Why should we include Critical Thinking (Good thinking) in Preschool

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle


Our role as educators is to support children to be independent life long learners in an ever-changing world. As explained by Andreas Schleicher (Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris) in his presentation to ACER (Schleicher, 2014, p. vii) ‘Today – where we can access content on Google, where routine cognitive skills are being digitised or outsourced, and where jobs are changing so rapidly – accumulating knowledge matters a lot less and success has a lot more to do with ways of thinking; creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, [and] judgement.’ Andrea’s comment “ways of thinking,” encourages us to ponder, what is thinking?
21st Century Skills

As educators we acknowledge that one of our goals is encourage children to be good thinkers, yet if we are unable to clearly articulate what thinking is, how will we develop children’s thinking capabilities beyond what they had when we first met them? Children are naturally curious, there is no need to teach them to think per se, and therefore the educators role is to introduce them to different more effective ‘ways of thinking’. Educator’s need to support children to think: “clearly, accurately, precisely, relevantly, deeply, broadly, logically, significantly, fairly” (Elder & Paul, 2008, p. 104), to be more critical in their thinking.


Supporting this drive towards critical thinking is 21st Century Skills, a concept that encompasses a wide range of knowledge and skills that are seen to be important for success in today’s, and tomorrow’s world. Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) is an organisation endorsing an educational focus on “critical thinking, and problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity and innovation” (P21, n.d.). Tony Wagner in his book “Creating Innovators” also puts forward a set of core 21st Century competences, critical thinking (the ability to ask good questions) and problem solving, Collaboration and Leadership, Agility and Adaptability, Initiative and Entrepreneurialism, Effective Oral and Written Communication, Accessing and Analysing information, and Curiosity and Imagination (Wagner & Compton, 2013). Wagner highlights that people who are successful utilising these 21st Century skills, had parents and teachers encouraging exploratory play, unstructured play, encouraged children to find and pursue a passion, who were given time to research, experiment, pursue intellectual or artistic passions from this came purpose (Wagner, 28 APR 2012). Early Childhood Educators in Preschools in Australia, especially those inspired by Reggio Emilia programs in Italy, these opportunities are a daily occurrence. These theories all apply to hose modes of thinking highlighted by Elder & Paul (2008) quoted above.


Despite the recognition of the importance of Critical Thinking there is no consensus on a definition, what adds to the complexity is that the term draws from multiple academic disciplines, “educational, philosophical, and psychological traditions of thought”, as Sternberg explains if there was founder of the “critical-thinking movement,” it would be John Dewey who was a philosopher, a psychologist and educator simultaneously (Sternberg, 1986, p. 4).


There are diverse interpretations of critical thinking, a broad definition gives scope for interpretation and manoeuvring, however a clear definition could provide a clear path forward. Mulnix, works towards this by probing the concept of critical thinking from multiple perspectives including Scriven, Paula and Elder, Vaughan, Petress, Phelan and Willingham and puts forward this summary “critical thinking is a process, a skilled activity of thought. It includes a commitment to using reason in the formulation of our beliefs. It is not the same as creative, imaginative or emotion-based thinking. And, as with any skill, it can be possessed to a greater or lesser degree” (Mulnix, 2012, p. 471)

The skill or the act of critical thinking has many benefits, it encourages dialogues with oneself (Metacognition), it supports the development of reasoning skills, it helps to evaluate our beliefs and others in light of evidential connections, makes for rational individuals and avoids conformist thinking. Therefore, the development of autonomy, or the ability to decide for ourselves based on our own thoughts, not based on other’s claims is closely tied with Critical thinking (Mulnix, 2012, p. 473).

Critical Thinking for many is examined as a skill as Mulnix has suggested (Facione, 2000; Mulnix, 2012; Salmon, 2008). As van Gelder, explains the word “skill” for most imply this is something that can be developed through practice, through being engaged in using the skill, as with any skill you become more proficient through regular practice. Mulnix suggests through coaching, others modelling the skills, continually practicing the skill, and receiving feedback on their use of the skill, children’s critical thinking can be developed (2012, p. 474). This is in total opposition to Willingham’s (2008, p. 24) assertion that critical thinking is not a skill, thus implying that it’s not teachable. Conversely, his explanation that the focus should be in exposing children to new ways of thinking, supporting them to use the right mode of thinking, at the right time surely is a method that many recommend as a strategy to teach aspects of Critical Thinking (2008, p. 24).

