Young Minds

Helping children thrive at home and in the classroom

Letting Children Think

What it looks like when classrooms encourage children to think

In June I wrote a Blog Entry about encouraging children to think at school. It sounds so obvious- isn’t that what everyone has been doing all along? But if you take a close look at what children do, hour to hour, day to day, in many schools, very little of it demands any kind of deep or sustained intellectual work. Of course from a psychological perspective we are all thinking, all of the time- making moment to moment decisions and calculations, choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore, remembering some information and letting most information pass us by, etc. But schools can and should be helping children with the more deliberative thinking that Kahneman describes in his new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the kind of thinking rational informed people engage in when faced with complex problems. It's the kind of thinking that people only do under certain circumstances.

If you walk into a classroom, what signs should you look for that it’s a place where your child will learn to think? Here are two examples.

  1. Children should work with messy, complex materials. I observed one first grade classroom where the teacher offered each pair of students some gooey mud taken from a nearby pond, a sieve, a magnifying glass and a paper and pencil. The only instruction he gave the students was to make a list of everything they found in the mud. There was no worksheet to fill out, and no instructions about how to look through the mud. Instead, after they all had some time to explore the materials, he asked each pair to report how they had proceeded and what they had found. The children were excited by the materials, and eager to play with them. Note this teacher knew that having fun and playing was essential to their learning, rather than a distraction. He also clearly counted on the way in which they would learn from what the other pairs had done and found. By the end of the activity, they hadn’t learned anything that could help them on the MCAS (this class occurred in a public school in Massachusetts). But they had done what scientists do- observe, tinker, try things out, and make note of what the data could tell them.  They had to think about how to get information from the material in front of them, and they had to think about what they were finding. At the end of the activity he asked them to say what they would like to learn next. That may have been the most valuable part of the lesson, because he was asking the children to become autodidacts, to decide for themselves what questions needed answering.
  2. Invariably, classrooms where children are actually engaged in deliberative thinking look a little noisier and more chaotic than classrooms where all the children are efficiently learning something the teacher has planned from beginning to end. Because when children are asked to think, the teacher has to give up some control, not necessarily over the children’s behavior but over the way in which the lesson unfolds. This can, understandably, make teachers and parents wary. The results are not always immediately visible either.

Psychologists and educators should work on finding a way to track and measure this essential part of the the educational enterprise. If we can hold students and teachers accountable for addition, subtraction, spelling, and a five paragraph essay, we ought to find ways to hold them accountable for knowing the difference between a question that can be answered with data and one that cannot, how to figure out what to learn next, and how to reason through a complex and meaningful problem.

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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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