Critical thinking: Are you born with it or can you learn it?
Leaders in business and the armed services frequently ask, is critical thinking something we are born with or is it something that can be taught and learned? That question reminds me of basketball. I’ll tell why in a moment.
Children can develop critical thinking everyday
But first, you have to agree that we all can see some evidence in children, including preschoolers, of the development of critical thinking when they engage in their everyday problem solving and decision making. We notice that they are quick to learn which strategies work and which do not in various contexts and with various people. We adults may not approve of some of the strategies they use. And they learn that too.
There is no doubt that childhood is the time when critical thinking abilities and mental attributes begin to emerge. We see in children the ability to draw simple “if-then” conclusions, to evaluate choices, and to interpret what others are saying and feeling. We see attributes emerging, like persistence, inquisitiveness, and the development of a rudimentary sense that the child can figure things out if they just try a little harder – an attribute we call “confidence in reasoning.”
Guiding children toward stronger critical thinking
Critical thinking can take some big leaps forward in children if their parents and other adults guide them toward trying to solve their problems and to make decisions more thoughtfully. Teaching the how and why of things. Critical thinking can grow when children realize that they have to figure out how to cope for themselves with the everyday problems – skinned knees, boredom, bullies, and getting everyone to agree on the rules of whatever game they want to play. Some of those things may not seem like much to busy adults, but they are important to the kids — learning how to navigate childhood social interactions with ever more success both demands and develops critical thinking. That’s why doing everything for our kids is not an optimal parenting approach – we need to teach them to solve their own problems, which cannot be achieved if we take all their problems from them. Of course, formal schooling can help in the development of critical thinking if the teachers focus on how to analyze, to apply relevant criteria when making an evaluation, and how to explain our points of view using sound reasons and solid evidence.
Suppressing critical thinking
All three influences – parents / playground / classroom — can be negative as well as positive in some situations. Some adult interactions suppress critical thinking, for example when adults always refuse to give reasons or consistently belittle and stifle a child’s “Why?” questions. Some playground experiences reinforce more reactive and socially unacceptable responses than thoughtful ones – for example if a child learns that some version of “getting angry and tipping over the checkerboard” is a way to consistently avoid losing. And some methods of formal instruction — especially those that are based only on memorization, authority, and blind acceptance of dogma — suppress the natural tendencies we humans have to want to know the why and how of things and not just the what.
The hoops analogy:
Basketball is a game I like to coach and to play. Most of us can improve our shooting if we practice. Our shooting will deteriorate when we lay off too long. Whatever our skill level, decisions about how to compete more effectively are better if we reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. This enables us to make tactical adjustments in real time, and is often more effective than simply running our standard offense and defense even if they are not working. That is why age and guile often overcome youth and strength in pick-up games worldwide.
Pushing the analogy – a good coach can get the best out of each player individually and out of the team as whole. Everyone can improve their hoops skills. Yes, as all of us who love the game know, 99.999% of us will never be a Magic Johnson, a Lebron James, or a Michael Jordan. Nature sets broad limits, an upper and a lower. What we do within those limits is the reflecting-teaching-learning-and-practice part.
That’s true for hoops and for critical thinking.
Nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy. It’s both.
- To learn more download “Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts.”
- For more teaching and learning Resources
- For tools to develop and to assess critical thinking, contact Insight Assessment.
Dr. Peter A (Pete) Facione is a Senior Researcher at Insight Assessment and a principal at Measured Reasons LLC, a Los Angeles based research and consulting firm supporting excellence in strategic thinking and leadership decision making.