Belonging, Being & Becoming, is the educational framework that preschools work within; it explains that children can engage in critical thinking during play, by asking questions and solving problems. Explaining that children’s thinking and desire to know and learn is also expanded during play, thus “play can promote positive dispositions towards learning” (Belonging, being & becoming [electronic resource] : the early years learning framework for Australia, 2009, p. 16). However, there is only one reference to “critical thinking” within the framework. Dispositions have a stronger presences, with it being stated as an outcome for learning, Outcome 4 Children are confident and involved learners: Children develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, 
commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity.

Therefore, we need to explore what is meant by dispositions and how they link to Critical Thinking. Ritchhart (2002, p. 33) explains dispositional language is often descriptive and predictive in nature, a way that we label observed behaviours, and make predictive judgments on expected behaviours based on the labels we have used. He believes dispositions have a more important role than being a descriptive label for an assortment of behaviours, that thinking dispositions “act as both a descriptive and an explanatory construct, making clear the mystery of how raw ability it transformed in to meaningful action” (2002, p. 33). That dispositions concern not only what abilities people have, but how people are disposed to use those abilities (Perkins, Tishman, Ritchhart, Donis, & Andrade, 2000, p. 270). A definition of disposition is offered by Facione as “consistent internal motivation to act toward, or to respond to, persons, events, or circumstances in habitual, and yet potentially malleable, ways” (2000, p. 6). Though the phrase ‘habitual,’ is not an accurate definition of thinking dispositions, Ritchard’s explanation of dispositions as “acquired patterns of behaviour that are under one’s control and will as opposed to being automatically activated” (Ritchhart, 2002, p. 31) seems a better description.

Dispositions, like Critical Thinking, are ambiguous as they too draw from different schools of thought. Ritchhart puts forward six broad categories of dispositions under three over-arching categories that emerge as a result of examining current lists of dispositions:

  1. CO_21c_ImageCreative thinking: looking out, up, around and about



  1. Reflective thinking: looking within


  1. Critical thinking: looking at, through, and in between

Seeking truth and understanding


Skeptical (2002, p. 27)


The dispositions of Creative thinking and Reflective thinking clearly link with the outcomes identified previously in Belonging, Being & Becoming framework, though the category of Critical thinking is absent.


Dispositions are about more than a desire or inclination to act, they are impacted on by values, underlying temperaments, beliefs: “an awareness of occasions for appropriate action; motivation to carry out action and the requisite abilities and skills need to perform.” Unlike skills they aren’t so much taught, as they are enculturated (Ritchhart, 2002, p. 51).


The focus of a successful education, is not the knowledge that children store, “but their appetite to know and their capacity to learn” (Sir Richard Livingstone, 1941 cited in Claxton, 2007. P. 115), preschool children are hungry and eager to learn, they have a natural curiosity about the world around them, and they keen to figure things out about it. This is the prime time to support them learning the skills and dispositions they will require to succeed in the 21st century.


Preschools need to focus on dispositions as well as skills, learning behaviours as well as teacher skills, learning environments as well as instructional techniques (Beyer & Montclair State Coll, 1988, p. 6), to infuse critical thinking into the program. Critical thinking takes practice, a lot of practice for one to become proficient. Kindergarten provides the perfect starting point for the cultivation of thinking dispositions, but also for teaching critical thinking skills.


How can we cultivate critical thinking in preschool?


“Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” – Roger Lewin


Methods and strategies put forward through research to develop children’s critical thinking are forged in dialogue. To cultivate critical thinking however, the dialogue needs to be more than having a chat and sharing ideas. ‘Dialogic teaching’ seems to provide a possible framework, a starting place from which to grow.


‘Dialogic teaching’ just like critical thinking and dispositions, in that it means different things to different people. Dialogic teaching is said to “harness the power of talk” to inspire and extend children’s thinking and learning (Robin Alexander, 2014). Fisher unpacks it further by explaining that dialogic teaching refers to verbal conversations that stimulate children’s thinking, by providing cognitive stimulus, that expands consciousness (2007, p. 612). Wegerif, explains ‘monologic’ is a single true perspective, an external view in contrast to ‘dialogic’ refers that within a dialogue there is at least two perspectives at once (2011, p. 180). Monologic is often used to refer to traditional teaching, where the teacher asks a question and there is only one true answer, in contrast to a teacher or a child posing a question, that has multiple possible responses, when there is to and throw, meaning and understanding is explored. Volosinov, wrote that “meaning is like an electric spark that occurs only when two different terminals are hooked together” (Volosinov, 1986, p. 102 cited in Wegerif, 2006).


