What Is Critical Thinking?

By the Duke Talent Identification Program

Critical thinking is a skill that focuses on using logic and analysis—and not just memorized facts—to answer questions and solve problems. Essentially, critical thinking relies on practicing how to think, not what to think. For example, asking, What makes biology a science? requires far more thought and reflection than asking, What is the definition of biology? Many scholars argue that teaching critical thinking is essential for the effective education of children, especially gifted children, and point out that the traditional classroom may not provide enough opportunities to develop deep critical thought.

Why Does Critical Thinking Matter?

Critical thinking is an important skill for anyone to build because it helps people make better decisions in situations that do not have a clear answer. When children become better critical thinkers, they are more prepared to make better decisions in their personal or professional lives later on. We do not want to teach children to believe everything they hear (even if that means that they start to question their own parents). Critical thinking has a purpose. Students are not just reciting memorized facts or spotting the easy answers; critical thinking prepares children to think beyond opinions and basic facts so that they can make more informed and independent decisions.

How Can I Practice Critical Thinking With My Child?

Critical thinking is an ongoing process that requires practice. Even when you aren’t actively thinking about encouraging critical thinking, small changes in your communication with your child can inspire more critical and independent thought.

Foster Open-Ended Conversation

Children can learn critical thinking strategies by engaging in conversations or friendly debates with parents. Children find critical thinking exercises more interesting when they relate to their interests and real-world situations. You can base your discussions on Supreme Court cases, news stories, social conflicts, or even characters or plots in your child’s favorite television programs and movies. If children reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of their own opinions, as well as their counterarguments, they can make more logical decisions. During your debate or discussions, encourage your child to consider alternative explanations and solutions to problems.

Your gifted child may bring up ethical or philosophical questions that may not have a clear answer. Sometimes, admitting that you do not have the answers to certain questions can give children the chance to consider different viewpoints and beliefs. When your child comes to a conclusion that is different than yours, ask them about what led them to that conclusion rather than choosing a right or wrong side of the argument. This way, they can approach hard questions without being worried about having the wrong answer.

Example: Next time you watch a television show or movie together, discuss the main character’s dilemma. You can ask questions like, What is another way the character could have handled the situation? How would you have handled the situation?

Promote Exploration

The curiosity of gifted children can sometimes be overwhelming, and we might want to brush off their questions with answers like, “Because I said so.” Helping children work through their questions by encouraging them to seek answers, consider alternatives, and come to their own conclusions can help them to create better problem-solving strategies. If their questions can’t be answered immediately, making them responsible for scheduling research at a more convenient time can help them develop time management responsibilities.

Example: Your child asks you a question to which he or she can find the answer, e.g., What causes meteor showers? or you can promote exploration by asking a guiding question, e.g., What are some resources that we can use to find the answer?

Ask for Explanations

Studies show that having an audience can help children better evaluate their arguments. Children can learn by giving reasons for their own conclusions and considering alternative points of view. In a study of children’s learning through self-explanation, children were more likely to present alternative ideas, provide more detail, and include more justifications for their argument when they explained a concept to a parent. Additionally, children who play video games and regularly explain their strategies show more evidence of learning than children who do not explain their strategies.

Example: Ask your child about his or her strategies and planning during activities (this includes video games, computer games, and board or card games). Point out parts of their strategies that use logic, probability, and economic principles.

Promote Personal Decision Making

Critical thinking requires children to make decisions on their own, and parents can provide safe situations for them to practice this. When children are given the opportunity to figure out the answers and consider alternatives, this allows for more innovation, exploration, and retained knowledge.

Example: If your child comes to you with a problem (e.g., whether to save or spend last month’s allowance, what book to choose for a book report, etc.), help your child consider the pros and cons, but don’t be afraid to let him or her make a wrong choice. The two of you can evaluate the decision later with questions such as, “How do you feel about your decision?” or “What would you do differently next time?”

Support Participation in Activities that Foster Critical Thinking

Your child may already engage in critical thinking exercises through extracurricular activities like Odyssey of the Mind, chess club, and debate or forensic teams. Recent research shows that children who play video and computer games in moderation often engage in exercises that promote critical thinking. In particular, many games enable children to face challenging logic or probability puzzles, make decisions and evaluate their outcomes, learn from and collaborate with peers, and consider alternative strategies.

Examples: Numerous websites provide free critical thinking exercises through math puzzles, philosophical writing prompts, and logic puzzles.

Further Reading
  • Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78 (4), 1102-1134.
  • Blumberg, F. C., Rosenthal, S. F., & Randall, J. D. (2008). Impasse-driven learning in the context of video games. Computers in Human Behavior, 24 (4), 1530-1541.
  • Hamlen, K. R. (2011). Children’s choices and strategies in video games. Computers in Human Behavior, 27 (1), 532-539.
  • Legare C. (2012). Exploring explanation: explaining inconsistent evidence informs exploratory, hypothesis-testing behavior in young children. Child Development, 83 (1):173-85. Rittle-Johnson, B., Saylor, M., & Swygert, K. E. (2008). Learning from explaining: Does it matter if mom is listening?Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 100 (3), 215-224.