Meaning: High school is prime time for inquiry-based learning, even for inquiry-based growing up. If teaching methods in high school are anchored in disseminating facts and information, and otherwise not geared toward investigative, exploratory learning that taps into higher order thinking skills, then the high school experience will have been a complete waste. Minds are enlivened by asking questions and having one’s questions responded to with additional questions. An inquiry-centered approach to learning, across all subjects, is about developing all areas of one’s cognitive faculties. Simply put, this means critical thinking, which should be at the center of all educational programs and curricular models in high school. But what is critical thinking? Here’s a full and precise definition of critical thinking, which comes from the International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, as it is found on the Foundation for Critical Thinking website: “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.” Now that definition contains a lot of words. All those words relate to what is ignited within the mind that is fully alive, and they pertain to what the brain must be capable of doing in order to be functioning to its potential. A fully evolved inquiry-centered teenager – and admittedly there are few in this category – will have developed a strong sense of self; will know how to live by a core set of values and principles; and will pose good questions and possess healthy skepticism in response to powerful messaging from media, from advertising, and also from peers. No matter what the academic strengths and interests and passions, the high school student who can think critically and insightfully will be the best prepared for the rigors of higher academia when they get to college. This type of thinking must be emphasized at home if it is not happening at school, but it will take astute, wise and confident parenting to pull this off with any consistency and effectiveness. But progress can happen, and the teen’s mindset can be cultivated, by applying the components of inquiry and critical thinking to everyday problems—inquiry is not at all a value that is assigned exclusively to the academic arena. For example, when a problem arises in one’s life, help your teenager to come up with a clear vision to identify the problem, understand the problem fully by asking questions about it from all angles, know what facts or factors contribute to the problem, consider the resources and outlets available to help solve the problem, analyze and weigh possible approaches to dealing with the issue, evaluate the pros and cons of different approaches, and then take action to get to a solution. None of this will happen seamlessly or without emotion or bias or setbacks, but the winner goes to those who try and apply all the tools at hand, no matter how messy the process. Taking an inquiry-based approach to as many of life’s little and big issues as possible is the best strategy for enlivening the mind of the teenager and thus raising their confidence and outlook on life.
Action: Teaching critical thinking skills to teenagers is customarily seen as the domain of the high school’s academic program, but while teachers certainly bear a huge responsibility for gearing their lessons toward inquiry-based learning, the teen’s family can play a vital role in fostering and developing an inquiry-centered identity in their child. For example, when sharply contrasting opinions are expressed, these are times to listen and encourage further explanation and research to clarify and support the teen’s opinions; the aim is to value depth of thinking and reasoning. The approach should never be to belittle the teen’s views and beliefs, but to champion fact checking, digging up background information, and learning more about an issue being debated or discussed. However, don’t expect leaps-and-bounds progress toward adult-like thinking. The teenage brain is far from fully developed, as the prefrontal cortex—the center of the brain’s critical thinking, command control over emotions and impulsivity, and the source of reasoning and ethical judgment—will still be in process of developing and won’t function fully until at least the mid-20s. This doesn’t mean that teenagers can’t reason or think well; rather, teens simply find it challenging to summon their critical thinking faculties at all the right times and will be unable to keep their reasoning center turned on for any duration that would matter. We adults can be supportive of their development – meaning we can help their synapses to grow and connect – by appealing to their better, reasonable selves, even when they fail to control impulses. Teenage behavior, as we all know, can be unpredictable, risky, maddening, and outlandish; adults will react to this with exasperation, anger, bafflement, and also resignation. But those adults who make an honest effort with patience, along with consistent appeals to thinking things through when reflecting on wrong choices made, will be most likely to make progress in helping the teen brain to develop, even if the behavior cannot be curtailed in the short term. The standard advice to parents regarding engaging with their children will apply to the teen years as much as it does with younger children: ask questions that do not have yes or no as an answer; question or help lead the teen him- or herself to question their incorrect assumptions; have them check information sources for their views; convert current events to their own lives and choices—what would they do if they were in that person’s shoes who was profiled in the news? Keeping communication lines open and active will be the best approach for establishing conditions for developing their reasoning and critical thinking. Above, don’t throw in the towel; don’t give up; don’t throw them out of the house—your efforts probably won’t pay off in the short run, but it’s the long game you’re after.
Learning: For teachers, a superb article, including loads of links, on teaching critical thinking to kids, especially regarding how to develop media literacy and helping students to see through the fog of misinformation, is “When Should We Teach Critical Thinking to Kids?” by Frank Baker, located on the middleweb.com site. A more scholarly and comprehensive article on critical thinking for educators is a paper by Tim van Gelder, entitled, “Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science,” found on this site: https://frank.itlab.us/forgetting/teaching_critical_thinking.pdf. For parents, a good article on the topic of engaging your child in meaningful conversations, is “Deeper Conversations With Your Teen: The Questions You Need To Ask,” by Gwen Edwards, on the focusonthefamily.ca site. And because electronic devices will often get in the way of entering into ANY meaningful conversation with your child, check out this piece by Dr. Corinne Masur, entitled “Revisiting The Question of Device Use Among Children and Parents: Is It Time to Say No to Electronic Devices for your Children?” on the thoughtfulparenting.org site.