General Introduction

1 – A Question

“Should we stop eating meat?”

Ask this question to a group of children. What happens? Some children may express their opinion, while others may shy away from speaking. Among those children who do voice an opinion, many will parrot arguments heard from authority figures, such as their parents or the media. But a smaller number may venture a personal opinion—one that stems from their own reflection on both the question and the information they have been given.

What makes some children take up this critical perspective while others don’t? How do we awaken and cultivate these skills in our children?

Modern society and culture place enormous demands on young people, who lack the necessary tools to analyze the multiple sources of information—the internet, television, social networks, and advertising—before them. These sources will continue to multiply and fragment in the future, challenging young people’s critical faculties more and more. Fostering the development of those faculties must therefore be a priority.

2 – Defining Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a way of calling into question any opinion, value, argument, theory, or representation through an examination of its internal quality (its logic, argument, data, etc.) and/or the reliability and credibility of the source.

Critical thinking does not merely aim to illuminate errors in reasoning. It also directs attention to weak, indecisive, or deliberately misleading arguments that exploit certain psychological tendencies to produce errors of interpretation. Such arguments may make leaps of logic or they may cite a single anecdote as “proof” of a general truth.

Our cognitive limits and psychological prejudices mean that we can misinterpret anything, at any time, in any situation. This applies just as much to mass media or personal conversations as it does to the content in a philosophy or science class. Even in a world where we were all thoroughly versed in rationality and logic, where no one acted in bad faith, and where honesty was universal, we would still need to develop critical thinking skills to help overcome our other limitations.

Human language and our senses can distort reality or produce false representations. Moreover, the concepts with which we think and speak change over time and across cultures. Assumptions and prejudices formed in our childhoods imprint themselves on our experience, though they can always be thrown into question. Where these assumptions differ, the same line of reasoning may lead to different conclusions and different views of the world.

For example, different groups may hold different assumptions about the relative values of cultural stability and material wealth, and so the same set of facts and the same economic theory may lead to different conclusions about how to allocate resources or what public projects to pursue.

This even applies to what seem to be “pure” sciences like mathematics. Foundational assumptions or axioms may prove flawed, and long, complicated lines of reasoning based on them may therefore produce errors, no matter how sound the reasoning is in itself. Even when a mathematician has proven a theorem, it may take years for experts in the field to review and confirm the reasoning.

Two further aspects of mathematical reasoning bear noting: first, the applicability of the concepts being used. A mathematical project may be free of error but still lead nowhere. This is evident in the
relative stagnation of physics since the emergence of general relativity and quantum mechanics—probably attributable to a conceptual impasse. Second, and paradoxically, the logical rules of deduction in mathematics have been, and still are, criticized. Entire new branches of science and technology have sprouted thanks to what has been dubbed “non-classical logic.”

Thus, even with reliable information sources, correct reasoning, and sound arguments, critical thinking is justified—indeed indispensable—at all times, everywhere.

3 – A Complex Notion

More than merely reasoning correctly, critical thinking involves the high-level functioning of a number of different psychological, emotional, and social faculties. Consequently, the study of the development of critical thinking  spans all branches of psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.

  1. The cognitive dimension: the way in which attention span, mental representations, and learning ability are structured. Critical thinking involves the faculties responsible for reasoning, arguing, and understanding others’ arguments, as well as the faculty of self-perception. Formed during childhood, certain tendencies that lead us into error will endure for our entire lives. We call these tendencies “cognitive biases.“Using a single counter-example to reject a generalization is a cognitive bias. Consider the view that “Labradors are gentle dogs.” Someone may tell a story about an aggressive Labrador and conclude that “Labradors are not gentle dogs.”This cognitive bias can easily become a source of conflict. The person who thinks Labs are gentle may interpret the counter-example as an act of bad faith or an attempt to mislead others in order to assert dominance.

    We can see here that, on top of the cognitive dimension of critical thinking (reasoning, arguing, cognitive biases), there is also an emotional dimension, discussed below. It is this dimension that often turns a debate into a fight. These emotions, if excessive and unchecked, can weaken our cognitive faculties and our critical thinking skills, lowering the quality of the discussion and giving free rein to cognitive biases. These biases, often mistaken for simple dishonesty, can in turn provoke excessive emotional responses from the other side of the debate.

  2. The psychological dimension: the conscious and unconscious aspects of emotional life and self-image. Critical thinking is, from a very early age, only possible if we have enough self-esteem to think of ourselves as subjects worthy of thinking for ourselves. This requires both love as well as the imposition of certain limits when we are children.
    Self-esteem gives children the confidence to rely on their own reasoning rather than just unthinkingly adopting the attitudes of others. It also allows them to have influence on a given discussion. Their criticisms and opinions can only have an impact if they have the self-assurance to voice them.

  3. The emotional dimension: emotional reactions triggered by stimulation from one’s environment or one’s own actions. To enable critical thinking, we must possess sufficiently developed emotional management skills in order to rise above attractions, distractions, and compulsive urges.Our emotional reactions immediately disclose our personality. Maintaining balance between the cognitive and emotional dimensions of thinking is dependent upon psychological stability. Thus, a paranoid personality may too swiftly interpret a logical or argumentative weak spot in an argument as an attempt to manipulate rather than an honest mistake. Children or adults with low self-esteem may become paralyzed by their emotions, and, subsequently, unable to defend their own position.

