The child moved from a cursory sense that he likes Cyrano to a more nuanced understanding of why, which will aid him in classroom discussion and in writing that essay he has to write.
DON’T LET THEM JUST “DO SCHOOL”
As Denise Pope outlined in “Doing School,” kids today have tremendous pressure to simply get the work done—to “do school”—rather than to learn. They learn to do tasks, to produce every element the teacher wants to see in a five-paragraph essay, or to memorize every term in bio and every formula in math. They think their next task is to get into certain schools in order to be a success in life, and this mindset often then extends to career and professional pursuits.
I called up Jeff Brenzel, dean of admission at Yale, to ask him what he was seeing by way of “doing school” versus freethinking in his undergraduates. 12 “I see a continuing tendency in some to play it safe, to view what they’re doing here as a kind of career-building step. It leads them to a perfectionism and a reluctance to experiment, fail, or rebel, and actually serves them poorly in the long haul. I suspect that twenty years down the road they’ll be having midlife crises, feeling they were in a straitjacket. Failure to recognize that an education has to be seized rather than delivered to you is the harm that’s really done.”
I saw and heard about this mentality at Stanford, too, where students had difficulty contending with the open-ended and the uncertain and just wanted to continue in the manner to which they had grown accustomed, which was to be very good at delivering on what they were told to do. A faculty member in Stanford’s equivalent of freshman English told me of what is now a common scenario in her field—handing a paper back to student scrawled with feedback— say more; how do you know?; what’s the motivation here?; and then what—to which undergraduates plaintively plead, “I don’t know what you want. Just tell me what you want me to SAY.”
On the other side of campus—engineering—John Barton, director of the architectural design program within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, sees a similar dynamic playing out. 13 Barton teaches an introductory drawing course (an architect needs engineering skills but also needs to know how to draw) and many students approach him wide-eyed, worried that they don’t have the skills even to begin. “They say they had never had a drawing course in their life. I see this regularly now.”
Students tell Barton things like, “Well, I knew that I wanted to get into a really good university and I took as many AP courses as I could. And yes, my school had an art requirement, but not at an AP level and I fulfilled it by being in the jazz band, a student play, or some such approach that shows better on college application. Further, my mom and dad did not want me wasting my time in soft subjects. They took away from one more AP course.”
Barton paints a scene for his students of what learning looks like in high school. He says, “When you took AP chemistry, I would guess the teacher told you that you needed 95 points for an A and valued every assignment and test. Further, he/she gave a possible 120 points if you came in early and helped set up the lab or stayed late to wash beakers. Thus you could do C work and still get an A in the class. Further, all tests were scantron forms with no essays or explanatory elements and your lab reports were on a form outlined by the instructor.” His students look at him like he had been in their class alongside them, and they all nod their heads yes.
Then Barton tells his students how his class will be different: “I tell them accuracy and exactness are not important but process and reflection are. That I expect them to break the rules and to climb up to the highest branch and saw it off behind them. I tell them that risk and open-ended problems are what we do in design. Design is a problem-solving methodology not a ‘task’ and this will be hard because they have only had tasks so far in their education. Because they are Stanford students they do not freak out, but the stress level rises. But this is what they thirst for and they then embrace it. It takes a little time for them to stop asking if they can do X. My response is either ‘ask for forgiveness not permission’ or ‘can you?’ By week five some group of students will answer for me with one of those responses. That is when I know I have brought them to the human side of education.”
Barton isn’t letting his students “do school.” He’s teaching them to think. But with some he has quite an uphill battle.
TEACH THEM TO PERSIST AT THINKING
Of all the things that comprise our kids’ lives, their academic pursuits and progress seem to be the most intense crucible, and the present methods and approaches to teaching children emphasize memorizing and regurgitating information and getting good grades on homework, exams, and standardized tests. Often we meet their positive results with comments like “You’re so smart!” But research shows that such feedback from parents actually undermines academic success rather than enhances it.
