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Teaching Kids to Think Critically at School

09/26/2013 06:01 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST

My five-year-old granddaughter tells us that "stupid" is a bad word. We are not permitted to use it in her presence. And we should never call people stupid because it makes them feel bad, and then they don't feel like talking any more. My granddaughter wants to limit our freedom of expression.

Recently, I was speaking with a group of teacher-candidates about the need to engage children at every age in thinking critically. Virtually every curriculum in democratic countries emphasizes the importance of fitting critical thinking into every aspect of education. Learning to formulate questions that do not have simple yes or no answers is a vital part of being an informed and active learner -- and citizen. After all, if we do not ask challenging questions, we are going to have difficulty keeping those in authority to account.

If we think a rule is unfair, we want to ask the people who devised the rule what their purpose was. We also want them to demonstrate that the rule can come close to achieving its stated purpose -- without creating even greater problems than the one it was designed to resolve. Encouraging our children to think critically is all about allowing them to ask the questions that they have been itching to ask. But what about the answers to those questions?

Working with teacher-candidates, modelling the kinds of questions that their students will ask them, I often provide case studies or scenarios. Here is one that appears this week on the TVO Parents Civics for Kids website. It is called "Express Yourself?"

Every year, our school puts on a play for the students, teachers, and family members. Alan's friend Clayton has always wanted to act in the school play, but he is very shy. This year Clayton finally tried out and got a part. Unfortunately, during the live performance, he was so nervous that he just stood there. The other kids were not very kind. Alan overheard some of them make fun of Clayton behind his back. Clayton asked Alan, "How did they like me?"

How do you answer this question? Do you want Alan to lie to Clayton? If not, do you want Alan to hurt Clayton's feelings? There is clearly no correct answer to Clayton's questions.

Exploring moral dilemmas like this can ready our children to face the hard questions we need to ask in a democracy. For example, if Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of expression, should there be limits to what we can express? If so, who should decide what the limits should be?

In asking this kind of question, I have discovered a new bad word. It is a word used by the sort of teacher who quells critical thinking, quells engagement and participation. That word is "obviously."

Any teacher who thinks that there is only one answer, even to a question of fact, is keeping students from making necessary mistakes, and is failing to help students to explore what they and their fellow students know, think they know, or need to know.

So I am making a plea to teachers everywhere: Please limit your freedom of expression and stop using the word "obviously." It makes people feel bad and then they won't feel like talking any more.

Cute Kid Notes