Alexander explains that it doesn’t matter how your interaction is organised, it is more like to be dialogic if it is:


  • collective
    Participants address learning tasks together.
  • reciprocal
    Participants listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints.
  • supportive
    Pupils express their ideas freely, without fear of embarrassment over ʻwrongʼ answers, and they help each other to reach common understandings.
  • cumulative
    Participants build on answers and other oral contributions and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and understanding.
  • purposeful
    Classroom talk, though open and dialogic, is also planned and structured with specific learning goals in view (R Alexander, 2005, p. 5).


To ‘harness the power of talk,’ children need to be trained in the skills of dialogue. Fisher advocates that teaching children the skills of dialogue provides a foundation for other skills such as metacognition, reasoning and creativity as well as being an essential communication and thinking skill (Fisher, 2007, p. 621). To be able to solve problems, respond to questions, to engage dialogic dialogue requires children to learn to listen to each other, to demonstrate reflexivity in their thoughts and responding to ideas of others. These skills support children to move towards chaining onto ideas of others within the shared space of the dialogue. For these outcomes to be achieved there needs to be ground rules (Robin Alexander, 2004; Fisher, 1999, 2007; Teo, 2013, p. 98), which are made explicit, so that children can internalise them as ‘habits of behaviour’ for all interactions.


As is the norm for preschool, rules need to be discussed and agreed on upon by the children, so there is understanding and ownership. Such rules may require participants to listen to one and other in order to engage with ideas in a meaningful manner, asking relevant questions, giving reason and justification for ideas based on evidence and resolving differences (Teo, 2013, p. 98). Children’s reasoning and problem-sloving skills seem to be improved by children learning how to effectively talk together in reflective and reasonable ways (Fisher, 2007, p. 621).


Principles of dialogic teaching, teaching that is dialogic rather than transmissive, where teachers providie the scaffold through;


  • interactions which encourage students to think, and to think in different ways
  • questions which invite much more than simple recall
  • answers which are justified, followed up and built upon rather than merely received
  • feedback which informs and leads thinking forward as well as encourages
  • contributions which are extended rather than fragmented
  • exchanges which chain together into coherent and deepening lines of enquiry
  • discussion and argumentation which probe and challenge rather than unquestioningly accept
  • professional engagement with subject matter which liberates classroom discourse from the safe and conventional
  • classroom organisation, climate and relationships which make all this possible (R Alexander, 2005, p. 14).


To develop dialogic skills, we need to cultivate mere talking, into talking for thinking this is most easily achieved via a physical stimulus or a cognitive challenge using the scaffolding techniques mentioned above. Whatever is used needs create a community of enquire that is sustained by teachers and children using complex open-ended questions and elaborate explanatory responses.


To create a preschool that fosters dialogic interactions to cultivate children’s critical thinking is the big picture, some of the framework has been explored through identification of characteristics of interaction, and the rationale for ground rules. The next part will explore a few strategies that can be used to provide children with the opportunity to practice, practice and practice critical thinking.


Being able to frame a question, or ask the right question is an important skill of for pre-schoolers, (Mills, Legare, Bills, & Mejias, 2010; Mills, Legare, Grant, & Landrum, 2011) and will add them in the development of their critical thinking. We need to support children to formulate effective questions that will fill their current knowledge gap. “The ability to ask questions is a powerful tool that allows children to gather information that they need in order to learn about the world and solve problems in it” (Chouinard, 2007, p. vii). Teacher’s can support this development through modelling, providing examples as stimulus such “what if?” and “how can?” Scaffolding, use Alexander’s list above, prompting through rephrasing or providing alternative language to support the exploration of a question, time, giving children permission to take thinking time, to frame their question.


Claxton, (2007, p. 19) however explains children need to be good at formulating questions, and also distinguishing types of questions. Though ‘being questioning’ is matter of self-confidence, inclination, sense of entitlement, it is not good being able to formulate and frame questions, if you are not willing or able to take the risk to do so.   This is where the characteristics of dialogic classroom come into play, children need to feel that their questions are welcomed, and incorporated into the discussion, so that the disposition to question becomes stronger, which will then further develop their critical thinking.


