Thinking is skilled work.  It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically – without learning how, or without practicing. ( A.E. Mander)

            Before sharing the questions that spark critical thinking and discussion, I think it is reasonable to discuss why critical thinking is so important and why we should encourage and develop this important skill.  Critical thinking is so much more than rote learning.  When our kids start school there is the teaching of material that is simply to be remembered and easily repeated back. This is rote learning.   Examples of rote learning are learning the alphabet and numbers.  Later in high school rote learning may be the memorization of the periodic elements.  Rote learning is necessary for higher order learning to take place. Consider rote learning the basic filing system of material that can be easily accessed allowing the brain to make leaps in higher learning and eventually for critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a deliberate and systematic method to analyze, examine, evaluate, and use problem-solving skills to question, theorize, and rationalize information in order to have a deeper understanding of the information in question. Simply, critical thinking allows teenagers to analyze and assess the validity of the information they are presented.  With today’s rapidly evolving information technology and staggering amount of data that is constantly being presented, it is important to develop critical thinking skills. 

As teenagers mature so do their brains. Therefore their ability for metacognition and critical thinking also develop and become more complex.  However, it is important as the adults in their lives, we encourage and help foster the development of critical thinking skills in teenagers.  Critical thinking is a tool that should be used to make important decisions or solve difficult problems.  It is easy to begin with simple scenarios as your teenager encounters them allowing for the acquisition of the process of critical thinking, a series of steps help provide the framework in which critical thinking is accomplished.

Step One.  Gain knowledge of the problem.  Ask questions and gain a clear understanding of what the problem is. Identify the problem.

Step Two.  Understand the problem.  Know the situation and the facts aligned with the problem.  Collect data from various sources.  Make sure to consider the validity and integrity of the source.  Teenagers are often caught in the moment.  For example the problem is Mr. D is the worst algebra teacher, after asking for facts, it is uncovered the problem has no validity and the critical thinking can stop here.  Or it may need to move on.

Step Three.  Analyze the problem with the information obtained. The strong points, the weak points and the challenges faced with possible solutions.  List all possible solutions and possible pitfalls and if needed a solution to those pitfalls.

Step Four. Take Action.  Implement the solution that has been decided upon.  Be aware that with any solution something can go wrong and re-evaluation or an alternate plan may be required.  It is the ability to maintain calm and realize that options exist to create success and solve the problem.

Step Five Evaluate the outcome of the plan and choices made.  One of my favorite questions to ask when evaluating any situation to spark critical thinking is “what have you learned from this experience?”  “What would you do differently next time?” 

Now, how do you implement this process when you are having a conversation with your teenager?  I have two questions I ask, depending on what the request is or the situation presented. 

 Question One. What is your plan for…….?  I find that in this sentence I define the problem for the teenager.  It is also the opportunity to correct my understanding of what the problem is, incase I have not understood the request. 

An example is always easier.  Your teenager asks to spend the weekend at a friend’s house and has shared with you that they will make sure that all their homework is done.

What is your plan for completing your homework? I am not sure I understand how you will accomplish all your homework.  Here you can now use the critical thinking steps to work toward a solution.

Question Two. How will you……….?  Again, this question sparks the discussion and use of the critical thinking steps to work through a problem.

An example, your teenager has done poorly on an exam and has a failing grade in that subject now.

How will you change your grade from an F to a B?  Here begins the critical thinking process of how the teenager will take responsibility and find the intrinsic motivation to correct the situation.

These two questions help spark critical thinking and discussion.  There are many other questions that can be used.  Find words that work for you. Remember as parents, you have the responsibility of teaching your teenager critical thinking skills that will be necessary throughout their lives. 

Further reading.

This article was written in 2018 and focuses on academics but can be applied to personal situations as well.  By Nilson, L.B. (2018).

Dr. Linda B. Nilson recently retired from Clemson University, where she was the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation. Her books include Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills (Stylus, 2013) and Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (Jossey-Bass, 2010).