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I am interested in pursuing a non-authoritarian approach to educating my son and I do not know at what age (or prerequisite milestones) the focus of education should switch from telling him facts to mainly using (guided) research of primary sources and direct experimentation to learn. Ideally, I'd like for him to be able to critically examine a claim and compare it to what he knows or think of ways to falsify it before I focus on this method.

Has research been done on this aspect of development? If so, is their a way to gauge if the complexity is within their grasp? For instance, "once milestones A, B, and C have been achieved, most children are able to critically examine a five predicate claim". If this research is not availbe, your experience as educators can provide an estimate.

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Are you looking for child development stages as described by Piaget and Vygotsky? –  mmr Aug 24 '12 at 0:50
I do not know those development stages by that name. If they are possible to measure or estimate at home (something you don't need a psychologist for) that would be acceptable. For instance, if it's as complex as IQ, that wouldn't be acceptable, but something like the hierarchy of needs would be. Basically it needs to be useful to me in determining when my child is ready. –  William Grobman Aug 24 '12 at 4:01
I have some 20+ year old students who haven't reached this stage yet. –  Dave Clarke Aug 24 '12 at 12:56
@DaveClarke I don't think all people reach these milestones; that's mainly why I offered them as an alternative measure to age. –  William Grobman Aug 24 '12 at 15:11
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

According to Jean Piaget, most children do not reach the level of cognitive development that you are talking about until they're at least 11 years old or older, and from the classes I've taught I would tend to agree with Piaget. We also know that the frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, and judgement, isn't fully "connected" so to speak to the remainder of the brain until a person is somewhere between 25-30 years old (an interesting article here). While you can certainly have your son's cognitive abilities assessed, Piaget is a pretty sound source, though I believe in light of more recent research on the brain Piaget would probably revise his final level of cognitive thinking. Be that as it may, you can read through his theory and more informally assess your son's cognitive abilities. Some kids move through the stages faster than others, though I would doubt there are many 7-year-olds who could be classified in the formal operational stage.

I don't know how old your son is, and I certainly believe it doesn't hurt to begin pushing critical thinking as much as possible at as young an age as is practical. D. Alan Bensley wrote an article about teaching critical thinking in college psychology, and he came to an interesting conclusion that professors/teachers/parents/etc. had been really going about teaching critical thinking skills all wrong because they were just so obvious to those of us who had all ready achieved CT skills. We assume that by modeling critical thinking or challenging our students/children with more difficult work or throwing them into a debate that they will learn critical thinking skills in a more or less organic manner, but really we need to be teaching critical thinking skills very explicitly. While you might not think that an article written for psychology professors could be of any use to you, he offers some good suggestions on techniques for teaching and encouraging critical thinking that I think you could modify to use with your son regardless of his age or his level of cognitive development such as:

  1. Motivate your students (or child) to think critically. Arouse interest in your child in whatever it is you're trying to teach him. Tell a compelling story, for example, about when critical thinking wasn't applied appropriately. This helps your child to understand why critical thinking is important and see that failing to apply critical thinking can have unintended consequences. Additionally, encourage open-mindedness, skepticism, and fair-mindedness in your child as lack of these can be a barrier to critical thinking.
  2. Clearly state your critical thinking goals I think, at your son's age, this is probably more for you than for him, but it gives you the opportunity to really think about how you want to teach a certain CT skill.
  3. Find opportunities to infuse CT that fit content and skill requirements for your course This is pretty self-explanatory. If he grows accustomed to CT in everyday life then he should be able to transfer those skills over into academia.
  4. Use guided practice
  5. Provide feedback and encourage your son to reflect on it

That's just a few of his suggestions; there are a couple more but they didn't seem quite as modify-able (is that a word?) as the others.

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I'll change this to my accepted because it specifically answers exactly what I asked. I really look forward to looking into your info more deeply. I suspect that these methods work well, because looking back, I notice that this is basically what my dad did with me and I had developed rather impressive critical thinking skills by about five to six. Any ideas on what sort of practice is good for step four? –  William Grobman Sep 2 '12 at 6:44
The author mentions specifically modeling and scaffolding. If you're not familiar with scaffolding, in education we use scaffolding to help students achieve a certain goal by helping them build up to it. But the process is pretty explicit by breaking down the goal into its individual components and ensuring that students have mastered each step with built-in assessments before moving on to the next, more difficult skill. It can be time-consuming, but it can also work really well and allow your students to move at a pace that is appropriate for them. –  Meg Coates Sep 2 '12 at 21:02
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You should consider a hybrid: tell him facts, but explain how you know that they are true. By engaging with him, you'll both train him to think critically and be able to assess what level of sophistication he can handle. Then you'll know the answer of when and to what extent to transition to experimentation and primary sources not for some average male child, and not for some prototypical male child dreamed up by a child psychologist, but for your child.

I don't think there is any age that is too early to begin; it worked on me from an early age, and it works to an extent on my 1 1/2 year old (in that if there are reasons for something, he'll very often stop and listen to them, and will often change his mind about what he wants if the reasons sound compelling to him; of course, he has only a minimal grasp of what makes a good reason vs. a bad one, but it's a start).

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+1 Excellent suggestion! I love this idea because it fundamentally challenges how I wanted to achieve this without requiring me to change my educational plans. I believe that this will make determining the transition age easier and likely help to teach my son the skills necessary in the first place. Assuming nothing better comes up, I'll accept this great answer. –  William Grobman Aug 25 '12 at 16:25
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Interesting question as I was just compiling/crowdsourcing a list of "must read books" for my soon-to-be 13yo that are ideal for exposing critical thinking.

The easy answer is "it depends"...and it really does. So many factors and even more conundrums and variances based on culture and exposure.

The hard (way to find your) answer is to test. We're big fans of Developmental Testing Services (now Lectica). Of their tests, I think LERA, LRJA, LSUA, and DCS are the most relevant.

I've curated a list of books [here] that are my favorite and which many deal with developmental stage assessment.

If I had to pick my favorite it would be "Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification". Or "Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice". Robert Kegan's "In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life" is awesome, but I had to read it 3 times before it really stuck with me.

Sorry for not having a direct answer. It's one of those subjects where the more you know you feel like the less you know! 8-)

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This is an interesting answer. Could you make it a bit more specific though? Including which of Lectica's tests are relevant and a brief summary of how those books pertain to the issue would make the info more useful. As it stands, this just lists somethings you say are topical even if they look promising. –  William Grobman Aug 25 '12 at 0:49
William - I guess that's the point. The question is so broad that it can't be adequately be answered within the context of a forum post. It requires at least a book - if not many more - of perspective. And there's dozens of books with many congruent and conflicting views on this question. –  David LaPlante Aug 27 '12 at 4:18
WRT Lectica: LERA, LRJA, LSUA, DCS are great. –  David LaPlante Aug 27 '12 at 4:25
I agree that it's a complex issue and it may be beyond the scope of a single answer. As it stands though, your question doesn't say how any of the resources you provided are related to what I asked. Your answer may be fantastic, but I have no way of evaluating that. –  William Grobman Aug 27 '12 at 14:14
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