When my oldest son was learning to read, he would often ask me to help him with certain words.
“What’s this say, Mama?” he’d ask.
“What do you think?” I’d respond. “Let’s sound it out.” To which he would respond by screaming, “Just tell me!”
I understood his frustration, of course. Learning is a hard, slow, painful process sometimes. It’s far easier to jump on board the “just tell me” train to nowhere. There are far fewer tantrums (his) and tears (both of ours) that way. Believe me.
But if we want to help our kids be successful, if we want to build a generation of thoughtful leaders, the “just tell me” approach just does not work. The trouble is that today’s educational model, however — with its overemphasis on standardized testing, grades and test scores — relies heavily on the “just tell me” approach to learning. And our kids our struggling as a result.
“We’re training kids to do what computers do, which is spit back facts,” developmental psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, co-author of the book Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, told NPR. “And computers are always going to be better than human beings at that.”
Not only did Hirsh-Pasek literally write the book on raising successful children, but she also raised a pretty darn successful child of her own. Hirsh-Pasek’s son is Benj Pasek, who along with collaborator Justin Paul, was awarded an Oscar and Golden Globe for his songs in La La Land and six Tony Awards for his work on the original Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen. Yeah, I’d say he’s pretty successful, not to mention absolutely brilliant.
So what advice does this successful mom to an extremely successful son suggest we do to help our children? Well, she says we need first need to change our definition of what it means to succeed.
“[W]hat [computers are] not going to be better at is being social, navigating relationships, being citizens in a community. So we need to change the whole definition of what success in school, and out of school, means.”
Hirsh-Pasek and co-author Roberta Golinkoff say that data and research supports a model they call the “21st-century report card,” which focuses on 6 Cs: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence. Critical thinking is what they say helps fill in the gaps in reasoning and will lead to the breakthroughs in any area.
In other words, if we want successful kids, we need to stop worrying about test scores and teach them to be critical thinkers instead. We shouldn’t give in to the “just tell me” pleas of our children. And we need to stop saying “just because” when our kids ask us hard (sometimes annoying) questions.
Well, shit. I’m guilty of this far more than I’d like to admit, especially when it comes to questions like “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why can’t we find a place for all homeless people to live?”
Instead, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff recommend responding to our kids’ questions with more questions, encouraging them to dig a little deeper and consider how someone else might think about an issue or problem.
What’s really fascinating about Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff’s theory is that they say critical thinking is actually an important part of empathy. Being able to think critically about an issue and speculate as to why a person might think or behave the way they do is more important than ever in this increasingly divided world we live in. We live in a world where people scream “fake news” anytime they hear something they don’t like, or that contradicts an existing opinion, and we need to help our children parse through the nonsense.
My dad once told me that the best thing about college is that it doesn’t teach us what to think, but how to think. And he was right. In college, I learned how to think critically about issues, problems, and concepts in a way that I had never been challenged to before. It was terrifying, difficult, and thrilling — all at the same time. But the trouble is, if we don’t start teaching our kids how to be critical thinkers until college, are we throwing them into the deep end without teaching them how to tread water? We need to start now. Today. ASAP.
The good news is that we, as parents, can help our kids learn how to be critical thinkers, regardless of whether they are filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil at school. Because learning is social process, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff say it can be a way for us to interact with and relate to our children, instead of just relying on grades and test scores as a means of measuring children.
On a recent road trip, my 10-year-old son decided he wanted to “play lawyer,” where he would get a dilemma or question and advocate for one side. As lawyers ourselves, my husband and I were more than happy to oblige. My son took one side of the debate; my husband took the other side. I was the judge. We gave our son some basic information, gave him tips on how to find out more, and reminded him to consider the other side’s arguments and develop anticipatory responses. As they say, you can never really understand your opinion until you can properly articulate the other side’s opinion as well.
We debated everything from whether a baker should be able to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple (a case currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court) to whether Blake Griffin or Chris Paul is a more valuable basketball player. (I had never heard of these players, so it was a learning experience all around.) Not only was it fun and interesting to hear the different opinions, but it was also a huge lesson for our son. He learned the importance of considering the opinions of someone else, he practiced articulating his opinion clearly, and most of all, he learned to think for himself instead of just repeating what others told him.
Let’s be honest, responding with “just because” or “because I said so” is so much easier. It’s really hard to have long and emotionally exhausting conversations with our kids sometimes, especially at the end of a long day. But in today’s world where people scream “Fake news!” anytime they hear something they don’t like while there is actual fake news getting passed off as legit, it’s more important than ever to teach our children how to think critically about the world around them.
Because science said so.