During a recent keynote, I got a question from a dad on how to cultivate curiosity and critical thinking in his children.
I’m not a parent so, in one sense, I feel totally underqualified to say anything on the topic. At the same time, during my ten years as a professor, I’ve learned a few methods for encouraging people, regardless of age, to think differently.
What follows is a list of 6 statements or questions that children typically hear from well-meaning parents and teachers. I’ll explain the problem with each of them and suggest what we should do instead.
- “What did you learn in school today?” vs. “What did you disagree with today?”
The cliche question—What did you learn in school today?—reinforces the traditional conception of education: The teacher fills the empty tanks of young minds with “content.” The student absorbs knowledge and regurgitates it.
Here’s the thing: A willingness to question knowledge is far more important than the ability to receive and retain it. Important dates in the Civil War and the capitals of the fifty states will all be forgotten soon enough.
Once ingrained, however, the ability to reimagine the status quo and to question confident claims will remain.
So let’s ask children, “What did you disagree with today?,” “What questions are you curious about today?” or any other question designed to get them to think for themselves and to put a question mark at the end of conventional wisdom.
- “What did you accomplish this week?” vs. “How did you fail recently?
What have you failed at recently? And what did you learn from it?
In asking his children what they failed at, Sara’s father gave them the breathing room to tackle interesting problems, and yes, to fail from time to time. To him, failing to try was far more disappointing than failure itself.
Note that this question isn’t an endorsement of failure for the sake of failure. Failure, by itself, isn’t enough. As the question makes clear, you must reflect on the failure, learn from it, and improve on your next attempt.
- “Here’s how you do that.” vs. “How would you solve this problem?”
When a child comes to us with a problem, our initial instinct is to step in to deliver a quick and efficient fix.
Resist that instinct. Don’t show your hand. Let them find a solution on their own. The process involved in finding the answer is far more important than the answer itself.
So if a child asks you, “How did the dinosaurs die?,” don’t launch into a lesson about an asteroid hitting the earth. Instead ask, “What do you think could have killed them? How would you figure it out?”
When you spoon-feed answers to your children, you’re acting like a personal trainer who “helps” a client by lifting their weights for them. But when you let your children formulate a solution, you’re letting them exercise their own thinking muscles.
When they give you an answer, ask them for more answers. Let them see that there’s often more than one way of framing the problem and more than one possible answer to it.
- “Here’s your new kindergarten” vs. “What kindergarten do you want to attend?”
When I was five years old, my parents enrolled me in kindergarten. Instead of doing what most parents do and pick a kindergarten for their child, they told me that I would get to pick where I went to school. Unbeknownst to me, they had already vetted nearby kindergartens and found three suitable ones that they presented to me as a choice.
We visited each kindergarten and I got to ask the questions that were important to me (What kind of toys do you have?). This was a formative moment—one that stayed with me to this day. For the first time in my life, I felt empowered to make my own choices within the guardrails my parents had set. I could think for myself, rather than depend on anyone else to do my thinking for me.
- “You can’t do that.” vs. “What would it take to do that?”
Don’t tell your children that their ideas are unreasonable.
Imagine if a young Einstein had been silenced when he posed this seemingly unreasonable question: What would happen if I chased after a beam of light?
This question could have been reflexively dismissed as absurd by a busy parent (Go back to your room, Albert, and stop the crazy talk.).
I’m glad it wasn’t. The resolution of that question ultimately culminated in the special theory of relativity.
For your own children, open up possibilities instead of closing them off. Encourage them to pursue seemingly unreasonable ideas. “What would you need, young Albert, to chase after a beam of light?” “What would the beam of light look like when you arrived?”
- “Did you make a new friend today?” vs. “How did you help someone today?”
The first question treats school like a superficial networking event (How many business cards did you collect?). The second one encourages forming meaningful connections and developing a spirit of generosity.
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It may have occurred to some of you that this post is a Trojan Horse.
These questions are as much for you as they are for your children.