If ever there was a time when young thinkers needed the ability to parse fact from fiction, or to think critically about the source of information as they learn it, 2023 is it. And in a year when Arkansas’s librarians are fending off book bans, and an executive order from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders restricts what topics can be taught in classrooms, the battle over information has hit especially close to home. The ability to think critically is more essential than ever.

While schools play an important role in developing children’s critical thinking skills, changing educational policies are impacting teachers’ ability to spend the time needed to develop it. This means parents have a greater responsibility to ensure their children learn and practice critical thinking outside the classroom.

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Shelley Smith, a teacher of more than 30 years in the Ozark Mountain communities of Mountain Home and Leslie, has taught children in art, Spanish, English and journalism. She defines critical thinking as the ability to consider situations and problems from a variety of viewpoints and to analyze them objectively. 

Tim Eubanks, a science and computer programming teacher and 35-year veteran of Arkansas public schools, said critical thinking is empowering. “We all face problems, big and small, every day,“ he said. “Being able to approach a problem using logic, seeing cost-benefit, risks, accounting for limitations, and multiple solutions leads to confidence and success.”

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Eubanks said students need to be encouraged to look at learning from multiple angles. They also need to know they are in a safe environment where mistakes are OK. “Once a problem is identified or defined, students need resources: time to think, time to research, time to try out their ideas. Lots of time,” Eubanks said. “Allowing students to identify their own problem to solve adds meaning and relevance.”

Both Smith and Eubanks are concerned about shifts in education that hinder their ability to foster these skills in their students. Eubanks says the focus on standardized test scores means little time is left for meaningful exercises in critical thinking. 

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“In the classroom, time for independent thought and student-driven activities is limited,” Eubanks said. 

According to Smith, education is becoming more “pre-packaged,” and policymakers are eliminating opportunities for students to learn about different cultures and points of view. “When it becomes a single set of facts with no room to question or analyze, we’re killing critical thinking,” Smith said. 

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As classroom policies and priorities change, the teachers say parents must step up and help their children become critical thinkers. “Parents are crucial,” Smith said. “They set the tone for being curious learners long before teachers are in the picture.” 

While critical thinking contributes to success in the classroom, both educators believe it is increasingly needed to help children comprehend all the information — and misinformation — they see, hear and read outside of school. “Children need to play outside, read books, ask questions and go to museums and interesting places where they can see a variety of people, art and ideas,” Smith said. 

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Smith used to take art students on yearly trips to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. She said the impact it had on her rural students was immense. “The experience was so important to them,” she said. “They saw things they had never seen before.” 

Smith said the students would talk about the trip for days. “The ability to consider viewpoints different than what they are used to is crucial,” she said. “Creativity and critical thinking go hand in hand.”

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Visiting museums and other free public spaces are opportunities for learning that parents can recreate. Another low-cost option is reading. Eubanks stressed the importance of parents reading with and to their children. “Parents need to read to their children and children need to see their parents read,” he said.

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How can parents help their kids develop these key skills? 

Encourage curiosity: Nurture your child’s natural curiosity by creating an environment where questions are welcomed and exploration is encouraged. Be patient and provide thoughtful answers to their questions. 

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Model critical thinking: Demonstrate critical thinking in your daily life. Share your thought process when making decisions or solving problems, and discuss your reasoning with your child.

Read and discuss: Read together and talk about what you’ve read. Encourage analysis of characters in books or arguments made on news programs or in news articles. 

Play brain-boosting games: Board games, puzzles and strategy games challenge children’s minds and promote problem-solving and critical thinking. 

Teach media literacy: In the digital age, teach your child to evaluate the credibility of sources and discern fact from fiction in media content. 

Support decision-making: Involve your child in age-appropriate decision-making processes. Encourage them to think about the consequences of their choices and consider different options. 

Foster creativity: Celebrate learning and encourage artistic expression through activities like drawing, writing and imaginative play. 

Reflect and evaluate: Encourage your child to reflect on their experiences and evaluate their own thought processes. Help them understand the importance of learning from their mistakes and that it’s OK to adjust their thinking when necessary. 

Provide encouragement: Be patient and supportive. Recognize your child’s efforts and growth as a critical thinker.