How Sonlight Teaches Critical Thinking (Even Though It's Hard)

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If you have a baby and would like her to learn to speak English as she grows, what would you do? Would you go out and buy a vocabulary curriculum for her, start it at 6 months old and trust that would be sufficient?

Of course not. We teach babies to speak by speaking to them, speaking around them, and simply exposing them to language in context every day.

Yet there's another very complex skill that we sometimes approach as if kids can learn it quickly without much real-life exposure. Critical thinking has become a sort of litmus test of a good education. We all want our graduates to demonstrate this skill, which according to one helpful article includes "seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth." Yet many educators approach this complex skill as if students can learn it with a few hours of critical thinking workbooks each week.

Now, I think vocabulary curriculum and critical thinking workbooks definitely have their place. But, just as vocabulary curriculum won't do much good if your child isn't also hearing the language in everyday contexts, a critical thinking program won't do much good unless the main thrust of your homeschool also helps your child learn to think critically. If your child isn't learning to reason, to consider another's viewpoint, in their daily school and life, it's going to be very hard for them to translate the skills they learn from a workbook into any other situation.

I just read a wonderful, scholarly article on why you can't teach critical thinking. It turns out that most attempts to teach critical thinking don't do much good. And that may be because there are three aspects to thinking critically that are just very hard to teach.

But here's the good news: Sonlight deliberately addresses all three aspects of teaching critical thinking. Maybe this is why customers rave about how Sonlight has helped them raise critical thinkers over the long haul. Here are the three areas and how Sonlight naturally incorporates them:

    1. In order to think critically, children need lots of background knowledge
      It's hard to make connections between ideas, evaluate opposing views and reason logically if you don't know many ideas in the first place. If you're trying to give an unbiased critique of colonialism in Africa, but don't know anything about colonialism and its effects, you'll have a hard time coming up with valuable contributions. Since Sonlight students learn history in a way they enjoy and remember, they develop a vast reservoir of background knowledge and cultural literacy to help them along the way. They understand the big picture of how history has unfolded, so they have a firm foundation from which to make connections and consider new ideas.

 

  1. Children need to learn the specific skills and steps in critical thinking
    Students need to know what to do when they set out to analyze an argument or consider a different viewpoint. Sonlight provides this naturally. If the author of a book has a clear bias, we'll point that out in the Instructor's Guide and offer counter arguments and other viewpoints. As you discuss this, students learn the steps of identifying a bias, considering another point of view, looking for reasons to support both sides, and deciding which (if either) creates a better argument.Students will read one perspective in one book, another perspective in another book, counter-balancing notes in the Instructor's Guide, and then learn to compare and evaluate those differing thoughts. That's what I call a good, well-rounded education.
  2. Children need LOTS of practice
    You wouldn't expect children to use a new word naturally in conversation just because they saw it once on a vocabulary sheet. And it turns out that critical thinking skills are even harder to translate from one context to another. (That's why word problems can be so tricky in math – students don't recognize that they already have the skills they need to solve a problem when it's presented in new and different real-life contexts.)So in order to make progress, children need lots of practice applying the steps of critical thinking. And with Sonlight, your children will get practice in this every day. It starts off very gently when they're young, and by the time they graduate high school they've done it hundreds (thousands?) of times.

    Simply reading lots of literature does wonders to help children consider another's point of view. When you walk a mile in a character's shoes through reading a compelling story about them, you come to understand how they see life, even if that's very different from your own experience. This is invaluable when it comes to listening to both sides of an issue. And with Sonlight, we help students go beyond a light reading of most of the books they read. Discussion questions push students to consider deeper issues and make connections with historical events of the time. And this doesn't just happen with one book, but with hundreds of books over the years. With so much practice, it becomes second nature to think and see beyond the surface.

Perhaps critical thinking is like a muscle. If you never work out that muscle, it's weak and you have trouble relying on it. If kids practice using it regularly, they naturally begin to apply what worked and what didn't work in previous experiences. They become adventurous enough to try something new, or use what they learned in a previous or similar situation to solve a new problem. Yes, you have to know something about the problem already in order to solve it (background knowledge). But it also helps if kids have solved other challenging problems previously. Aside from the skills they practiced in solving other challenging problems, they have learned at a very basic level that they CAN solve such problems. And so they have the confidence to try to do it again.

Sonlight's teaching method is all about natural learning — conversations with your children about what they're learning, discussion questions that challenge kids to think more deeply about topics (answer "why" something happened and not just "what happened?"). This method is a combination of both acquiring knowledge and gaining daily practice in thinking critically about  that knowledge.

When comparing Sonlight to another curriculum, one mom posted on the forums:

"There truly will be zero comparison in critical thinking skills. I found [the other curriculum] to be more retelling, than thinking about the reading, the comparing of views, the whys.  [The other curriculum] just doesn't hold a candle to [Sonlight in] this line of thought."

And that is my prayer – that Sonlight students will learn to carefully weigh what they hear so that they can confidently pursue Truth and live the life that God has for them.

Blessings to you on that journey,
Sarita


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Sarita

About Sarita

Sarita Holzmann is the founder of Sonlight Curriculum, speaker, writer, curriculum developer, missions advocate, beloved wife, veteran homeschool mom, and active grandmother.
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