5 simple steps to Critical Thinking

When it comes to education, there are two fundamental skills that we want to teach children: reading and maths. This is the same regardless of culture or language. A child who is armed with these two skills can think, even critically.

As we have been focusing on teaching our children to read, to comprehend and to expand their vocabulary, we must also be aware that the end goal is for them to become critical thinkers rather than reading machines. This is especially important in this age of information explosion where fake news crops up everywhere, all the time.

Thanks to the American philosopher John Dewey, who coined the term “critical thinking” in 1910, and later on the Maltese physician/philosopher Edward de Bono, who popularized the term “lateral thinking”, we now recognize the importance of such thinking and some ways we can train ourselves.

From the perspective of education, learning to thinking critically is in tune with a child’s natural development. Children are born curious about their world and environment. Their minds are full of imagination. They ceaselessly ask “why?” and “what if?”. It is therefore easy for us to simply go with the flow and encourage them to do what they can already do well. We only need to show them the skills to channel their minds efficiently. When done properly, children gain a profound sense of happiness and satisfaction from within, as their natural needs are satisfied. On a grander scale, when all of our children are critical thinkers, our world will run with much more efficiency, peace and harmony.

The 5 simple steps

When we teach our children to start thinking critically, we can start with a simple 5-step approach:

  1. When we are faced with a situation (e.g. reading a story), we ask ourselves a question.
  2. We come up with some hypothesis, so we know where we can go look for answers.
  3. We go and look for some answers (flip through the story book, look up other references).
  4. We compare the various answers that we found, and decide which one is most likely to be true (based on our knowledge).
  5. We draw a conclusion.

Two examples

Children learn from examples. Take the time to show them how other people use this kind of thinking to come up with solutions. There are two great examples in Treasure Box stories to help you get started.

司馬光 Si-Ma Guang
When you read this story to your children, break down Si-Ma’s thought process into the five steps outlined above:

  1. The situation was that someone fell into the water barrel and was about to drown. The question was: how we can get him out of the water?
  2. There were 2 hypotheses: (1) a grown-up would be able to help pull him out; (2) if there was no water in the barrel, that child would be saved
  3. There were 2 possible solutions: they could either go and look for a grown-up, or break the barrel and let the water out.
  4. Compare the two solutions: By the time a grown-up comes, it might be too late. On the other hand, a rock can easily break the barrel and water will flow out immediately.
  5. Conclusion: Si-Ma broke the barrel with a rock.

曹沖稱象 Cao Chong
When you read this story to your children, break down Cao’s thought process into the five steps outlined above:

  1. The situation was to find out how much the elephant weighs, but the elephant was too big for any existing scales.
  2. There were 2 hypotheses: (1) smaller parts of the elephant would add up to the total weight of the elephant; (2) the weight and volume of an object are in a constant relation.
  3. Possible solutions: (1) cut up the elephant and weigh the parts; (2) use a boat as a giant scale, small rocks as weights, and calculate the weight of the elephant (note: solution 1 was from our imagination as we have no way of knowing what other ideas they might have come up with.)
  4. Compare the two solutions: (1) the elephant would be dead if we cut it up; (2) from Cao’s previous knowledge, this is mathematically sound.
  5. Conclusion: Cao used the boat and rocks.

Asking questions

As seen from the above examples, critical thinking starts with  asking questions . Too often, we focus on asking children questions, for them to look for the correct answers. Being able to ask questions is an important skill to learn. We should help children from a very young age to form the habit of asking questions. Start from asking any questions, and gradually progress to asking relevant questions which eventually leads to asking critical questions.

Below are 2 activities to encourage children to ask questions.

Activity 1 – What is the question to this answer?

Start by gathering a list of answers. You could write down these answers in small sheets of paper and fold them up, put them in a basket or box, and ask your child to draw out one at a time. This would turn the practice into a game that children enjoy playing.

You could use some of the ideas below to get started:

Answer Possible questions
The answer is 2. What is 1 + 1?
What is 102-100?
I have a toothache. Why are you going to the dentist?
Why are you looking upset?
8 o’clock. What time is it?
What time do you have breakfast?
What time will Jane come?
He found the bucket of gold under the tree! Where did he find the gold?
What did he find under the tree?
What happened to him?
Tom wishes to go to the moon. Why is Tom studying the moon?
Why does Tom wish he could fly?
What is Tom’s biggest wish?
Her name is Jane Doe. What is her name?
Who is that lady standing there?
Who is your teacher?

Don’t schedule a weekly practice session and be too serious about it. Do it casually, as a game, or as a pass time while you are in the waiting line or stuck in traffic. You could try to fit in 3 such A&Q each day, and play it anytime, anywhere.

Be creative and come up with lots of funny answers. Then encourage your child to ask you as many silly questions as they can think of. The goal is to let them be comfortable with asking various questions, and free up their mind.

Activity 2 – Ask a question relating to a story

With this activity, children learn to ask questions within a context. We have chosen one story from each level of Treasure Box and suggested some example questions. When your child doesn’t know how to start asking a first question, you could use one of the samples questions as an illustration. Once the ice is broken, they will come up with many more questions. Do not judge or criticize. Their questions might be silly or “illogical”, that’s OK.

Answer Possible question
樂樂兔(Beginning Reader) – page 1 Q1. Why is Bunny sad?
Q2. Where are his parents going?
Q3. Why isn’t Bunny at school?
小魚的家 (Budding Reader) Q1. How did the yellow fish end up on the other side of the river?
Q2. Did the yellow fish’s family invite the black fish for dinner?
Q3. What is the colour of the yellow fish’s home?
冬冬打蟲 (Building Reader) Q1. Why didn’t the 冬冬s build a door to block out the bugs?
Q2. Were the bugs noisy, or did they sting?
Q3. Were there male and female 冬冬s?
張良 (Confident Reader) Q1. What subjects did 張良 study?
Q2. Have clocks been invented yet?
Q3. What did 張良 have for breakfast?
快樂之本 (Fluent Reader) Q1. What vegetables did the villagers grow?
Q2. Did the cow and the rabbit have names?
Q3. Where did the monster go after he left the village?

Most of the questions will not have a definite answer. This is a fact of life we all have to learn to be comfortable with.

The above two activities not only stimulate thinking, they provide good opportunity for communication as well. They also serve as great oral practice if you encourage your children to use Chinese as much as they can during these discussions.


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