Building Critical Thinking in Kids: 4 Proven Strategies

Critical thinking matters for academics, work and relationships. Here’s how to lay the foundations at home.

Prisma Staff
December 22, 2022

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

When it comes to problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking go hand in hand.

If we understand creativity as a mindset of “yes and,” we can consider critical thinking as, “yes but” — the ability to step back and take distance from the information presented to us, before interpreting it and drawing conclusions.

The importance of critical thinking can’t be overstated: As kids are bombarded with information from a young age — with new channels, platforms and media springing up regularly — they need to balance an open mind with healthy skepticism.

Yet a critical mindset is not enough.

Imagine you were suddenly dropped into a boardroom where they were presenting data on greenhouse gasses while trying to solve climate change. You couldn’t just use your critical thinking skills to make a decision. You would need to know about the science behind it, as well as the geopolitical dynamics that contribute to the problem.

In other words, you can’t teach critical thinking in a vacuum.

As with creativity, critical thinking requires a wide and deep interdisciplinary knowledge base in the topics that you care about. A child’s critical thinking skills must be honed specifically in areas such as media literacy, data literacy, and textual analysis. Just because you learn critical thinking in English doesn't mean you can apply it in science; while certain features are transferable, a child needs the opportunity to learn the important skills and techniques required by each discipline — and take their theoretical knowledge out for a spin in the real world.

What's Prisma?

  • Prisma is an accredited, project-based, online program for kids in grades 4-12.
  • We exist to ignite a lifelong love of learning and prepare kids to thrive in the future.
  • Our middle school, high school, and parent-coach programs provide personalized curriculum, 1:1 support from educators, and cohorts where kids build community.

How to help children develop critical thinking skills at home

1. Start from their interests

To build higher-order thinking skills, start with whatever topic or activity engrosses your kids.

For many kids, this means screen time.

“Screentime” often evokes fear in parents, but if kids get news from social media, media literacy is one of the most important life skills we can teach them. Sit with them as they read, and ask them open-ended questions about the material they’re consuming. At the same time, talk about what you read — show them the sites and/or the physical material — and let them know why you trust it.

Pick a current event, something that excites them — it could be anything from a new release from their favorite artist to a local happening — and ask them to find multiple articles for a simple compare-and-contrast:

-What images are being used to accompany the story and what feelings do they evoke? -What does the headline announce, how is the lede presented, and what evidence does the author give to support it?

-How are they impacted by a video versus a written story?

-How is the story presented in the context of the publication?

-When a story is being shared by an influencer on a social media platform, how does that presentation impact their interest in — and belief of — a story?

Data literacy is another facet of critical thinking to introduce to your kids. Our middle school learners make predictions based on data — an activity that can lend itself to kids who love sports or are curious about the stock market.

But there are countless ways to design creative problem solving activities for any discipline: As part of the project-based approach at Prisma, we hold collaborative workshops where kids get the opportunity to solve discipline-specific problems: In the “World of Wonder” theme, Prisma learners decide how to power a city using their knowledge about Earth Science; in “Unsolved Mysteries,” they cross reference different sources of evidence to get to the bottom of historical puzzles; in “Build a Business,” they pretend they are on Shark Tank and decide which businesses to invest in.

It’s all about teaching specific problem solving skills across different contexts: with their interests as a guide, introduce them to a range of disciplines.

Remember, it’s not the what it’s the how: as they acquire different literacies, the experiences will build on one another. Start in their comfort zone, introduce critical thinking activities into whatever engrosses your kids, and then edge outwards.

2. Put them in the driver’s seat

When kids feel empowered to speak up, share — and defend — their opinion, and engage in a back-and-forth with others, you are helping them foster critical thinking skills.

Get your kids involved in their education, give them choice, and plenty of opportunities to practice. This could mean evaluating what book they want to read next or which online math program works best for them. Listen carefully, and ask them to provide justification for their choice. They’ll be less likely to offer empty complaints when they’ll been a part of the process, and more likely to think through productive solutions.

Our Prisma learners know they’ll be asked to give feedback on the curriculum, offer suggestions for future themes, and propose their own clubs. That real-world payoff incentivizes them to give their best: They know they have to engage critically with their education, if they want their opinions to be taken seriously.

3. Practice metacognition

One of the enemies of critical thinking is impulsivity: an idea comes into our head and we instantly are sure it’s right.

The antidote is metacognition (thinking about our own thinking): as we teach kids in our Prisma high school Life Skills curriculum, you need to be aware of your own thought processes and your own biases to be able to step back and loosen your grip on that initial reaction. As kids start to become aware of their own cognitive biases, they learn to recognize them in other people as well.

Math is a great area to practice critical thinking activities: Teach multiple strategies to solve the same problem, and then ask them to explain how they got to the right answer and why they chose a certain approach. If you’re homeschooling as part of a cohort, take the opportunity to have all the kids share their unique, to help emphasize the diversity of potential tactics.

Metacognition can be incorporated at every phase of the learning process, from when they sketch out their first theories to when they present their final version. Get your kids used to talking about why they gravitate towards certain approaches and which ones they might want to consider modifying or phasing out, if they're working to improve a skill or technique. This kind of reflection should be a part of any assessment process, as it feeds directly into developing a growth mindset.

4. Be a role model

Young children learn by watching and imitating. Every interaction with your child is an opportunity to model critical thinking, from the types of questions you ask to your response to the complex problems you face in everyday life.

Walk them through the decision-making process for your household, like how you comparison shop for appliances or choose a birthday party venue. These everyday problems are a great opportunity for you to model metacognition when the stakes are relatively low for them.

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