Educators asking questions, questions that encourage children to reflect on what they did and thought about, rather than recounting the experience itself, can develop children’s metacognition and self-regulation. Possible questions include “did you have an idea about what you wanted to do? “how do you feel about what you did?’” “what do you think was the best idea you had?” “Do you get ideas from other people?” (S. Robson, 2010, p. 231)


Although, unfamiliar with the movement ‘philosophy for kids’ the focus that children are stimulated to question, to think to reason and to “connect abstract philosophical concepts to concrete experiences” cited reflects well with the layman concepts of complex open-ended question and I wonder questions, but provides more direction, but as with dialogic teaching, aspects from the program may positively influence teaching, not the program as package. Having at the end of a discussion, a conversation to review the discussion to review the ground rules, as is an interesting addition to sustained shared thinking.


Did we have a good discussion today?

What was good about our discussion?

What could have been better? How?

What do we need to remember next time?

(Fisher, 2007, p. 621)


Project Zero, have created a sets of short, easy-to-learn thinking routines that target different types of thinking through questions, as part of their initiative called Visible Thinking (Ritchhard, Palmer, Church, & Tishman, 2006; Zero, 2007). The thinking routines each contain a series of questions, that teachers can ask to support children through the steps of critical thinking (Salmon). Children’s thoughtful learning is supported through the thinking routines developing their thinking dispositions (Ritchhard et al., 2006, p. 2).


Thinking Routines can be used across the preschool program, morning meetings, reflection time, small group experiences and so forth. Once children are familiar with the routines educators can model them during play, to promote and extend children’s thinking and learning as providing a model for them to incorporate the strategies into their play explorations.


The thinking routine see/ think/ wonder is good starting routine. It can be used to encouraging critical thinking through the exploration and critiques of artworks, photographs, books, objects and so forth. In the author’s Kindergarten the routine was used with the previously mentioned artefacts, but was also used with music. The children listen to a musical piece such as In the hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg, and were asked to share what they visualised, what they could see in their mind, as the I see question of this routine. Children then were encouraged to draw as they listened to the music, providing a non-verbal response to this thinking routine. Thinking routines are flexible, they are not a rigid children and teacher’s can modify as required (Ritchhard et al., 2006, p. 39). Revisiting thinking routines, and previous conversations allow children to re-examine, remember and extend, question, modify understanding or develop more sophisticated comments, is through the regularity of these discussions that children skills and dispositions have a chance to grow.


Teachers can activate a routine by naming it, but it is only through repeated practice it becomes a routine (Ritchhard et al., 2006, p. 11). To teach critical thinking skills, research tells us to make them explicit and practice them(Willingham, 2008, p. 29), with this in mind it would be wise to introduce thinking routines one at time and utilise it in a variety of different situations to consolidate children’s knowledge of it, before the introduction of others.   To achieve proficiency, children need active and deliberate repetitive practice (Mulnix, 2012, p. 474).


To achieve deep critical thinking though dialogic scaffolding is obviously more demanding of teacher skills than imparting information through recall and rote learning. Willingham (Willingham, 2008, p. 28), explains the success of a program depends on the skills of the teacher. The art of questions and dialogue is a strategy that educators can incorporate into their teaching methodology, yet the research indicates this is not happening (reference), therefore do teachers require professional development, or opportunities to observe other educators utilising dialogic teaching, thinking routines, open-ended questions, and, in the 21st century educators don’t need to leave home but can quickly jump onto YouTube to watch an instructional video what is needed is an inclination to do so.


Claxton (1999 cited in S. a. H. Robson, David, 2005, p. 92) suggests that we live an ‘age of uncertainty’ (p.243), where ‘the only useful – the defensible – thing to do is to try to prepare young people to deal with uncertainty’ (p.281). Actively working to develop children as autonomous, flexible and creative thinkers, equipped with the resilience and resourcefulness to deal with uncertainty, is a vital and achievable goal for early childhood practitioners.



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Alexander, R. (2005). Culture, dialogue and learning: Notes on an emerging pedagogy. . Paper presented at the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology, University of Durham. http://lpuae.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/47478116/Dialogic teaching.pdf

Alexander, R. (2014). Dialogic Teaching. 7 OCT 14

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Mills, C. M., Legare, C. H., Grant, M. G., & Landrum, A. R. (2011). Determining who to question, what to ask, and how much information to ask for: The development of inquiry in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 110(4), 539-560.

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P21. (n.d.). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.   Retrieved 7 OCT 14

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Wagner, T. (28 APR 2012). Play, Passion, Purpose: Tony Wagner at TEDxNYED.   Retrieved 25 ARP 13

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Wegerif, R. (2011). Towards a dialogic theory of how children learn to think. THINKING SKILLS AND CREATIVITY, 6(3), 179-190.

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Posted in 21st Century Skills, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Programing and Planning, Theory

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