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‘Why’ ignites critical thinking

by Tim Middleton

A university Philosophy examination had one question in the paper and this one question was made up of one word. The question simply read “Why?” One enterprising youngster opened the question paper, gave the matter some considerable thought before writing one word and walking out with an air of confidence bordering on smugness. What was his one word answer? “Because!”

Of course, anyone who has lived with a four-year-old child will have used such an answer when the little angel asked so innocently that simple yet complex question: “Why?” Indeed, sometimes we will proudly and positively expand a little on the one-word answer and say, “Because I say so!” or “Because that’s just the way it is!” We answer with that same smug confident air as the young student, but the four-year-old, with the wisdom and intuition of a university professor, does not accept such an answer. The parent’s response to the question “Why?” is often met with another “Why?” — and then another. The religious amongst us might have a moment of inspiration and add “Because that’s the way God made it!” though that is not always sufficient explanation as the child will still answer with another “Why?” (which prompted one weary grandfather to mutter to himself, “Maybe because you weren’t around to advise Him!”). And if you are really stuck for an answer, the stock response will be: “Go and ask your father!” Do not ask “why?” to that response!

However, as adults we might begin to wonder why young children do ask such questions. It should not surprise us, however; the current younger generation are often referred to as being the Y Generation. Why the Y? The Y Generation continually ask the question, “Why?” They question what is being said and done and thought. In the past youngsters have perhaps grudgingly put up with the stock answers. Why? Maybe it is because they have been brow-beaten (or just beaten) into accepting it. Why? Because they are programmed to do so. Why? Maybe because they never get a proper answer. Why? Because the parents feel threatened. Why? Because they actually cannot give an answer? Why? Why? Why? We could go on and on and on (like the four-year old child).

“Why?” is the hardest question to answer, of that few will question. However we need to realise that a child asking the question “Why?” is not necessarily challenging authority; it may be a real and genuine interest, a simple and sincere ignorance, a deep and refreshing curiosity, a natural and innocent lack of understanding. When we ask, tell, challenge, plead, cajole, encourage, command youngsters to do something and they ask us “Why?”, we do not need to feel threatened and splutter out some feeble response; rather, we can answer the question by asking another question! When they ask us “Why?” we have a wonderful opportunity to reply, “That is a really good question. Why do you think?” The fact that they ask that question shows that they have thinking skills, they have the ability to think critically; as a result they have the ability and responsibility to work out the answer for themselves, so we should give them the opportunity to do so. Why? The biggest mistake we make with children is to give them the answers or we refuse to give them an answer. Why is that a mistake?

Because if we give them an answer they become lazy; why? Because they know someone else will answer it for them. If we do not give them an answer they learn to think for themselves.

So why is it so important for children to learn to think for themselves? That is a really good question; why do you think? The current pandemic has shown us why: when there is no textbook to turn to, no adult to ask, no precedent to discover, the child simply has to work out the answer for himself. The bottom line is this: we want our children to think critically, to think for themselves, to work things out for themselves. Why? If they are allowed to ask those questions and are encouraged to work out the answer themselves, then they will not ask us those questions when they are in their terrible rebelling teens! We must not therefore stifle their inquisitiveness; we must not stop them asking such questions; we must not give them dead-end answers that shut the conversation up.

The sad reality is this: children have a natural ability to think critically, even at the age of four, yet we squash all such thinking out of them (because we say so)! Instead of stifling it with such arrogant disrespectful dismissiveness we should stimulate it so that it remains a natural ability. In short, the Ys will ask the “Why”s and the “Why”s will make them wise. Why? Work it out for yourself!

l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.

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