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Natàlia Perarnau: What if we asked children to think for themselves?

Have you ever heard that being able to ask good questions is more important that being able to give good answers? I think that even though it seems unlikely, this assertion makes a lot of sense, and I would like to analyse it more.

In the context of my blog posts, this sentence made me think about how we start conversations with our children when they are young in order to cultivate and promote communication. Being adept at asking our children questions can generate conversations, reflections and confidences. However, being non-adept can lead us to dead ends of monosyllabic answers, or getting no further than a resounding yes or no. Today, though, I don't want to talk about how to make communication flow better. Instead, I would like to focus on how to light the spark of critical thinking in our children.

Some years ago, during a family holiday, we met a woman from the US who was travelling with her two children. At the time, our country was feeling the full weight of one of the worst recessions in history. The mother of two - a ten-year-old and a fourteen-year-old - wanted to know what impact we thought the recession was having. As we talked, it struck me that while my own children - of a similar age to hers - did not join in with the conversation, hers actively took part despite their young age. It was obvious that those children had received a different kind of stimulus to mine, which had sparked their ability to think critically and voice their opinion. During a second conversation, when I was more focused on the mother's strategies than the topic of conversation at hand, I pinpointed her technique. She would stop the conversation quite often, turn to her children and ask, “What about you? What do you think about what they’re saying?” The children could not let their guard down for an instant, and they listened attentively, processing the information, knowing that at some point they would hear the magic question. This realisation gave me food for thought, not only regarding how we stimulate critical thinking at home but also in how this is achieved in our education system.

I have spent a number of years working as an English teacher and I have noted that young people here have little enthusiasm and few means to express their opinion beyond banal subject matters. I had always thought it was normal, given their age and relative immaturity. But with time and experience, I have seen that this is not the case. Our education system suffers systemic shortcomings in that it does not spark children to think. It is clearly a one-way system, where (in most cases) the teacher gives and the student receives. When studying the Catholic Monarchs at school, I doubt there are many teachers who ask their students their views on what the Catholic Monarchs did, or if they can see any similarities with the current situation, or if the Catholic Monarchs’ political decisions might have had an impact on life today. I would be pleasantly surprised if they did.

I know there are educational systems in Europe where subjects like RE (Religious Education), which some might consider a 'light' subject, are given a lot of importance in the curriculum. One might be led to believe that this is because they are particularly religious countries or schools, but it is not so. In these cases, the schools teach students about two or three different religions, for example, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism; and children learn about the guiding principles of each one. The test, and ultimately the challenge, consists not of regurgitating information learned off by heart but of resolving a fictitious situation or conflict from the point of view of each religion. In this case, there is no right or wrong answer, as long as the student is able to justify the decision they have made by putting themselves in the position of someone of a particular faith. Looked at in this way, it is obvious that RE takes on a new dimension because, besides making the students think and interpret, it also helps them to empathise and be more open.

To conclude this post and prompt you to think a bit more about the importance of promoting critical thinking both at home and at school, I will leave you with some words I heard at a conference a few days ago, "Anyone who does not think is at high risk of their job being taken over by a robot." What do you think about all of this?

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