz was first diagnosed, I was anxious about health insurance and the expenses that would come with his end-stage kidney disease. At the time, the future was uncertain and we weren’t sure what his working life would look like. I asked a leader in the transplant recipient community, an older gentleman, for advice.
“Make sure he gets with a large company with good benefits and stays with them for a full career. That is my story and I retired after almost 40 years with the same company.”
When I received that reply, my heart sank a bit. Kind and helpful as he was with my other questions, this was no further conversation to be had here. His world was not our world, and it will certainly not be Beanie’s world. What company can you rely on that will keep you employed for 40 years and take care of you? Even in Japan, where this culture of mutual dedication is much stronger, circumstances have changed and more job transition is occurring.
With the days of doing the same job for 40 years pretty much gone, and the types of jobs in the future all but impossible to predict and prepare for, we can only try our best to arm our children with the skills that endure no matter what, the ones that equip them to deal with whatever comes their way.
What are these super-skills?
If you search online for skills to teach children to prepare for future jobs, the same sorts of lists keep popping up, and on the top of those lists is critical thinking. These days, every school claims to prioritize the teaching of critical thinking. Sure, everyone believes it is important to learn, but how do you actually learn it?
That got me wondering: how do you define critical thinking? I know it when I see it, but “What is critical thinking?” turns out not to be a simple question. Educators debate whether critical thinking is a generalized skill that can be transferable from subject to subject, or a specialized skill that is content-specific and must be learned in context. The definition of critical thinking is also contested, but I see it commonly defined as an ability to identify relevant information and valid sources, construct deductive arguments, connect ideas, and recognize reasoning fallacies.
People who espouse the generalist view believe that learning how to think critically in one context is transferable to other contexts. Those who believe these skills are subject-specific say that, for example, historians must analyze information in light of their sources and in historical context, while in science, the scientific method is more important than a document’s source (Willingham, 2019). These different types of critical thinking have to be learned separately.
It is no surprise then that programs in school meant to teach general critical thinking skills have had limited success. Such programs are usually curricular add-ons during which students engage in critical thinking activities for perhaps five hours each week over the course of a year or two. Unfortunately, the evaluations of these programs seldom offer a rigorous test of transfer. If the critical thinking training features logical and spatial puzzles, the measure of success tends to feature the same sort of puzzle. And if the critical thinking regimen entails argument and debate, the outcome measure is usually the ability to evaluate arguments or take both perspectives in debate. When investigators have tested for transfer in such curricular programs, positive results have been absent or modest and quick to fade.
Regardless of whether they think critical thinking needs to be taught via each discipline or as a standalone subject, everyone agrees that it must be taught explicitly. In a 2008 meta-analysis of 117 studies, Abrami et al.** concluded that when instructors were given training in teaching critical thinking skills, or when these skills were extensively integrated into the course, students’ critical thinking improved significantly. When critical thinking wasn’t an explicit goal and not deliberately weaved into lessons, gains were much smaller.
Professors of literature, science, psychology, economics and so on must reflect on how they think as scholars and researchers within their own disciplines — and then explicitly teach those cognitive processes to students. If there is one thing that we know for sure, it is that thinking skills, general or otherwise, can’t be learned if they’re not taught in as overt a manner as other content in college courses.
If there’s no consensus on the generalizability of acquiring critical thinking skills, how are we supposed to teach the next generation?
Since it’s known that there should be explicit instruction, and context-specific instruction does work, some experts suggest that educators in all disciplines should intentionally incorporate lessons on how the experts in their fields reason, analyze, and gain knowledge—and then give their students opportunities to practice these processes. In other words, it would benefit students to learn how to critically think, and be told “this is how you think critically” in every subject they learn, with all steps described. Their assignments would do the same, pointing out that the assignment is meant to give them practice in how experts approach and think through problems in that field.
Students ought to be explicitly exposed to how experts engage in critical thinking in each specific discipline, which should, in turn, expose them to the nature of knowledge in that discipline…Making the critical thinking process explicit to students, demonstrating how the process allows the students to learn or make discoveries, and having the students practice in a deliberate way with targeted feedback will help students understand the nature of scientific measurement and data uncertainty, and, in time, adopt the new ways of thinking.
—Holmes et al. 2015****
This is all good for me to know and look out for, as we assess future educational options. When schools and learning programs claim to teach critical thinking, what are they actually doing? Do they have lesson plans that delineate how one should think through problems in context? Do they empower students to practice these thinking processes, step by step, in realistic scenarios?
Or are they just using trendy buzzwords?
On these lists of crucial skills children should develop for the future, I was surprised that I rarely saw “imagination.” Isn’t imagination where the most creative innovations come from, and the biggest dreams for humanity?
Kids already have imagination built into them, and then along the way to grownup-hood, many of our imagination muscles atrophy from lack of use. Kids are fun to watch because they are still able to dream and be fanciful. With Plus-Plus blocks and Legos, Beanie builds crowns and swords, pet food and necklaces. Sometimes Plus-Pluses can be a bed for her stuffies, sometimes they can be the detritus from a pirate shipwreck.
I love building toys too, but my style is to faithfully follow the instructions to build the picture on the box. Beanie finds that utterly boring. When she gets Lego kits, I build them into what they are “supposed” to be, and she then takes them apart and makes them into what they have the potential to be. I’m not sure if this is a difference in personality, or if I am an adult who has had the imagination squashed out of me. Probably a bit of both.
When I spoke to Shannon Foley, the founder of the forest school Beanie used to attend, she said she’s seen how forest school helps children retain that sense of creative play.
