Young Minds

Helping children thrive at home and in the classroom

Good Thinking

What children should learn in school.

Good Thinking! Part One

Last week a young mom called me, wondering whether she should move her 8-year-old son into another school district. “He’s happy enough so far, but I’m not sure he’s learning anything”. I’ve heard this concern many times, though people express it in different ways. One father said to me, about his son’s school, “That school sucks. He still don’t know s—t”.

This is one of the most common worries I hear from parents, and on the face of it, it sounds like such a reasonable and apt concern. Naturally when we send our kids to school, we want them to learn things, right? But when you scratch the surface, it’s not so clear what they’re after. I always want to ask parents, “What exactly do you want her to learn?” Do they mean they want their children to come home knowing new facts, and if so, will any body of information do, or only particular kinds? Do they want their children to have mastered specific skills (solving algebraic equations, for instance, or parsing a sentence)? Do they want their children to have lots of paperwork to show for their efforts?

Up until a few years ago, if pressed on what they wanted their children to learn, most US parents  would have said something like, “how to read”, “the history of our country”, “basic arithmetic” or, more grandly “prepare for college” or “critical thinking”. In other words, they would have concentrated on academic achievements. But that is changing.

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In the past few years, educators and researchers have turned their attention towards a somewhat different set of educational goals: grit, self-regulation, kindness, and moral thinking. Researchers are finding that controlling emotions, staying focused, sustained effort, and even getting along with others, are not only valuable abilities in their own right, they are essential ingredients in academic success. Children who can resist temptation, ignore distractions, practice difficult things, and avoid conflict with other children also get better grades, are more likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to go to college. Equally important, children who get better at these things seem to get better academically. I am all for these “non-academic” virtues, or capacities. And I absolutely believe that schools bear some responsibility for ensuring that children acquire them. Studies are showing that schools can help students can get better at cooperation, self-discipline, and trying hard.

Somewhere between the old focus on academics, and the new focus on social and emotional learning, we’ve lost something essential. Let’s not abandon the role classrooms can play in teaching children to think, which isn’t the same as academics or social-emotional learning. When it comes to thinking itself, schools play a central role.

Psychologists have made great strides in identifying the specific cognitive processes that underlie complex, deliberative thinking- the kind of thinking that allows us to teach ourselves something knew, invent, solve problems, engage in the fruitful exchange of ideas, and make difficult decisions.

 A growing body of research shows that children as young as three are ready to begin learning the cognitive dispositions that enable us to become deliberative, analytical skeptics- in other words, how to be good thinkers. For instance, Melissa Koenig has shown that three year-old children are more likely to trust information from an adult, when that adult has been right in the past. Four-year-olds understand that there are different kinds of thinking required for different situations, and that it is valuable to think about how something might have been, under different circumstances. The fledgling capacities that underlie what we think of as “educated thinking” are there in the young child, waiting to be deepened and expanded upon, through the educational process. However, schools have a ways to go at figuring out what teachers should do to make sure that deepening and expansion happens. Children in most US schools spend too little time in their classrooms learning how to think. 

When your child comes home from school, and you ask him what he did that day, it’s great if he tells you the kids met in a circle to talk about getting along, or that they worked in teams and each kid was responsible for helping the group succeed. It’s also great if your daughter tells you she learned all about the civil war, or the order of operations. But none of those activities will necessarily teach your child how to think. To learn how to think, children need to be asked to think about complex things. And they need to have opportunities to think in certain ways.

You should hear signs that your daughter had to articulate an opinion, and support it with evidence. That she had the opportunity to challenge someone else’s opinion, by questioning their evidence or logic. Your son should come home reporting that he had to choose between different sources of information. You should get the sense that classroom time was spent in real debates and discussions about serious topics, and that he has to learn from what other children say, as well as teach them things he knows a lot about. Your children should have chances to explore complex domains without a roadmap (for instance, a work sheet, or instructions from the teacher). Your daughter should be asked to revise her question until it’s a really good question, given time to find an answer to the question, and then encouraged to decide whether she’s satisfied with the answer, or wants to know more.

The activities that lead to educated thinking are not necessarily the same ones that lead to good test scores on the one hand, or kindness and self-discipline on the other. What we really need to work on in schools is finding a way to put the development of good thinking at the center of the educational process. In my next blog, I’m going to give some specific examples of how this looks in real classrooms.

Susan Engel, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist who teaches at Williams College and studies how children think, play, and learn.

 
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