Why our children’s ability to think deeply is suffering

I want to chat about thinking. When I explore my building block about life skills (from my 10 resilience building blocks model, which my book, Real Kids in an Unreal World: Building resilience and self esteem in today’s children, is based on), I mention the life skill of thinking. That may seem a bit weird because we are always thinking. However I have found in the changing landscape of parenting – with its busyness, its consumer pressures, the tsunami of screens and technology, its wariness of outside time in nature and the hunger of today’s children to be constantly entertained – I am concerned that our children’s ability to think deeply, problem solve, to be imaginative and creative, is suffering. The hunger for benchmark testing, and teaching to tests is also an enormous thief of our children’s time to think.

Scientist Professor Susan Greenfield is also concerned that today’s world has become fun focused and the times for children to have moments of pondering or absorbed play have largely disappeared. She believes that with it has also gone opportunities for “some cerebral light flashes that occur as you start to see one thing in terms of something else and place an event or behaviour in a new, wider context … the appreciation and savouring of meaning”. (Greenfield, ID: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century, London: Sceptre, 2008).

I share her concerns. Almost 40 years ago, when I began teaching, I was equally as fascinated about thinking. I explored Edward De Bono’s books that were in print at the time – a long time before his six thinking hats approach! One of the books I enjoyed immensely was called Children Solve Problems. From memory De Bono gave the same problem-solving tasks to five-year-olds, adolescents and older adults and found that the most creative solutions were from the five-year-olds. In the original book, one of the problems to solve was how to stop cats and dogs from fighting. One creative five-year-old suggested that if you put dog food on the cat’s tail, the dog would lick the cat’s tail rather than bite it. How creative and simple! Apparently De Bono believes that today’s five-year-olds are nowhere near as creative at problem solving as they were before the massive expansion of entertainment with screens. (He certainly has been widely quoted as saying social media makes us lazy and stupid).

I once received an email from a professor of engineering at an Australian university who shared my concern of the push down of formalised learning into the early years. He emailed me to tell me that that year was the first cohort of students to come through who had been a part of NAPLAN, the national benchmark testing system. He shared my concerns about the unintended effects of teaching to a test because the students, who were a product of this new system, came into engineering with what he said was a very noticeable drop in their capacity to problem solve and think creatively. Many of these students were struggling because the answers were not in the back of the book.

When I was an English teacher I was concerned at times with senior students who found it difficult to make a commitment to a key issue like what they would need to write about in their final exams. It was not that these students were intellectually challenged, they simply did not have the thinking skills to be able to question, consider, ponder and then make a commitment to a certain viewpoint. They all seemed to want to sit on the fence.

Thanks to Edward De Bono I introduced several of his thinking processes including PMI (the Plus, Minus, Interesting tool which helps decision-making), OPV (other people’s views) and other lateral thinking processes. I immediately noticed an increase in confidence in my students and drastically improved grades in their written assessments.

There is research to show that if parents create environments where children are able to share in conversations, and their opinions are valued and they are heard, they do better academically, socially and emotionally. I am sure that what is really happening in these homes is that children are encouraged to think and their thoughts, and ideas are respected, which then encourages them to think more.

I am a huge fan of the work of Lynne Hinton, a former principal at Buranda State School. Lynne transformed this struggling school until she had to turn potential students away each year. How did she do this? She introduced the teaching of philosophy from kindergarten all the way through to Year 7. And yes the benefits were on all levels and Lynne went on to win multiple accolades for her innovative work. Click here to listen to a fascinating interview with Lynne and Richard Fidler from Conversations on ABC radio. Lynne went on to co-author an excellent book for teachers, Philosophy with Children: A Classroom Handbook (Australian Curriculum Studies Association, 2007) and in 2013 she co-authored Philosophy and Ethical Inquiry for the Middle Years and Beyond. These books would also be really helpful to interested parents.

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So what is philosophy for children and why is it important? Essentially, guiding children to think, to reflect, to listen, to question are all key elements in teaching children philosophy. However, when it is conducted in a mindful way there are so many other benefits that children can gain.

The following information comes from the philosophy4 children site in the UK: (http://www.philosophy4children.co.uk/home/p4c/)

Benefits for Children

An enquiry based approach to open up children’s learning through the exploration of ideas.

  • Gives children the possibility of seeing that their ideas have value, and that others have different ideas that have value too.
  • They realise that they don’t always have to be right.
  • They have the confidence to ask questions and learn through discussion.
  • All learners (including teachers) have opportunities to genuinely enquire.
  • A chance to speak and be heard without fear of getting an answer wrong.
  • Intelligence grows.
  • Gives children who are not considered academic a voice and a chance to flourish.
  • Gives the academic children a chance to think outside the box and to see that the non-academic have inspiring ideas.
  • Gives all children value.

What does a session entail?

  • A structured session.
  • Starts with a stimulus.
  • Children are encouraged to draw on their imagination to ask a question based on wonderment (I wonder why?).
  • Children make a collective decision on the question they are most interested in.
  • The discussion starts but is then not contained. It follows its own path guided by the children’s thoughts and ideas, agreeing and disagreeing, but always giving a reason for their point of view.

Outcomes for children

  • To learn to think before they speak and give reasons for what they say.
  • To value their views and the views of others.
  • Not taking things personally.
  • To learn respect and negotiation.
  • To learn not to be fearful.

Other outcomes beyond Philosophy for Children

  • Impact on other areas of the curriculum.
  • Lots of ideas for creative writing.
  • Creates an enquiring classroom in all areas of the curriculum.
  • Affects personal skills, and behaviour in the playground.
  • Develops skills necessary for positions of responsibility (school council, worship leaders etc).
  • Listening and reasoning skills.
  • Independence.

In a way I think the need to bring this sort of approach into our early years learning environments is more important now than ever before with the increased testing. Children pick up quite early whether they are smart or dumb or good or bad, as explored by Dr Carol Dweck in her book Mindset. Imagine a child who struggles to write sentences, and yet can think creatively and express themselves well verbally – they will not see themselves as dumb or incompetent. One of the wisest students I ever taught was completely illiterate. He was like a philosopher at 13 and we all deeply respected him in our class.

If you’re interested in how you could improve thinking in your classroom or home please consider exploring Dr Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s Habits of Mind.

My friend Karen Boyes from Spectrum Education (NZ) is an awesome trainer in this model.

A good start to opening up our children’s thinking skills is to simply pause more often with your young children and allow time to ponder and ask them questions. Often if you answer their questions with another question, it draws them out (not every time or they get really crabby!) Allow your children to solve the problems that happen day by day – “How are you going to clean up this mess?” “How can we work out a fair way to deal with a situation when you both want the same toy?” Give them choices and respect that we don’t always agree.

I believe teaching our children to be effective thinkers, problem solvers and creative engineers will help them on all levels especially emotionally, cognitively and socially and it will build their resilience at the same time. I also believe it will improve self-regulation and that has to be a winner for every child!