Stanford psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck is the internationally recognized pioneer of the concept of “growth mindset” as a way to continually grow, learn, and persevere in our efforts. 14 Dweck found that kids who are told they’re “smart” actually underperform in subsequent tasks, by choosing easier tasks to avoid evidence that they are not smart, which Dweck calls having a “fixed mindset.” In contrast, Dweck found, kids who are praised not for their smarts but for their effort—with praise specific to the effort made, and not overblown—develop what Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” They learn that their effort is what led to their success, and if they continue to try, over time they’ll improve and achieve more things. These kids end up taking on tougher things, and feel better about themselves. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” Dweck has explained. 15 “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” 16
Dweck’s website, mindsetonline.com, teaches a step-by-step approach to developing “growth mindset.” 15 She says, “How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.” A growth mindset is all about being motivated to persist at figuring things out and it leads to better critical thinking.
TEACH THEM TO THINK ABOUT MORE THAN THEMSELVES
A kid’s academic and extracurricular lives and personal matters seem to be all there’s time to think about these days. But you can also develop critical thinking in kids by talking about what’s going on in the world around them and encouraging them to form an opinion about things.
Educators and psychologists have a mantra these days: No matter how hectic the schedules of your family members may be, make time to have dinner together. Research shows that family dinners help kids feel they matter to the parent, and as a result they have a positive impact on kids’ mental health and lead to greater self-esteem and greater academic achievement. In addition to talking to our kids about their day or their lives, talking to them about current events scales the level of critical thinking up a level—to a level of theoretical challenge, to a degree of interest in the world around them, and to a degree of humility about what they don’t yet know. It makes them hungry to know more.
Once your kid is in elementary school, they can express opinions and be challenged as to what they believe. You get to decide which issues are appropriate topics for your family, given your interests, beliefs, values, and the ages of your children. Here is how you can engage in a conversation about current events so as to develop stronger thinking skills in your kid.
1. Come up with a topic about which there are different perspectives.
could be from a book you’ve read, a movie you’ve seen, a television show you watch as a family, a school policy, an issue in your local newspaper, or a topic with which the local PTA or school board is concerned. As long as there are at least a few differing, reasonable perspectives, the conversation will work. Present the issue at an age-appropriate level, erring on the side of what your elementary schooler can stretch to understand.
2. Ask your kid what they think.
Ask what they think about the topic, and why they think what they think. On what values or prior assumptions do they base their opinions? What do they think would happen if their perspective did not win out? What would be the consequences? Why would things be better if their perspective did win out?
3. Play devil’s advocate.
Whichever “side” your kid took, now it’s your turn to play devil’s advocate. This means you express the counter opinion, in about the same amount of words your kid used to express their opinion. Tell why this is the better point of view, on what values or assumptions you base this opinion, and the consequences of your view being adhered to or not. Be encouraging and playful, not demanding or overly critical.
4. Encourage your kid to respond to your point of view.
Encourage them to come up with a reason they didn’t state when they presented the issue first time around. Gauge your kid’s readiness and willingness to engage in this intellectual banter and don’t push it beyond their comfort zone. (I know some grown women whose father—a lawyer—pushed them to the point of tears in dinner table conversations where they had to defend their point of view. Don’t go that far!)
5. FOR THE ADVANCED: Switch sides.
Now start over, reversing roles, and see if your kid can articulate the argument and values underlying the perspective that is against their original point of view. Or start with a new topic and when your kid says what they initially think, stop them and challenge them to start arguing from the other point of view.
Having family dinner conversation about events in the world isn’t just a great way to achieve stimulating dinner conversations in your house each night. In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley explains that around the world the kids whose parents engaged them in conversation about books, movies, and current events scored better on the reading portion of the international PISA test.
LET THEM SPEAK UP FOR THEMSELVES
In an earlier chapter (Chapter 3, “Being There for Them”), I included a vignette about a Stanford freshman who came with his parents to talk to me about doing research while at Stanford. In our meeting, the parents did all of the talking, even though I posed questions directly to the kid and redirected my eye contact to him as often as possible. At the end of our twenty-minute conversation, I couldn’t tell what, if anything, the kid was thinking about the matter, or whether he was interested in doing research at all. It was just clear that his parents were very interested in the topic.
