🤔 Critical thinking. Problem solving. Logical and lateral thinking. We hear these terms all the time, but what do they actually mean and why do they matter so much?
In this ultimate guide to developing critical thinking skills in kids I will answer this for you AND leave you with some super practical tools and tips to developing these key skills in the comfort of your own home.
Many of the examples I give you will draw from the “KidCoachApp” - a simple but innovative app I have developed to help parents build talking and thinking skills in children at home. It’s a really quick, fun and effective method to build critical thinking, taking just five minutes a day and with no preparation or materials required whatsoever!
Let’s get stuck in.
Critical thinking is an ancient concept, dating back to the time of Socrates and Plato. We don’t seem to have one single definition of it, so let me give you a few to paint a decent picture.
Wikipedia defines critical thinking as “the analysis of facts to form a judgment”. They also say that requires “self-directed and self-corrective thinking” and that it develops “effective communication and problem-solving abilities.”
Criticathinking.org says it is “that mode of thinking - about any subject, content, or problem - in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skilfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.”
Global Education company Pearson defines critical thinking as “the purposeful and goal-directed thinking used to define and solve problems, make decisions, and form judgments related to a particular situation or set of circumstances. It involves cognitive, metacognitive and dispositional components which may manifest (or be applied) differently in specific contexts.”
Pretty brainy stuff. 🧠 But don’t worry. This is not meant to be a scientific article on the topic, you will be glad to know!
I want to offer my own very simple definition of critical thinking, specifically for kids.
“Critical thinking for kids is getting them to think, really think, about what they are saying. It is NOT about remembering stuff or being right, but it IS about thinking ‘all the way around’ a problem.”
Sometimes it also helps to explain what something is NOT.
Here are three examples:
❌ If your child did the multiplication 6 x 9 to get 54 that would NOT be critical thinking.
✔️But if they then explained to you all the other ways they could get the number 54, then it could be.
❌If your child memorised the lyrics to their favourite song that would NOT be critical thinking.
✔️But if they compared and contrasted it to lyrics of other songs by the same artist, then it could be.
❌Or if your child watched a clever movie with lots of twists and turns that would NOT be critical thinking.
✔️But if they tried predicting what happens next and based on whether they were right or wrong, refined their predictions for the next scene, that could be.
Is this helping?
The terms problem solving or logical and lateral thinking get used quite a lot too. It basically all means the same thing.
Finally, you might have also heard the term “metacognition” which means “thinking about thinking.” This is a good one to bear in mind also as it makes us ask ourselves things like: “Why do I think this?”, “How could I be wrong?”, “What would other people think?” Metacognition is like when someone is speaking out loud your thoughts!
So, having understood what critical thinking is (or logical or lateral thinking is), let’s look at why it is just so important to develop in our kids.
Simply put, critical thinking is a key way of ⭐ differentiating ⭐ our kids and preparing them for their future.
Those that can think critically and for themselves will stand out from those can’t. When our kids emerge into the rapidly-changing world of work, those that have good critical thinking skills will be able to cope the best.
Did you know that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not even been invented yet? That is according to a study done by the Institute for the Future, in 2017. They cite the increasing amount of technology (think artificial intelligence and machine learning) as carving out thousands of new jobs that we can’t even comprehend today.
Think about your own kids for a moment. What will they do for work?
Maybe one will be a genetic chef 🍲 – coming up with new recipes, analytically put together to be specifically optimised for people based on their genetic profiles?
Maybe another child will be a space traffic controller 🚀 – managing the algorithms computing the many orbital trajectories of shuttles for maximum safety and efficiency?
Or perhaps one will be a virtual reality engineer 👷 – building the new “Zoom” meeting places for employees to work effectively from home?
None of these jobs exist today, but all are completely plausible in just 10 years time.
The chef needs to understand the human genome and think carefully about what goes together, the space traffic controller needs to solve multi-dimensional problems in real time, the virtual reality engineer needs to invent cutting edge new technologies. All of these require massive brain power and ability to think critically in new situations.
Memorising facts just won’t do anymore! ⚠️
And don’t forget – the world will continue to change rapidly, so your kids will constantly have to skill and re-skill in their 20s, 30s, 40s and so on as they launch multiple careers. Maybe they start off in nutrition, then go to transportation, then communication…who knows?
Critical thinking is a transferable skill that your kids can take from one job to another, and will set them up well for life, no matter what decade they are working in.