The biggest thing that’s surprised me is when I look at a child who’s been through a forest school program, they hold on to play and play-based learning so much longer. Which is amazing. I would have days where the original crew [of RTH students] would come back, and I would pitch it to those kids as, “Now you’re a leader of the group. You’re going to help supervise and lead the group.” Those kids would slip back into play so quickly. It was really amazing to see and I think that’s really important too.
Even as adults, you still have to find your inner child and channel it, and those kids have that skill. They can just go back to the forest and find the fort they built—it’s still there and they’re so excited about it and trying to see if they still fit inside it. They don’t lose that spirit.
—Shannon Foley, founder of Red-tailed Hawk Forest School
I’m not sure how much of this ability to play imaginatively is attributable to forest school and being in nature, and how much simply has to do with the abundance of free play time these schools build into the day. Finland, where it’s not just forest schools but all public schools that have this outdoor free play ethos—and where children don’t start learning formal academic subjects until age seven—has some of the highest test scores in the world. Nurturing imagination doesn’t have to come at the expense of academic achievement.
I periodically search online for forest schools and other alternative schools around the world, to see what pioneers in that space are working on.
Forest schools have been popping up everywhere, including Singapore, where I grew up and where ‘forest’ is not the first or 10th word that comes to mind when describing its landscape—that’s fantastic! I hope that as the outdoor schools movement grows, the original philosophy of free play is preserved and forest school doesn’t become just another way to over-schedule children, outdoors instead of indoors. I suspect the free play element is essential to letting children’s creativity wander free and grow. A child’s free play time must be carefully protected!
Also, free play is fun. And childhood should be fun.
It’s so hard, as parents, to sift through all the noise: all the children’s classes and programs and all the articles and all the opinions. Are we giving Beanie the education she needs to succeed in life later? Are the schools she attends giving her opportunities to develop her critical thinking, her imagination, her adaptability, her communication skills, her moral compass, and everything else that will make her a productive and happy citizen of the world?
As she’s tried these different schools and learning methods, it has felt at times like we’ve been seeking the Platonic ideal of a “school-like institution.” Or at least, the Platonic ideal for Beanie, since every child’s needs are different. Some of the aspirations we had at the beginning of our journey have really borne fruit: Beanie has become more confident, more adaptable and flexible, better at making friends quickly, and more excited to live in new places.
Academically, she’s doing well. Whether she is working to her potential and absorbing the right lessons of critical thinking remain to be seen. I do like that at her current school, work is in the form of open-ended projects, such as the “sustainable city” diorama they built with recyclable objects, and the accompanying research they did to plan their ideal sustainable city. For math, they’ve been working on designing a house and calculating how much it would cost to build, based on the size and materials they chose. It would seem that these are good exercises for independent thinking, and the kids have really enjoyed dreaming up their designs and decor. I’m hopeful that, whether or not Beanie is learning critical thinking in the most “optimal” way, these positive experiences will lead her to stay curious and keep asking the questions that pave her way to a thoughtful future.
*Willingham, D. 2019. How to teach critical thinking. In Education: Future Frontiers. NSW Department of Education.
**Abrami et al. 2008. Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: a Stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research 78:1102-1134.
***Schlueter, J. 2016. Higher Ed’s biggest gamble. Can colleges truly teach critical-thinking skills? (essay)
****Holmes, N; Wieman, CE; Bonn, D. 2015. Teaching critical thinking. PNAS 112(36):11199-11204.
Pretty Good Things
One benefit of being on this worldschooling journey and writing this blog has been getting to know kindred spirits, such as the educators I’ve interviewed in the past, and education entrepreneur John Tan. He founded education startups Doyobi and Saturday Kids in Singapore, and writes weekly about the future of work and learning.
There are plenty of after-school activities available to Singaporean children, but not so many that are forward-thinking like Doyobi, which John founded with the aim to teach young Singaporeans those essential skills we’ve been talking about here, the ones that will serve them well no matter what the world looks like when they grow up. And Doyobi does it in a fun way through games and quests; poking around its website, I thought, “I would’ve loved to have done this as a kid.”
I subscribe to John’s newsletter, and I like that John tells it straight, like a few months ago when he lamented that parents were not buying into Doyobi even though they theoretically see its value:
After one year of marketing Doyobi to parents, it’s quite clear that parents don’t prioritise skills that robots cannot replace. It’s not that they don’t value these skills. Of course they want their kids to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. They just don’t want their kids to invest the time to develop these skills. Kind of like me saying I want six-pack abs but I’d rather be drinking with friends than hitting the gym. Because kids have more important things to do with their time. Things like math tuition, science tuition, english tuition.
Because grades matter above all else.
It’s frustrating and not altogether surprising that this attitude dominates in the pressure-cooker educational ecosystem of Singapore, but it’s not just Singapore where people are unable to see beyond grades and exams. Not at all. (Have you ever seen the documentary “Try Harder!” about Lowell High School in San Francisco? It’s a good film, but it stressed me out…and I’m a good three decades beyond applying for college).
It’s not easy to break away from that mentality when it surrounds you. I admire John for forging this path; I hope Doyobi succeeds, especially in a place like Singapore. Students there need something other than tuition every afternoon, not only to broaden their minds and give them valuable tools, but also to remind them that learning can be very enjoyable and isn’t just an arduous task they must undertake while they swot for exams.
Jane, when I was in college MANY years ago, one of the known benefits of higher education was to develop critical thinking—-in fact, we had a special class—Don’t remember the contents. Now they teach it at Beanie’s age!!!! Soooo smart! Jane B