Interview with Julie Bogart, Author of ‘Raising Critical Thinkers: A Parent’s Guide to Growing Wise Kids in the Digital Age’

Julie Bogart

Critical thinking is one of the most important tools that children develop during their formative years. From analyzing information to understand new concepts in school to weighing potential consequences during decision-making, one’s critical-thinking skills can have a tremendous impact on their lives.

In the new book, Raising Critical Thinkers: A Parent’s Guide to Growing Wise Kids in the Digital Age, author Julie Bogart delves into the importance of instilling strong critical-thinking skills in children. The book’s timing is impeccable, as parents are more concerned than ever about giving their children the necessary skills to navigate a world where information and technology is omnipresent.

Bogart is the creator of Brave Writer, the successful online writing and language arts program designed to help children develop strong writing and self-expression skills. As a children’s educator and mother of five children, whom she homeschooled herself, Bogart drew on her vast experience to create an excellent book that provides crucial insight into raising critical thinkers.

In this Q and A, Bogart spoke to us about some of the concepts she discusses in her book, as well as some practices parents can implement to improve their child’s critical-thinking skills.

Why is it so important to develop strong critical-thinking skills at an early age?

How we learn to learn shapes how we understand ourselves in relationship to others. If from an early age, we are introduced to a variety of ways to live and see the world, we have more room for nuance and complexity as we encounter a wide variety of people and perspectives.

Kids naturally adopt points of view different from their own. They put on dress-up clothes to pretend to be Cinderella or Robin Hood. They crawl on the floor to see what it’s like to be a dog. They imagine that they are traveling in a spaceship. We can capitalize on this natural curiosity by fanning it into flame, rather than training our children to adopt the family system as the one true way to interact with the world.

How can parents enhance their child’s critical-thinking skills at home?

First, by valuing dissent.  What does that mean? When a child disagrees with a parent’s point of view, the parent can be curious about why that child sees the issue that way. For instance, you might have a child who wants to skip eating breakfast. The typical parent will go into “indoctrination mode” to get the child to see that breakfast matters, that the child’s brain won’t work as well without it, that the child will be hungry too soon before lunch, etc.

But what if we got curious instead? What if the child explained that he didn’t like breakfast foods and only wanted turkey sandwiches. What if the child didn’t feel hungry yet and needed an hour to wake up before eating felt comfortable for them? Can we hear that? Can we swap in a sandwich or send a more substantial snack to school to eat during a break? Sometimes we are so busy telling our kids what they should think and feel, we miss an opportunity for creative problem-solving, helping a child know their own mind, and imagining alternatives.

Parents can also play games of all kinds, ask good questions, and provide their children with experiences and encounters.

Are there common practices that parents might engage in or let their children engage in that could have a negative impact on developing critical-thinking skills?

Lots of parents are worried that their children will adopt the “wrong” views, so they protect their children from any thoughts or ideas that contradict the family value system. When we prevent kids from knowing that other views exist, we either drive their different ideas underground where they feel uncomfortable talking about them with their parents, OR we teach them to be propagandists for a perspective—meaning they learn the family lexicon of ideas and defend them without having investigated them for themselves.

What we want are kids who can encounter an idea that feels uncomfortable, knowing they will survive it and can explore and investigate it with tools that lead them to better conclusions.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote this book because the internet has led us into some of the most vicious conversations any of us have ever experienced. Our school test-training led us into the misconception that there would be one right answer to all complex questions and if we could just find the expert who tells us what that is, everyone would agree.

What we discovered instead is that school misled us. Most issues are not single answer issues. Most of our conflicts involve our personal perceptions and the narratives our communities give us. It’s difficult to tease apart what I know because I know it and what I have received from my community as true because I value the people who create my meaningful life. My hope is that as we face how the internet has caused us to become more reactive and less thoughtful, we can create new conditions for our children. In short, I really hope we can change the way we interact with one another, so that we can face the big issues that face us bravely, with more insight.

What else do you want parents to know about this book?

