Technology and Critical Thinking: How Do We Keep Young Minds Engaged?

We are sitting around the dinner table and a question comes up. Who won the World Series last year? What is the most populated state in America? Is a cucumber a fruit or vegetable?

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Instead of using our brains, we all whip out our handy devices and ask Siri, Alexa or Google to find the answers for us. On the one hand, it is incredible that we can instantaneously find the answer to just about any question that pops into our head. On the other hand, we no longer have to remember anything or spend time analyzing information because all the answers can be found with the click of a button or through voice recognition.

How will kids ever learn to retain information and connect the dots if technology rapidly provides all the answers?

Psychology Today defines critical thinking as the “capacity to reflect, reason and draw conclusions based on our experiences, knowledge and insights.” Our children depend on this skill to communicate, create, build and progress. Critical thinking is a complex process that combines a number of tactics including observing, learning, remembering, questioning, judging, evaluating, innovating, imagining, arguing, synthesizing, deciding and acting. We use critical skills every single day to make good decisions, understand the consequences of our actions and solve problems.

Now that technology has infiltrated our children’s lives, critical thinking skills are harder to achieve. However, our children still need to be able to think critically even with all the gadgets that they can rely on. From solving puzzles to deciding when to cross the street to eventually competing in the job market for positions in science, engineering, health, social sciences and other fields will require well-developed critical thinking skills.

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For years, experts have been evaluating the impact of technology on critical thinking skills. According to Patricia Greenfield, UCLA professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, children’s critical thinking skills are getting worse while their visual skills are improving. She analyzed more than 50 studies on learning and technology, including research on multitasking and the use of computers, the internet and video games. She found that real-time visual media do not allow for reflection, analysis or imagination.

In addition, reading for pleasure has declined among children and teens in recent decades, which is a concern because reading enhances imagination, reflection and critical thinking in a way that visual media like video games and television do not.

Terry Heick, a former English teacher in Kentucky, explained to NPR that his eighth- and ninth-grade students immediately turn to Google for answers. They then report back what they find practically word for word, without thinking through the research. He wanted his students to take time to assess the information they needed, determine how to evaluate the data, and then address any conflicts they found. Instead, this new “search and find” process completely eliminated any need for critical thinking.

Finally, a study in the journal Science showed that when people know they have future access to information, they no longer need to recall or analyze it. Our children’s ability to expand their memory is greatly impacted by all of this technology, which affects their thinking skills.

We are all in big trouble if our children lose the ability to think critically. It is up to us to help them develop a critical mindset throughout their childhood. By instilling critical thinking skills from an early age, we will teach our kids how to effectively analyze the world around them. Here are some ways that you can enhance your children’s critical thinking skills at home.

Read books for fun

Read with your children daily and discuss the material with them in ways that will challenge them to think critically. See if they can make connections between the story and their own life. Ask them to use what they have read so far to predict what will happen next. Have them summarize the key points of the story or chapter so they can determine what is most important. What roles did each character play and how do they relate to them? All of this practice with fun stories will help them analyze more challenging pieces of literature, both fiction and non-fiction, as they get older.

Explore science

Science experiments and other related activities are fantastic ways to teach children how to think critically because they need to make predictions, evaluate data and then interpret the scientific facts and findings to relate them to the world around them.

Show them how to answer their own questions and evaluate information

Young children have tons of questions. Take advantage of their curiosity to teach them how to look for answers to their questions in a critical way. If they ask how something works, take a trip to the library and find books, magazines, videos and other resources on that topic. Provide opportunities for them to speak to people who can give them direct answers. For example, if they want to know what a fireman does, schedule a trip to the local fire station so your child can learn firsthand how everything works. When your children are doing research online, sit with them and help them find reliable sources. Also, show them the difference between evidence-based information and opinions.

Build problem-solving skills

When dealing with conflicts, our children need to use critical thinking skills to understand the problem at hand and to come up with possible solutions. Use games, puzzles, riddles, mystery novels, physical challenges and other activities to teach them problem solving skills.

Force them to memorize basic information

In order to exercise your kid’s memory muscle, you can go a bit retro on them. Make sure they know some basic facts by heart like their address and important phone numbers. As they get older, continue to add more facts to this list like relatives’ birthdays, math equations, state capitals and American presidents. Also, see if they can give directions from home to school and other places you frequent.

Feynman School: Ask Open-Ended Questions

by Jarrad Saffren

How do you get kids to think critically? Make them ponder long, hard and creatively about the answer to a question, says Stephen Harris, a middle school STEM teacher at the Feynman School in Potomac.

Some of Harris’ eighth graders, for example, are learning about biology and viruses. So he asks, “Are viruses alive?” It sounds like a yes or no, but really, the answer is complicated. It requires research on the virus and a consideration of the meaning of life. Then, students have to write papers offering up their detailed opinions.

“One of the things that I find very helpful is giving open-ended problems with multiple solutions,” Harris says. “I usually find that kids will rise to the occasion, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the work they do.”

Harris says that when you motivate kids to think, instead of to regurgitate information, they become more energetic about learning. And, as a result, their brains start working faster and in more creative ways. Parents can do this just like teachers do.

“Anytime you can actively engage your child’s brain, it’s a good thing,” Harris explains.


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