There is a lot of information out there on Google, but the problem is that there is also a lot of disinformation. Knowledge is no longer an issue, but the application of that knowledge is.
I don’t just mean fake news, but also biased sources with agendas.
Take global warming as an example. 🌍
Ask your child to Google “is climate change bad?” See how they interpret what they see. Can they spot the sources and identify biases, for instance climate change activists vs oil companies vs paying advertisers? What other searches could they do to advance their thinking?
Here is a free conversation card you could you use for this exercise, which comes from the KidCoachApp and is a good example of a quick critical exercise you can do with your kids.
(By the way, if you were critically thinking about this article, you might discount what I am saying because I am trying to promote the KidCoachApp. You could, but I hope you don’t, as I really happen to believe in this stuff 😊)
Unfortunately most schooling systems are not able to place enough emphasis on critical thinking and related skills. Even if they recognise its importance and want to spend more time on it, their hands are tied and they can’t allocate the necessary timetable space or budget for materials. There is normally just too much pressure to get those high grades in math and English etc.
As the Sutton Trust report of 2017 said: “97% of teachers agree that skills [like critical thinking] are as or more important than academic qualifications” and yet the Princes Trust report in the very same year found that “91% of teachers think schools should be doing more to help students develop [these skills].”
There ARE increasing attempts at embedding critical thinking into every traditional subject taught, for instance the examples I gave above about different ways to make the number 54 (math) or comparing lyrics of songs (English), but many feel this is not happening fast enough.
So what can we as parents do to accelerate this?
The single biggest thing we can do as parents to develop critical thinking skills is to have the right conversations on a daily basis. If we are always asking the right questions, and encouraging our kids to as well, then we are instilling in them fantastic critical thinking skills.
Let’s see how this could pan out over the course of a typical week.
It's Monday and you are helping your child with their homework. Today they are learning all about space, our solar system and the eight planets. To complete the homework all they need to do is draw a diagram of the solar system and label it. But you want to do more and you spot an opportunity to ask some good questions.
💡 While they are working you also ask them how we know there are only eight planets? (it was only a few years ago we included Pluto to be the ninth). You ask how we can be sure they all orbit the Sun? (a few hundred years ago people believed the Earth was at the centre). You also ask how likely there are more Earth-like planets with life out there (perhaps using this conversation card from the KidCoachApp)?
Do you see how by asking just a few follow-on questions we can easily push their thinking?
It's Wednesday and you are watching the news together. There is a story about some recent lottery winners who have splashed the cash and ended up bankrupt after just one year. Oh dear! You could talk about how silly they are, but you see it as a coaching moment to develop critical thinking skills instead.
💡 So you start to talk about money, and what it can do. You ask them to imagine what it must be like to win the lottery. How would they feel? Can they ever really know until it happens? You ask them to think carefully about how they would spend the money (using this conversation card from the KidCoachApp)?
This approach can work for nearly any news story you happen to watch on the TV - try it out next time!
It's Friday and you have popped to the shops with your child. As an end-of-week treat you bought them a chocolate bar. You are just about to walk home when it starts pouring with rain. You decide to wait it out in the shops. Normally you would check your phone for a while but today you are feeling talkative and you are getting the hang of this “KidCoach” thing.
💡 You start talking about rain. What is it? Why is it important? What would we do without it? When is it helpful? When is it a problem? Then you see the chocolate in your child’s hand, and see how it is still raining, which inspires you to ask something fun and silly like this from the KidCoachApp (which also happens to develop excellent critical thinking skills)!
Kids love silly questions like this -they don't even realise that you are actually building their critical thinking skills, in this case by getting them to think through the pros and cons!
How realistic is it to do something like the above?
I know life as parents is super busy but this approach only takes five minutes a day.
Who doesn’t have five minutes to talk to their child each day? 🧒
Probably the hardest part is having the energy and inspiration to come up with a quick, fun question that gets kids thinking in new ways. That’s where the KidCoachApp massively helps.
We have spent hours curating and testing out the best critical thinking questions for kids! We have also written multiple prompts for each question, which parents say is very handy. These follow best practice methodologies used by many schools and education experts (see for instance the Philosophy For Children approach).
I promise that if you get into the habit of using the KidCoachApp to ask these sorts of questions, you will quickly find yourself coming up with all sorts of amazing questions on the fly based on what your kids are doing. Then you might not even need the app anymore!
