Shrewd Critical Thinking

Specifically, questions 2,4 and 6 evaluate the knowledge or ideas the reader has on general topics, to a certain degree, rather than testing his reasoning skills. For instance, if I am aware, that human walking speed is somewhere in the range between 5-10 km/h, while most cars can move at a speed between 100 km/h-200 km/h, while I also know that the cruise speed for airplanes used in commercial flights is somewhere around 850km/h, etc. then there is no doubt I would place such options correctly when asked to order them from slowest to fastest. In order to give the right answer to this kind of questions, you only have to possess the piece of knowledge on a given topic and be able to recall the data, while the amount of actual reasoning thereafter is close to zero.( I can also agree with "Andra" user on the issue with question 6, i.e. volume of a creek). So they can hardly be described either as "critical thinking puzzles" or "puzzles" at all. Regarding the rest of the questions (1,3,5 and 7), they mostly call for the knowledge of definitions of respective items, where once again, as long as you know the definitions, you can automatically give at least one correct answer to them. Problems arise if you don't possess the necessary knowledge, but that's a different story. In any case, these 4 questions, similar to the other 3 can hardly evaluate your "critical thinking" skills.

An example of a low level "puzzle" to evaluate your critical thinking skills would be e.g. some variety of multiple choice test. A more complex alternative would be a text where you have to identify the issue(s), the conclusion(s), evaluate the consistency of the argumentation backing up the conclusion(s), reach your own conclusion about the authors conclusions...A somewhat different in nature and at the same time more abstract example would be to solve a mathematical problem or to prove a mathematical theorem.

I think an important idea is that, although we all inherently possess at least a bit of critical thinking capacity, so to speak, in order for this to make any sense at all you must develop critical thinking as a skill, much like you learn a language or mathematics...it's not about playing to see if you got something right or made an error per se, it's about acquiring and incorporating it as a habit for everyday life.

"Critical thinking" isn't primarily about knowing anything in particular. It has more to do with doubt and skepticism about information you have to deal with rather than with possessing or memorizing any particular piece of information. Critical thinking is mainly about the skills necessary to rigorously analyze and filter the incoming information, whatever it happens to be, and since we as humans made our verbal communication the most prestigious language to use, critical thinking is, as a matter of fact, mostly about the capability to evaluate the soundness of arguments of some sort.

So if you want to develop good critical thinking skills, the first option is reading some basic literature on the topic (there are many books of varying degrees of difficulty, although mostly accessible to "laypeople", treating specifically the topic of "critical thinking"). Ideally, you would want to study logic, which is basically the foundation of all critical thinking, paying special attention to fallacies, both formal and informal. If that doesn't happen to satisfy your thirst, then you can continue with the argumentation theory, the scientific method, cognitive science... epistemology, philosophy of science, mathematics (with its undeniably rigorous nature).

But for "beginners" and for those interested in the topic, you can check out the introductory books on critical thinking by Richard Paul (mentioned in this article) Richard Parker, Stuart Keeley, Debrah Jackson, Tracy Bowell and many more. There's a very short and simply written book, called "Being Logical - A Guide to Good Thinking" by D.Q. McInerny, which is probably a good choice if you want something simple and concise, but which I personally wouldn't recommend except for absolute beginners and only as a starting point before taking on some better and more comprehensive textbooks.

Two studious-looking third-class pupils are sitting in the reception area of Rathdown Junior School.

Their heads are down over a hexagonal board and they are taking turns to move what look like giant, shiny black-and-white gobstoppers that rest in individual spaces.

Having come to school with notes excusing them from outdoor play during the lunch break, the girls have chosen a strategy board game, Abalone, to entertain themselves indoors instead. It’s totally coincidental that this is the moment The Irish Times arrives for a demonstration of a lesson in strategy games and to hear of the benefits the school believes they provide.

Every pupil at this school in Glenageary, Co Dublin, from its mixed preschool right through to the girls-only junior school, has a weekly class of “thinking” games scheduled in the timetable.

There’s an air of quiet concentration among the girls in the P5 (fifth-class) classroom. They are seated facing each other on either side of tables, with a board game between each pair. Even the arrival of a photographer hardly causes a head to rise.

It’s the only school in Ireland that uses a methodology called the Mind Lab to develop thinking abilities and life skills through strategy games.

When the school introduced this formalised, cross-curriculum approach to game-playing in 2009, it saw the importance of encouraging outside-the-box and strategic thinking, says Kiara Drake, who was appointed principal last August.

