Critical Thinking Key to Learning

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), October 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking Key to Learning


Byline: Paul Bodin For The Register-Guard

When children in classrooms explore new ideas and develop new skills, does it follow that they know how to think critically about what they are learning? What does it mean to be a critical thinker?

Young children can become critical thinkers - indeed, they are eager to hone their skills. Yet current trends in education discourage the sharpening of students' abilities in this area. Administrators, teachers, parents and institutions of higher learning can all work to resist these trends.

This fall, I led a series of circle discussions in two regular fifth-grade classrooms in Eugene. We met together three days a week to wrestle with issues many people consider beyond the understanding of 10- and 11-year-olds: ethics, aesthetics, the nature of reality and truth, the role of government in society, and the nature of friendship.

One of our discussions began from a picture book story by Arnold Lobel, "Owl and the Moon." In this tale, Owl thinks the moon is his friend because it follows him wherever he goes.

"Can the moon be your friend?" I ask.

Jennifer: "I don't think the moon can be your friend because it's not alive. And it doesn't talk."

I paraphrase her remark. "So you're saying that a friend is a friend only if it's alive and has a voice."

Leon raises his hand. "The moon can be your friend." He pauses to consider the right words to explain his reasoning. "The moon lights up your bedroom so you don't have to be afraid of the dark. That's what friends do, they help you when you need it."

Myriad hands shoot up. The discussion shifts to more difficult questions. Can any inanimate object be your friend? Or are only humans capable of being friends? Can a house pet be your friend? Is a mountain a friend to a rock climber?

Justin's hand shoots up. "No, but it could be his enemy! If part of the mountain crumbles, then it's an enemy to the rock climber!"

I gently challenge Justin's idea. "But if a mountain can be an enemy when it crumbles, why couldn't it be the climber's friend when it holds him up?" Justin considers this possibility.

Soon the discussion turns towards everyday experiences involving friendship. The 28 children turn to face each other in pairs to discuss qualities found in a true friend.

A friend is kind, helpful. A friend never lies to you. A friend trusts you, and you trust her. A friend honors you, stands up for you. A friend laughs with you, not at you. A friend shares your interests and hobbies.

This last statement leads to another question.

"Is a friend a friend because he or she shares your interests and beliefs?"

Ten-year-old Sophie directs her comments to Andrew, who sits across from her in the circle. "You said that friends usually share the same interests. But does that mean they also have the same opinions? What if you and your friend both liked soccer, but you had different opinions about what teams are your favorites? Can you still be friends?"

The energy in the room rises and falls with the natural rhythms of group talk. …

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