Neuroscience Shows the Value of Learning Critical-Thinking Skills at a Young Age

By Bahar Amani in Brain Power Blog

December 18th, 2021

Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary science that combines biology, physiology, cognitive science and psychology to understand the nervous system and its processes. I decided to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience because this new and exciting field gave me the opportunity to further my understanding of early learning and its long-term effects. Early childhood is thought to be the most important developmental period for learning because children are able to actively experience their environments at a time where brain development is especially important (Tierney & Nelson, 2009). As brain plasticity decreases with age, and early childhood experiences wire an individual’s brain, early learning is incredibly important.

Developmental neurobiology has taught us that early experiences of learning can change the wiring of the brain and its connections throughout childhood. Our early experiences dictate which brain connections are strengthened and which ones are pruned (Kolb & Gibb, 2011). We also know that early childhood environment affects the brain structures and functions that are involved in important processes like attention, memory, and problem solving (Allen, Kelly & National Research Council, 2015). From infancy to childhood, the growing mind is extremely active, insightful, and has an incredible amount of potential. Some research suggests that children may have much stronger cognitive ability than adults give them credit (Allen, Kelly & National Research Council, 2015). This tells us that we should not be afraid of challenging younger learners; learning difficult material may provide an opportunity for significant cognitive growth!

Critical thinking is the process of analyzing multiple facts to formulate a judgement. More specifically this involves a rational, unbiased evaluation of evidence. In the context of Language Arts, critical thinking works to improve language, presentation ability, and comprehension skills. In the context of math, critical thinking works to help children make reasoned decisions on how to tackle problems. Instead of just applying a rule, or guessing an answer, students must evaluate a problem and make a thoughtful and informed decision. At Brain Power, we have a 4-step process to problem solving: 1) read the question carefully, 2) develop an informed strategy 3) solve the problem, and, lastly, 4) check your answer! Even though critical-thinking skills do not develop entirely in children until they reach adolescence, we know that its foundation is set in early childhood (ages 3-8).

A cognitive scientist by the name of Tim Van Gelder (2005) has done interesting research on critical thinking. One of his key points is that critical thinking is hard – it’s not an ability that can be mastered overnight because it is more of a lifelong journey. It’s never too early (or late) to work on it. Another point is that critical-thinking skills take practice. Like any other skill, in order to better your ability, you need to practice. Karls Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and researcher in human expertise and performance, explained that individuals can master a skill through something called “deliberate practice” (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). Deliberate practice is when a skill is practiced with intention and focused concentration, problems become gradually harder as they are solved, and lastly, there is guidance and accurate feedback being provided. These are things we keep in mind in our math classes at Brain Power.

Van Gelder also explains that we experience something called cognitive bias and that students are prone to belief preservation. Belief preservation is the tendency for us to cling to our initial beliefs, even if we receive new information that might contradict what we currently believe. What does this have to do with critical thinking? A critical thinker is aware of this bias, actively works to acknowledge its presence, and is open to other possibilities that may contradict what they believe. As parents and educators, we must encourage young learners very early on to question themselves, examine things from different angles, and challenge their own thinking.

In order to set young learners up for future success, pay special attention to their early learning and provide them with opportunities to grow! It’s not enough to memorize material. Real learning takes place when children have a genuine desire to understand the way that things work and why things happen. How can we do this? By instilling a genuine desire to learn. Children should be encouraged to ask questions, explore, formulate theories (and test them), all while practicing critical thinking.

References

Allen, L., Kelly, B. B., & National Research Council. (2015). Child Development and Early Learning. In Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. National Academies Press (US).

Link: https://www.nap.edu/resource/19401/BirthtoEight_brief.pdf

Ericsson, K. A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American psychologist, 49(8), 725.

Link: http://web.mit.edu/6.969/www/readings/expertise.pdf

Kolb, B., & Gibb, R. (2011). Brain plasticity and behaviour in the developing brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20(4), 265.

Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222570/?report=reader

Tierney, A. L., & Nelson III, C. A. (2009). Brain development and the role of experience in the early years. Zero to three, 30(2), 9.

Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3722610/

Gelder, T. V. (2005). Teaching critical thinking: Some lessons from cognitive science. College teaching, 53(1), 41-48.

Link: http://info.chesapeake.edu/blogs/fdcblog/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Teaching-critical-thinking-van-Gelder.pdf