THE KEY IS TO DEVELOP THE HABIT.
If we do 5 minutes of sit-ups each morning then we will quickly develop a strong core. 😅
Similarly if we exercise our children’s critical thinking muscles for five minutes every day, through a fun conversation starter, then guess what will happen to their thinking muscle? 🧠
Just find the time in the day that works for you and your family. Some like to do it during the school run, others at dinner time, others before bed.
It doesn’t matter when. Just find a five minute window and start asking great questions!
SOME OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO.
Questioning our kids is THE best way of developing critical thinking skills in a quick, easy, fun and effective way at home.
For completeness however, I will mention a few more things that we can do as parents. All of these further reinforce the development of critical thinking skills:
❓ Do puzzles, riddles or brainteasers. There are plenty to google but here for instance is a list that spans from fun to serious. I like them since they are quick to ask but take a while to think about.
🎲 Play strategy board games. There are many strategy games available nowadays, see for instance this top 10 list. Chess is my all-time favourite and even playing against the computer is a good way to build critical thinking skills.
📲 Use critical thinking apps for kids. Our “KidCoachApp” requires interaction between parent and child, but if you want to park your child in front of the iPad for a while then check out this list. They cover critical thinking skills that also train the brain in terms of memory, concentration and reasoning.
Kids sometimes ask me: “But what do I think about first?”
This is where thinking frameworks are really handy to help kids deal with new situations. They are a way for your children to create certainty from uncertainty.
Let’s go through some simple examples you can teach them.
For any situation that has at least two options / outcomes / answers, simply think of all the reasons for and against, i.e. the pros and cons. A good way of phrasing it for kids is “This would be good because….” and “This would be bad because…”
This teaches them to not jump to a solution but to take the time to consider each side of the argument, before making up their mind a balanced and considered way. It also helps them justify their response if someone asks “Why?”
👉Practice using this conversation card from the KidCoachApp, asking if social media is a good or a bad thing.
Perspective is so important. The world is full of diverse backgrounds, opinions and also biases. Let’s encourage our kids to seek out other viewpoints and simply asking “What would X say?” is a powerful way to help yourself see things from different sides.
👉Try it for example on this debating conversation card, on whether children need to go to school or if they can just learn from home! What your mum thinks, what your teacher would say and what your future-self would advise are all likely to be very different.
Edward de Bono came up with a great tool to help people think in different ways, called 6 Thinking Hats. The idea is that there are different colour hats which resemble different attitudes. For instance: Yellow is optimistic and benefits-led, White is data driven and analytical, Red is gut feel and instinct.
You can even state which hat you are putting on temporarily. This which gives you permission to think in a way that might be unpopular, without fear of being criticised, since you can just take the hat off again e.g. “Putting my black hat on, this will never work since….but putting my green hat on we could try something radical like….”
👉 Practice on this conversation card asking how we can reduce traffic on the roads. If there are pessimistic people in you group saying it just can’t be done, you can say “Well, just putting my Yellow hat on I think we would have far fewer accidents and much less air pollution if we did manage to reduce traffic on the roads. Wouldn’t that be a great thing? So why don’t we think harder about it for a moment?” Then you can easily switch to a White Hat: “But being realistic and looking at the data, number of people and number of cars being made are just going up and up and up in our country. Maybe we can look at the data from another country to inspire us?”
Do you see how 6 Thinking Hats helps the very same child switch modes of thought seamlessly, by putting on different “hats”?
The most advanced framework we will cover here is from a company called DialogueWorks. They are on the Advisory Board for the KidCoachApp, and have come up with a neat list of 26 different thinking moves, one for each letter of the alphabet.
Each thinking move is a way of thinking about a situation task or problem. I find the framework very memorable.
Here are some of the most important ones here, along with the key question you can ask yourself when doing the move.
Practice using this conversation card from the KidCoachApp. It’s a philosophical topic on if you would want to live forever!
Here is how the thinking moves above might play out (just some examples to illustrate):
I hope these frameworks help. Teach some to your kids to use when faced with a challenging problem to solve!
🏙️ A few years ago Emma was working as a facilities manager of a tall skyscraper in London. There was a problem with the lifts serving all the different companies. She noticed that at lunchtime there were large queues forming on many floors as office workers all wanted to go and get a sandwich at the same time. This was causing irritation and lots of complaint emails were being sent her way!
