Nurturing critical thinking in young children

Nurturing critical thinking in young children

– By Catherine O’Reilly

In this week’s Scéalta, Catherine O’Reilly, PhD research student at Trinity College Dublin, discusses how critical thinking relates to early childhood and how we can use storytelling to give children in Early Years settings the same opportunities as older children to learn how to communicate, collaborate, be creative and engage in problem-solving.

In my PhD research, I investigated the question of how to encourage young children’s critical thinking skills. The outcome was a programme titled the Storythinking Programme which aims to nurture critical thinking in children. The study is near completion and will be submitted in August 2023.

What is critical thinking?

There are many ways to define critical thinking. The definition I draw from comes from the Paul and Elder Critical Thinking Framework, which asserts that fundamentally, critical thinking is about making good decisions that improve the quality of people’s learning and life (Paul and Elder, 2019). According to Paul and Elder (2014), we all live a life determined by the decisions we make.  No one fully masters getting these decisions that determine the quality of life. All of us can improve our decision-making by reflecting on our decisions, using strategies to enhance our decision making and by comparing our ideas to other points of view. From this perspective, critical thinking is not just about getting the problem correct. Instead, it is about being open to improving how you think about a problem, situation or issue.

Why is critical thinking important?

Research suggests that students with critical thinking skills have better employment opportunities.  This is because critical thinkers effectively communicate and collaborate, are creative and can solve real-world problems effectively (ŽivkoviĿ, 2016). Critical thinkers do not accept information at face value; instead, they will consider the information, issue or experience from different points of view before making an informed judgement (Paul and Elder, 2029). For example, students may decide they need more information before making a decision or conclude the information is good, bad, inaccurate or biased. However, the research investigating critical thinking skills relates primarily to older students, with very little exploration of how critical thinking relates to early childhood (O’Reilly et al., 2022). Thus, my question to you is, how can we give children in early childhood the same opportunities as older children to learn how to communicate, collaborate, be creative and engage in problem-solving?

A Storythinking programme: oral storytelling and dialogic inquiry

The Storythinking programme focuses on the educator telling an oral story to the group of interested children in combination with dialogic inquiry. In this study, dialogic inquiry is used in a way that will stimulate developing critical thinking skills. Oral storytelling refers to telling a fairytale using voice, gesture and body language; no text or props are used. In storytelling, connections are built between the storytelling and the story listeners. The Storythinking Programme is a shared experience where children are encouraged to think critically about the story characters and the decisions the characters make as the story evolves. In this model, the educator tells a story from memory and engages the children in discussing the story. First of all, select a Fairy tale you can tell without any text.  Encourage the children to get comfortable so everyone has enough space and can see and hear.

Now using the following six steps:

  1. Begin the Story: Once upon a time…
  2. Pause and invite the children to guess what the story might be about
  3. Continue the story and introduce the story dilemma
  4. Pause and ask the children what they think might happen
  5. Bring the story to its traditional ending
  6. Next, engage the children in story dialogue to nurture critical thinking skills

Following any fairytale, for this example, we will use The Three Little Pigs; we can stimulate critical thinking by encouraging children to (1) analyse, (2) consider different points of view, and (3) problem-solve.

  • Help children to analyse characters:
    • What did you think of the big bad wolf? Are you sure he was bad? Could the wolf have knocked on the door because he wanted someone to play with? What did the big bad wolf say to make you think he was bad?
  • Support children to consider different points of view
    • How did the pigs feel when they had to leave home? How do you think the wolf felt when the little pigs would not let him in?
  • Encourage children to problem solve
    • Could the big bad wolf have acted differently? What do you think you would have done if you were the wolf?

While this is a brief snapshot of my research, I hope you found it helpful and I encourage you to try out some of this approach with the children in your setting to support their critical thinking skills.

Reference List

Elder, L., & Paul, R. (2014). Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life. United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield.

O’Reilly, C., Devitt, A., & Hayes, N. (2022). Critical thinking in the preschool classroom-a systematic literature review. Thinking skills and creativity, 101110.

Elder, L., & Paul, R. (2014). Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life. United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2019). The miniature guide to critical thinking concepts and tools. United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield.

ŽivkoviĿ, S. (2016). A model of critical thinking as an important attribute for success in the 21st century. Procedia-social and behavioral sciences232, 102-108.

Bio

Catherine O’Reilly is a PhD research student at Trinity College Dublin. As a former preschool educator, her current interest is researching ways to enhance children’s early learning experiences. In 2017 she completed her BA(Hons) in Early Childhood Education & Care (ECEC), where she conducted an Action Research project to explore storytelling to foster social and emotional well-being. In 2018, she completed a master’s in leadership at ECEC; this time, her research focused on understanding how preschool educators could support cultural diversity awareness through picture books. Catherine’s current research introduces a model for critical thinking with young children in the preschool classroom.

 

 

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