She has noticed that the girls “definitely” have a better approach to problem-solving than pupils of schools where she had previously worked.

In the 21st-century workplace, “you need to be able to evaluate and respond to situations as quickly as you can”, she says.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum published a report in January that predicted that, due to increased robotics and artificial thinking, the three most important skills needed in the workforce by 2020 would be complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.

Learning how to learn is at the core of Mind Lab, which was founded by two Israeli chess masters in 1994.

The method is based on the notion that the most effective way to learn is through an immediate, enjoyable experience that you want to do again and again.

Game-playing fits that bill nicely. But it is the added value that teachers trained in the Mind Lab method bring to it that enhances the experience, along with linking it to other elements of the curriculum.

Language of thinking

Research by Prof Donald Green of Yale University in the US showed that although playing thinking games over a period of three months improved all children’s scores in “language of thinking” tests, the improvement was much more dramatic among those who also took part in a weekly lesson in the Mind Lab method, discussing strategies after they played the games.

All the Rathdown teachers were trained by Mind Lab in 2009, but “I just happened to really click with it”, says Natasha Pearson, who was in charge of first class at the time.

“I could see the potential with the children. It is a great help with children who may lack a little bit of confidence, or may not be as outspoken as other children in the class.”

She now teaches all the Mind Lab classes, ranging from 30 minutes a week to 45 minutes for older girls, such as this P5 class, who are today playing the four games – checkers, Abalone, Octi and Quoridor – used in the Mind Lab Olympics, at which Rathdown represented Ireland in 2011 and 2013.

Pearson draws on a set of 30 games, typically introducing one over a four-week cycle, starting with an explanation of its history, rules and effective strategies, before the girls start playing it for themselves and discover how the skills apply in real-life situations.

The youngest children start with the basic “traffic-light” strategy of stop, think and go before moving on to more complex methods that incorporate skills such as forward-planning, memorising, emotional control and reading an opponent.

“We encourage them to look at their opponent’s face, body language, [and think] what are they going to do next and what can I do,” says Pearson, who walks among the girls, occasionally asking about strategy or suggesting a move.

A formal handshake opens and closes each game as the girls rotate around the tables.

“It’s to say there are no hard feelings if you lose or win, and to say good luck,” says Felin Neiland (11), who is playing a game of Octi with Chloe Galvin (11).

Chloe likes checkers best but finds Octi “annoying”. It requires players to insert pegs into their pieces, which then dictates which directions the piece can be moved.

“You forget to put in pegs and the other opponent gets your piece, and you can’t do anything about it,” she says, after agreeing with Pearson that she has moved too quickly, without a plan.

“I hate it,” Maria Farrell (11) says of Octi. “Well I am not very good at it and I find it confusing. When I put all the pegs in one piece I can go any way, but then I don’t have back-up.” She much prefers Abalone.

However, her opponent, Juliette Grimley (11), really likes Octi and its potential for surprise. “I think it’s because of the strategies you can do, and you are able to jump over” your own or your opponent’s piece, she says, deftly moving her red counter to the board’s end line.

“Wait, does that mean you’ve won?” asks Maria.

“I won,” Juliette giggles, although quickly pointing out that it’s the best of three.

One of the most popular games is Mancala, a name given to a family of thinking games that have been traced back to the fourth century, according to Pearson. For this, P5 have made their own boards, in shapes such as a rainbow, swan or snake.

Charlotte Mitchell (11) listens to me struggling to grasp Felin’s explanation of the rules about “sowing seeds” from one pit to another, and says sympathetically: “It is one of the hardest things to learn.”

“When parents come and they try to learn how to play some of the games against their daughters, it’s very hard for them,” agrees Felin.

But it is second nature to these girls, and Drake believes the habits they get into of being in competitive situations, using different strategies and the need for perseverance are beneficial and applicable to real life. “You find yourself in a situation and you have to work through it. You can’t reset the game.”

SKILL OVER LUCK: CHOOSING THE RIGHT GAMES
Mind Lab operates in schools around the world, but the recession wasn’t a good time to introduce it in Ireland, says Gerry McCarthy of Future Kids, which used to be an agent for it here. Lack of finance and curriculum overload means this structured, in-school approach may not suit many schools. But any school – or family – can tap into the cognitive, social and emotional benefits of strategy games. Look for ones that are all about skill rather than luck. McCarthy suggests Quoridor, Quarto, checkers and Abalone.

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