Asking Questions: Critical Thinking, an Essential Life Skill – Casa di Mir Montessori

Asking Questions: Critical Thinking, an Essential Life Skill

Primary teacher and student in a lessonYoung children ask the most wonderful questions! Their questions are windows into how their mind is working!  As adults, we can’t help but love the ease of agreeable, obedient children.  It is so comfortable!  At the same time, children can ask the most frustrating or confounding questions. Ultimately, we want our children to think for themselves, ask questions, reflect on their own values and needs, and make healthy choices. We want our children to grow up to be adults who can think critically and question the overwhelming input they will process in this digital age. Experiences your child has now can make a difference in their critical thinking skills.

So what is critical thinking and how do we support the development of this skill in our children?  At its core, critical thinking is the ongoing search for valid and reliable knowledge to guide our beliefs and actions. [1] Critical thinking draws on all the other executive functioning skills including focus, self-control, making connections, perspective-taking, and communicating.  “Critical thinking is the ability to step back and look at what you’re doing, to look at the dimensions of the task, and to evaluate.”[2]

“Critical thinking is closely related to reflection: instead of accepting one’s initial characterization of a situation, subjecting that characterization to a critique, stepping outside of that characterization, refusing to take it for granted that it’s sufficient and considering it in relation to other ways of thinking about the situation.  Reflection results in and makes critical thinking possible.”[3]

All this sounds pretty challenging when you are thinking about your young child.  Maria Montessori was very keen on supporting the child’s development of critical thinking.  Her materials invite questions and reflection. Her curriculum inspires curiosity and is actually based on the typical questions that will be asked at each age level.  She advised teachers and parents to stay within the amazing wonders of the natural, real-world, allowing children to inquire into such realities.  She did not want children to be subject to gullibility or accept notions passively. She further advised adults to stick to the real and avoid fantasies when working with the young child.

“Given the world, our children are inheriting—a world that is a whirlwind of change, awash in information—how do we help them become critical thinkers?  How do we help children know when to trust their own experiences and when to dig deeper, ask more questions, and test out more possibilities? How do we help them learn to discern which sources are reliable providers of information and which are not?”[4]  Here are five of the nine suggestions from Galinsky to support the development of critical thinking.

Suggestion 1: Watch your Child Forming Theories About How Things Work

Observe your children at play and see what they’re attempting to understand.  Play is the way that children often try out ideas.  We do it, too- but we do it by playing with ideas in our minds rather than acting them out, as children do.

Suggestion 2: Promote Your Child’s Curiosity

While children are born with a drive to understand – to be curious – this drive can be weakened or strengthened by what we do.  To promote children’s curiosity, be careful not to jump in too quickly to fix things they’re struggling with since working with the “confounding” situation is where critical thinking is promoted.  Instead, where possible, help them figure out how they can resolve it for themselves or ask questions about the situation that would help deepen the thinking.

Suggestion 3: Promote Your Children’s “Lemonade Stands”

“Lemonade stands” are those passions and interests your child shows you.  This pursuit of interest allows children to see how they can have many pieces of a puzzle and can take the time, focus, and reflection to put them all together in many different ways for a bigger picture.  Time to reflect on our own thinking is called “metacognition” or thinking about thinking.

Suggestion 4: Be a Good Model- Try to Provide Accurate and Valid Information to Your Children

We can model critical thinking by encouraging our children to ask questions and by responding with accurate information, always keeping in mind what they are ready to understand.  This includes looking up information through reliable sources when we don’t remember or know the answers.

Suggestion 5: Promote Critical Viewing Skills: Bring reflection into a normally passive intake of information.

When we watch television, dissect the ads, like film critics.  What is that commercial trying to sell? Why did the company choose this way of selling their product? Were they trying to use peer pressure, or sex or adventure, or humor to sell this product?  As far as the program goes, we can ask:

  • What was the content of the program? Can you remember the story, what happens, why?
  • Why is the program presented as it is?
  • How does a news channel that is liberal present a news story versus one that is more conservative?
  • How accurate or stereotypic is the presentation of the issue or a group of people?

Galinsky provides other suggestions.  Her book addresses essential skills for our children and is a great read.

Love your child’s questions. Model questioning. Use them as opportunities- windows into deeper places within your child’s thinking.  They can reflect wonder, curiosity, defiance- all necessary for the development of critical thinking!

Wanda Whitehead
Director of Education
Casa di Mir Montessori

[1] Ellen Galinsky. Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills That Every Child Needs. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, New York. 2010.

[2] Frank Keil, Yale University

[3] Philip David Zelazo, University of Minnesota

[4] Ellen Galinsky.

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