I want parents to know this is not a thinly veiled political screed. I don’t talk about US politics or whether or not to wear masks. The purpose of this book is to engage in ideas with tools that help us do a better job of exploring them. I also hope parents who read this book will become better parents—making room for their children to think all of the thoughts they have without running the risk of losing a parent’s love and support.

 

New Research Proves What Montessorians Have Long Known: Finger-Tracing Helps Children Learn

 

Sandpaper numbers are common in Montessori classrooms. Photo by Lisa Maruna

For more than 100 years, finger-tracing has been used by Montessorians to help children learn geometry and language. Ask a Montessorian about finger-tracing, and they might even quote Dr. Maria Montessori, who wrote in her seminal book, The Absorbent Mind: “He does it with his hands, by experience, first in play and then through work. The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”

Now, new research is confirming what Montessorians have long known about how movement and touch can aid in learning.

Tracing to Success

Two recent studies from the University of Sydney compared groups of children who used finger-tracing to learn a lesson with those who did not, and the results showed the finger-tracing groups came out ahead.

In one study, conducted in Shanghai, China, nine and 10-year-old students were given a puzzle and instructed to find the missing angle. The control group was not allowed to touch the puzzle, while one group traced the shapes with their fingers and a third group traced the shapes before closing their eyes and imagining the tracing.

After the puzzle portion of the study, the children answered a questionnaire that measured learning motivation and cognitive load, or the amount of energy one spends during a mental activity.

A meta-analysis of the results showed that children who traced not only solved the puzzle more quickly, but had an easier time doing so as they had more motivation and less cognitive load.

Finger-tracing isn’t only effective for children, according to the second study. That study included 44 adults selected for their lack of astronomical knowledge. The astronomy novices were then divided into two groups: One learned about the lifecycle of a star with just text and a diagram, whereas the other group received the same text and diagram, but was told to use their hands to trace over the visual component.

The results were similar to the children’s study: The adults who traced had higher motivation and lower cognitive load.

“There are multiple reasons why tracing can help learning,” said Paul Ginns, the Associate Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Sydney and co-author of both studies. “It seems that humans are biologically wired so that we pay closer attention to the space near our hands. So, when using an index finger to trace visual stimuli, these elements of a lesson receive processing priority. Tracing can also assist learning because it ‘chunks’ all the important elements of new material into one piece of information, making it easier for us to learn.”

Montessori Tracing

At the Montessori campuses in the Endeavor Schools family, finger-tracing is a common technique.

Faith Money, the school leader at Atlanta Montessori International School-Druid Hills, says finger-tracing is an important part of her Primary Program (3 – 6-year-olds).

“The goal is to give the child concrete materials to represent concepts that can be very abstract,” Money says. “When we see the children using their hands to understand concepts like alphabet symbols, length, weight, temperature, shapes, numbers, etc., we find they have a deeper understanding of these concepts and a solid foundation when moving to abstraction.”

One common finger-tracing technique is with the use of sandpaper.

“The sandpaper letters are a wonderful example of finger tracing,” Money says. “Once the child understands the concept of cat begins with the ‘c’ sound, we introduce them to the correlating symbol in cursive. Each letter is on a board and the letter symbol is made of rough sandpaper. Next, the child sensitizes their index and middle fingers by placing them in warm water and wiping them dry with a cloth. We then show the child how to correctly trace the letter a few times and they repeat tracing after them at least three times, but often we find the child enjoys it so much they will trace the letter many more times! While they are tracing this symbol the guide will say the sound it makes so the child is hearing the sound and feeling its symbol.”

Lee Lanou, the Director of Montessori Education at Endeavor Schools, said that new research, such as the University of Sydney studies, has added to the pile of evidence in favor of many Montessori techniques, such as the importance of combining hand movement with learning.

“More than 100 years after Dr. Maria Montessori invented her method, neuroscience research is flooded with evidence of the strong connection between the hands and the brain,” Lanou says. “In Montessori classrooms, children are given multi-sensory materials to guide their learning. This is combined with the freedom to repeat these movements as often as they desire, which creates an optimal and natural development for learning in young children.”