My daughter, Avery, told me a story from the sixth grade, when she’d been selected to be in the group of students who would show visiting fifth graders around the middle school. Instead of letting the sixth graders speak to the fifth graders, however, the teacher involved in the effort ended up doing all of the talking. Then he turned to the sixth graders standing beside him to see if they had anything to add. They didn’t—except that he’d gotten the location of the library wrong, as it would be moved before the fifth graders arrived and they’d been instructed to discuss its new location. Avery and her friends just stood there, smiling, trying to look responsible and important, but feeling instead like idiots. What was the teacher so afraid would happen if he’d let the sixth graders actually speak for themselves?
We have to get out of our kid’s way and let them speak up for themselves in the world. Here are my thoughts as to how.
1. Value it. Your child needs to be able to think for themselves and to be able to initiate and respond to conversation with the people they’ll meet. Whether it’s exciting news to share, an explanation of their interests or desires, or a problem that needs to be raised, your kids will need to be able to handle these things completely by themselves one day, and childhood is meant to offer practice.
2. Make a goal for yourself. Decide that you will let your child speak for himor herself whenever possible, and increasingly so as they—and you—gain confidence in their abilities. Every time you succeed, you’re telling your child you believe in their capacity to think for themselves.
3. Practice it. When you know your kid is going to be talking to an adult about something—say, the coach of their team, or the leader of a camp at which they’d like to work—let them know in advance that you want them to do the talking, that you know they can handle it, and that you’ll be there to fill in any information they don’t have. Teachers, store clerks, dance teachers, and coaches alike love when a child can come to them with a question, idea, or concern. Let your child see the joy on the face of the adult with whom they’re talking. Caveat: You know your kid best—if your kid is introverted or shy, they may welcome your doing the heavy lifting for them, and if they have special needs, they may need you to do so. But even if you’re speaking for your kid, be mindful that you are not them and are not literally able to speak for them. You can say, “Jasmine told me she’s feeling…” or “Jordan told me he’s interested in…”
4. Resist, resist, resist! Instead of nudging them to speak or whispering in their ear, resist the urge to step in. Give them the chance to do it for themselves. At a store, or with an instructor or coach, you might even physically hang back and avoid eye contact so that it’s clear to the adult that your child will be doing the talking.
5. Add your thoughts when necessary. Until they are grown, chances are you will always know more than they do about a subject, and you will always have your own opinion and thoughts on the matter. Your thoughts matter, but as additions to whatever your child wants to say, not instead of. Like a good manager in the workplace, let the junior person in the room (your kid) speak first, then support what they’ve said, adding only what you feel is essential. This empowers them.
THEIR THINKING, THEIR LIFE
Every Friday afternoon at Stanford I held office hours where, in thirty-minute increments over the course of three hours, I’d hear from students who wanted advice about academic and personal matters, such as the choice of major or grad school, a set of competing summer opportunities, or which classes or activities to drop in order to have a bit more breathing room or to pursue other things. Whatever their question, I’d respond with questions of my own, such as, “Why do you think you want this versus that?” “How will your long-term plans be impacted, and why?” “What would you lose if you didn’t do that, and why?” “What would you do if you could do whatever you wanted, and why?” By inquiring further in various ways, multiple times, I peeled back the layers surrounding my students’ question. I was conducting the kind of continual questioning critical dialogue we discussed earlier in this chapter.
Sure, I had my opinions on the various matters my students presented to me, but it wasn’t my job to come up with answers. My job was to ask a student good questions that opened her further to her self. I’d try to tease out the values underlying her ideas, her sense of her own strengths and areas for development, and her fears and her dreams. Then I’d help her interrogate the choices available in light of what she knew of her self. I was teaching her to develop a rationale for the choice she would ultimately make, rather than letting her fall back on the advice from an authority figure (me) or the rationale that she “should” do such and such because “everyone else is” or because “it’s expected that I will,” which often tumbles out of the mouths of young adults. It was both humbling and exciting to be in the presence of a human unfolding, thinking for herself, figuring things out.
In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley writes about the dismal level of critical thinking ability in American teenagers, but she also reported on the various pockets around our country where better teaching and learning occurs, and students score extremely high on the PISA. Ripley concludes with optimism: “Without a doubt, American teenagers can perform at the top of the world on a sophisticated test of critical thinking.” 17 Through better teaching and better parenting, we can give them the chance.