  4. The social dimension: the individual’s relationships to others in a culture bound by customs and rules. Critical thinking, from a very early age, requires conventions that affirm and communicate free thinking and individuality. In cultures and ideological frameworks that uphold the ideals of free and critical thinking, it is usually not until the ages of 10 to 12 that the educational system begins to emphasize argumentative skills for English, mathematical logic and proofs, or debate. But this is starting to change. For example, the all-too-rare introduction of philosophical debate at the kindergarten level has been a resounding success. Students are highly enthusiastic about it, and they come up with remarkably sharp arguments.

    Emotions, personality, and self-esteem all bear significantly on critical thinking, even more so than our cognitive faculties of reasoning and argumentation. But there remains yet another equally decisive dimension: the different cultures of the world and different generations within the same society, which do not all abide by the same social norms of critical thinking.

    Assertiveness, knowing how to make your mark within a social group, and thinking for oneself are not universal values. Students have no chance of challenging the word of their teachers if these authority figures are put on a pedestal. A student may be logical, cultured, well-liked, and able to manage their emotions. But without certain cultural values in place, critical thinking will never become a part of their behavioral skill-set.

To develop critical thinking in children and teenagers, parents and educators must grapple with these four dimensions. Drawing on these dimensions they can begin to instill in children the ability to think about their own thinking. This practice, called “metacognition,” is a crucial precondition for developing the analytical skills central to critical thinking. It is both possible and important to develop children’s critical capacities through metacognition beginning at around the age of eight. For children younger than eight, it is much more important to develop self-esteem first.

Metacognition, more precisely, is the ability to analyze one’s own mechanisms of thought and one’s own cognitive processes in general.

If children who think eating meat is wrong recognize that this opinion may be adopted because it is fashionable, rather than because of ethical concerns, they are thinking about their thinking.

Through metacognition, a child accepts that the opinion is not an absolute. He or she must, therefore, find ways of convincing other people. This is conscious awareness of the need to argue. What’s more, metacognition encourages children to listen to other people’s arguments and to reflect before accepting or rejecting them. Rapidly, argumentative modes of thought are reinforced and become a source of enjoyment.

A crucial part of metacognition is being able to understand and identify with perspectives other than one’s own. For young children, emotion seems to be an argument in itself. An emotion is, by its very nature, irrational and always seems absolutely correct from a child’s point of view. Parents must help their children realize that their emotional reactions are not the same as everyone else’s.

Although a child may be repulsed by hamburgers, he or she can come to recognize that other children delight in eating them. A child can, empathetically and calmly, learn to mull over such thoughts and use critical thinking to shift focus away from their emotions and onto their thoughts.

The goal should not necessarily be to change the child’s mind. Critical thinking can serve to teach your children to respect others and to base their arguments on something other than their emotions. This training in argument stimulates the mind, fostering the growth of new neural pathways and improving cognitive efficiency. It also lays the groundwork for a mode of thought that complements, if not surpasses, argument: that of reasoning.

4 – Childhood Stages of Development

Of course, the level of development parents can expect their children to reach depends heavily on their age group. The pioneering psychologist Jean Piaget offers a useful developmental framework that will help guide parents in determining how to best support their children’s critical thinking development as they age.

Piaget’s theory of the stages of cognitive development remains a milestone in developmental psychology. Even if the concepts have greatly evolved since Piaget initially set out his theory, organizing development into these stages remains as pertinent as ever. They are the product of hundreds of universally proven experiments.

The first stage, the Sensorimotor Stage, spans from birth until around the age of two. Over this period, children’s contact with their surrounding environment depends entirely on movements they make and sensations they experience. Children systematically touch, throw, and taste new objects to discover each object’s characteristics through trial and error. Halfway through this stage, just before children turn two, they grasp the notion of object permanence (the fact that objects continue to exist even when they cannot see them).

The second stage, the Preoperational Stage, begins from around age two and ends around age six or seven. During this period—characterized by, among other things, the first stages of language production—children become capable of thinking in symbolic terms, of representing things through words and symbols. Children also learn to grasp the notions of quantity and space, as well as the distinction between the past and the future. But, above all, they remain geared toward the present and toward tangible physical situations, finding abstract concepts hard to grasp. Their thinking is also very egocentric. They often assume that others see things from their own point of view.

The Concrete Operational Stage takes place from the age of six or seven to 11 or  12. Having accumulated some experience of the world, children gain the ability to conceive of events totally alien to their own lives.

  • Between the ages of six and nine, children’s vocabulary expands considerably, and, although their ability to reason remains very limited, they become increasingly capable of arguing, defending, or rejecting an idea based on their own concrete experience and various other influential sources.
  • From the age of nine or 10, children get better and better at conceptualizing and creating lines of reasoning that still, despite all the progress made up to this point, require a direct relationship to their concrete experience. A certain degree of abstraction also allows them to tackle mathematics beyond mere arithmetic. It becomes possible for a child to resolve problems involving numbers and reasoning, though these must still be related to observable phenomena. The ability to solve abstract problems by systematically dissecting several variables remains, at this stage, the preserve of the exceptionally gifted. 

Finally, what Piaget called the Formal Operational Stage gradually develops from the age of 11 or 12. New skills at this stage, like hypothetic-deductive reasoning (the ability to form and evaluate if-then statements) and the ability to establish abstract relationships, are generally mastered around the age of 15 or 16. At the end of this stage, children, like adults, are able to use formal and abstract logic, but only if they have learned logical vocabulary (the formal meanings of words like “if,” “then,” “therefore,” etc.) and have put it into practice. They can also start to reflect on probabilities and on moral concepts, such as justice, as they become able to better reason with generalizations about concrete situations.