Fostering critical thinking skills with structure and freedom

By Sia Haralampus, Beginning School Teacher

From a young age, children are capable of thinking critically and deeply about their world. Developmentally, their primary task is to figure out the patterns of the world, to gather information, and to make connections. As natural explorers, young children are driven to discover and draw conclusions from their findings; they are propelled by their own curiosity and determination. By celebrating their natural curiosity, the classroom experience gives shape to student exploration with a dynamic mixture of structure and freedom.

In order to foster critical thinking skills, it is important to create a foundation of flexibility, responsiveness, and objectivity. Children who see things in new and different ways, who adapt and respond to changing variables, and who take a fair-minded approach are well equipped to use their critical thinking skills for powerful impact. In the kindergarten, teachers provide both structure and freedom to support flexibility, responsiveness, and objectivity. Classroom experiences are created around techniques, tools, processes, and methods so that children are able to practice and experiment while exploring their ideas. By providing direction and purpose without a prescribed path, teachers create a safe space for critical and creative thinking.

When taking students to the garden, for example, my plans are to provide experience with a variety of tools, introduce tips and techniques, and maybe even pull a few weeds. However, my goal is to help them interact with the earth and be inspired by their findings. One group I brought to the garden had been trying out their tools in the dirt when someone exclaimed, “Worm!” Soon many worms were discovered and requests were made to bring the worms indoors. At times like these, the structure can be as simple as a well-timed question: “If we take the worms indoors, what will they need to survive?” The children jumped at the chance to share their prior knowledge about worms and their observations of the garden habitat to consider, list, and gather the materials for housing their worm friends. Knowing the garden boundaries, the purpose of each tool, and the routines for garden work brings a sense of meaning to the experience, while also communicating trust from the teacher to the learner.

When considering the structures that foster critical thinking skills, the greatest point of organization is the social context. Friendship and community are central motivators for learning in kindergarten, both as the impetus and the energy behind their investigations. In one area of the classroom, children work with reusable materials to create by making connections with a variety of fastening tools. One child had built a house and another had built an airport; they declared that by connecting the two structures a city could be started. This particular moment sparked deep interest in contributing to the project. Other children offered to build more elements of the city and it soon required more space. While the boundaries and supplies (classroom structure) had inspired a creative collaboration (intellectual freedom), the project required adaptations in the classroom structure in order to move forward.

The adaptations required were both structural and procedural; not only did teachers adjust for space and materials access, but we also modified our approach over time. At the start of the project, prompts and conversations were centered on the types of buildings needed for a city. Later in the project, the needs of the project lent to conversations about organization and city planning. When it was clear a connecting bridge was needed in one location, the children were well-equipped to negotiate ideas, test out theories, and modify their prototypes.

The balance of structure and freedom is dynamic and responsive to provide support in the crossroads of student motivation and skill mastery. Through exposure to a wide range of experiences, techniques, and materials, children are able to find their own inspiration as well as be equipped to take on the journey of discovery.