Being a good critical thinker, she set out to find a nice solution to this problem. Maybe Emma could stagger the lunchtimes by floor somehow? Or maybe she could install sandwich kiosks on some floors? Maybe she could get people to use the stairs? Or did she need to build more lifts and lift shafts?
This could all work but would the issue was that it would require people to either change their behaviour (difficult) or build new things (costly).
Then she “zoomed out” and asked herself, one simple question:
“Am I solving the right problem?”
💡 Emma quickly realised she was solving the problem of "long queues", when actually the real problem was "people getting annoyed."
So what did she do?
Her solution was to simply to install full length mirrors next to the lift doors, so while people were waiting they could see themselves and be distracted for a while.
Sounds too simple but it worked! Complaints went way down and people were much happier. Through the power of critical thinking, Emma found a low cost and super effective solution to her problem.
What would your child do in this situation? Here is a free conversation card from the KidCoachApp to guide you. Try it out tonight!
Children are naturally good critical thinkers. Their world has no bounds and everything is still possible. So let’s keep nurturing the creativity, curiosity and critical thinking skills from as young an age as possible!
The conversation cards in the KidCoachApp are perfect for 6 – 12 year olds.
As kids grow into adults they will set more boundaries on things, just like we do: “We have always done it like this!” or “That’s not possible.”
Let’s delay this for as long as possible!!!
Let me give you an example.
I was watching TV with my daughter recently and a donation appeal popped up, asking for money to feed hungry children in Africa. My daughter started asking why they are hungry, and I said “Because they are”, and she said “Why can’t we give them more food”, and I said “Because it is difficult” etc. But my daughter kept pressing – “Why? Why? Why?”
And frankly, she has a good point.
There is an awful lot of food in the world, but perhaps it is just not distributed well enough. How much food goes to waste in an average “Western” household, and how could that instead end up feeding the needy in Africa or other places?
Perhaps it requires a next generation of super critical thinkers to break through the commonly accepted “wisdom” of us grown-ups, to find a new way of doing important things.
💚 Raising a child who is a good critical thinking is not just good for them, but will undoubtedly help society also! 💚
I've linked to loads of our questions free for you in this article, but I want to give you even more ideas here!
Because I am feeling generous I am including links to some of these complete questions cards in the KidCoachApp, where you will find lots of helpful prompts and guidance. It's normally paid for, although just £4.99 / month and with a completely free 2 week trial, so I think very reasonable.
For the rest of these links you will just have to download the KidCoachApp 😊:
Yes! It really does. 😃
But don’t just take my word for it.
Listen to this TED talk by Ian Gilbert, author of the famous THUNKS – questions to make kids’ brains go ouch! Ian is also a member of our Advisory Board at KidCoachApp, and we have worked with him closely in the development of the app. He said: “What gives anyone the edge is their ability to think - deeply, analytically, critically, creatively, empathically and for themselves. I think the range and quality of the questions in the KidCoachApp will support any parent who wants to give their child that edge."
Or take Jane Slinn, who is the founder of Independent Thinkers tuition agency. She said that: “I always emphasise to parents that they should sustain learning and encourage intellectual curiosity between and beyond weekly tutoring sessions. The KidCoachApp is perfect for this: it provides parents with hundreds of fun, stimulating questions to ask their kids that will get them talking and thinking."
And what about parents themselves? There are countless testimonials to pick from. You could watch what Bhavisha had to say here or read any review on the app stores, like this one from Alison:
💬“Fantastic app for developing young minds. This app is a really effective way of helping parents think of interesting topics to discuss with their kids and helps develop communication, confidence, analytical thinking, creativity and more. It supports us in progressing the conversation to get the most from it and has some great topics to discuss. Such a great idea, thank you!”
By now you will be excited about how you can effectively build critical thinking skills simply through conversation with your kids. A five minute conversation every other day is so easy to fit in, and we do all the hard work for you putting fantastic thinking questions right in the palm of your hand.
💥To make the most of this, you need to download the KidCoachApp from your usual app store to start your 2 week free trial within seconds. No payment details needed – so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. After that it is just £4.99/ month, or even cheaper if you go for the annual plan (like many parents do).
💓 I am super passionate about helping parents develop key skills in their kids, simply through conversation. I even quit my cushy corporate job to start up KidCoachApp, such was my passion and belief that I can be helpful.
💡 Let me inspire you now.
Download the KidCoachApp now! 👇