Praise for Critical Thinking

By Kathryne Oates, Director of Development and Community Relations

I read an article recently suggesting that if we encourage our children to develop critical thinking skills they will begin questioning everything, skepticism in Christianity will build, and they will fall away from the faith.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

This article struck me as so fear-based that the author appears to believe we can get kids to become tethered to the faith by shutting down, instead of fostering, their thought processes. By…dumbing down their faith?

It implies that we should simply teach children to parrot back to us memorized answers to the questions of the faith with no contextualization…and for that matter memorize answers to all learning disciplines and call that an education. Some dislike the term “critical thinking” simply because it is splashed all over the Common Core educational standards. Believe me, there are lots of reasons why I dislike Common Core, but fostering critical thinking skills is not one of them.
Let’s dissect this confusing term, take a quick history lesson, and then hold the term “critical thinking” up to the light of Scripture. Hopefully we’ll all see that critical thinking skills are an important component of a robust faith in God.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Truth be told, many of us don’t really know what “critical thinking” means and how it applies to our children’s education. There are numerous definitions of critical thinking, and they are basically similar, but I particularly like the wording that GreatSchools.org uses because it is specifically tailored to teachers/schools:

“Critical thinking is a term used by educators to describe forms of learning, thought, and analysis that go beyond the memorization and recall of information and facts. In common usage, critical thinking is an umbrella term that may be applied to many different forms of learning acquisition or to a wide variety of thought processes. In its most basic expression, critical thinking occurs when students are analyzing, evaluating, interpreting, or synthesizing information and applying creative thought to form an argument, solve a problem, or reach a conclusion.”

Critical thinking can involve persuasive arguments, and the evaluation of counterarguments. It includes examining concepts or situations from multiple perspectives. A critical thinker knows how to use information to solve problems systematically. They use the art of questioning, but learn how to phrase an effective question.

And for the Christian, it means questioning with an earnest heart in the search for truth, not questioning from a rebellious spirit that has no intention of actually seeking truth. Critical thinking should not be confused with being stubborn and argumentative.

Throughout the Bible, critical thinking is upheld as a way to discern truth from error, wisdom from folly. Look at those smart Bereans…”now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11). In 1 Thessalonians 5:21 Paul admonishes others to, “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” King Solomon is just one “critical thinker” from the Old Testament, a man that was given great wisdom and insight as he sought the Lord.

A History Lesson
Critical thinking is traced back to the classical age, prior to the birth of Christ. Most notably were the teaching practices of Socrates (2,500 years ago) whose “Socratic Questioning” method emphasized seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, and analyzing basic concepts. Socrates’ was followed by the critical thinking of Plato (who recorded Socrates’ thought), and Aristotle. In the Middle Ages critical thinking was furthered by others, including theologian Thomas Aquinas, who wanted to ensure that his thinking met the test of critical thought. Aquinas, a Christian, melded critical thinking with the revealed truths of Christianity. He showed that those who think critically do not always reject established beliefs…only those beliefs that lack reasonable foundations.

In fact, some of history’s sharpest critical thinkers were distinguished theologians and scientists who professed faith in God. Sir Isaac Newton, for one!

The public school system doesn’t have the corner on critical thinking skills, and in fact, I’d argue the opposite. Because children in Christian schools are free to raise questions of faith within any academic discipline, they have the potential to truly think critically (not to mention biblically!) in every area of life…in real time, right in the classroom. Critical thinking skills, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has the potential to merge faith and learning in a way that results in a beautifully integrated faith that destroys a sacred/secular divide.

Critical Thinking at Isaac Newton
One of the things I have enjoyed most about the Worldview Pilot Project we have been part of for the past two years has been the robust use of meaningful questions students pose to help them think critically in a variety of disciplines. I love the way the thinking process is shifted into gear by helping children think about the BIG questions of life and how their subject matter applies to five key areas: God, Creation, Humanity, Moral Order, and Purpose. A frustration is that Christian children in public schools can think about these areas but cannot bring them into the classroom and lay them on the table for vigorous discussion. (There are things that their parents can do to facilitate these discussions, but without the parent being in the classroom to understand the full context of the discussion, it is nearly impossible to re-create the concepts shared, at home.)

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As outlined in the pilot project, Mr. Ridder, Head of School at Isaac Newton, explains that children (adults too!) have questions that naturally gravitate to five big areas of life.

“First, is there a god? And if so, what is that god like and is that god a hands on god or a distant god?” explains Mr. Ridder. “For creation, kids want to know ‘how did all of this stuff—the world and what is in it—come to be?’ Under the Humanity segment, they want to know ‘what are people? Are they basically good or bad?’ Moral order is a huge category…‘what is right, what is wrong…and WHO decides?’ And finally, under the purpose category, children are curious. They want to know what their purpose is here on earth. We believe and teach our students that the Bible has the correct answers to all of these questions.”

The teachers are trained in guiding discussions, and faculty members use the Bible to help supply the answers. Then as children study various disciplines…for example ecosystems, the human body, history, literary works…they raise powerful questions and explore information using observation, reason, and logic.

It is important to note that we have not abandoned the rote memorization of facts at Isaac Newton. Fostering critical thinking skills doesn’t mean we throw memorizing facts (math, grammar, science) out the window! To the contrary, many respected educators believe that memorizing facts is an essential part of developing a body of knowledge from which to think critically, and we stand by that research. (We’ll talk about that in the future!)

Isaac Newton faculty members absolutely believe that the development of critical thinking skills and Christianity are compatible. In fact, they would go a step further and say critical thinking skills are essential to a well-developed mind, and this only enhances one’s understanding of God and a personal relationship with Him.

Coming up: What can parents do to encourage critical thinking skills in their children.

Kathryne Oates is the Director of Community Relations and Development, wife of 35 years to Bill, mother to Austin and his wife Cailey Sue, grandmother to their children Nate (4) and Alaina (2), and recent mother-of-the-bride to daughter Kaylie (Isaac Newton alum!), who is married to Ryan Schneider. Bill and Kathryne have used public school, home school and Christian schooling in the course of raising their family…and she counts it a great privilege to promote Isaac Newton to others!