How to Create Critical Thinkers: Nudge Them. June 7, 2012

How to Create Critical Thinkers: Nudge Them.

On Tuesday, June 5th, the planet Venus appeared to move as a black dot across the face of the Sun from our vantage point on the Earth in what is called a “transit.” This is a very rare astronomical event, happening in pairs 8 years apart with long waits of 121 years or 105 years in between. It won’t occur again until 2117. The 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus were observed from distant places on the Earth, and using the principle of parallax, the distance from the Earth to the Sun was measured with greater accuracy than ever before. At that time, evidence was first observed indicating that Venus has an atmosphere.

Venus transit public showing

Tuesday afternoon I joined several other amateur astronomers in a Wal-Mart parking lot to show the public the transit through telescopes fitted with various solar filters. Several hundred people enjoyed the views, and most importantly, several hundred KIDS enjoyed the views.

Here’s a professional photo that I altered to show the level of detail that they could see through my telescope. There were many interesting things in there to show them:

What does all this science-geeky stuff have to do with creating critical thinkers? When you let kids see something like this with their own eyes as it is happening and you explain it to them, they get excited. They associate learning something science-geeky with the pleasure of excitement. They become a little more interested in the dynamic, happening-right-now natural world around them. They become a little more interested in the pleasure of thinking inquisitively, clearly, and carefully.

They don’t all suddenly dedicate their lives to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, but they’ve been nudged just a little more in that direction. Although most won’t become scientists themselves, they’ll be just a little more open to science, a little more appreciative of its great value and relevance to them and to humanity.

This is what I do, every chance I get. With live presentations, I get children excited about science by telling them about things that they already find fascinating, such as dinosaurs, volcanoes, and astronomy. But I don’t just tell them what science knows, I show them how science knows. I make it fun for them so that learning and pleasure become linked in their minds.

So I travel around like Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds that I won’t live long enough to see sprout, but if even just a small percentage of the many thousands of kids I entertain in this way are nudged a little more toward critical thinking, rationality, and science, then for me, my efforts and my life have very satisfying meaning and purpose.

Anyone can do this. We’re surrounded by young people with minds like sponges. Their brains are always hungry like their stomachs. We can nudge them. Don’t just do this for your own kids; be a neighborhood Johnny Appleseed. Give the youngster across the street a loupe, the best little scientist maker ever. It’s cheap and simple, and he or she can carry it everywhere in a pocket. Show them the magnified sawtooth edge of a leaf, or the awesome beauty and “fearful symmetry” of a dead bug, and then let them go explore their world with with a magnified wonder they’ll never forget. Got an inexpensive fossil knocking around? You’ve enjoyed it enough; give it to the youngster next door. Or a small cut geode, or a chunk of lava. Tell them a short, interesting story about where it came from. Leave behind a legacy of planted seeds that you might not live to witness sprouting, but remembering that seeds were cast in your direction years ago.

And they still are.

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  • Sporegrrl

    This is why I work at summer camp, teaching kids about reptiles and insects. I love seeing them exited about learning something.

  • Nick Lewis

    I love articles like this. I wish there was an atheist blogger out there who was an English teacher. I guess I’ll have to be the first. 

  • I’m jealous. Here in Boston it was much too cloudy to see anything so we had to settle for the live NASA cam. 

  • Paul Iannacone

    I do this stuff with my almost-9-year-old son all the time.  He love everything science and has so many questions about everything.  It’s my 2 younger daughters that enjoy the more “magical” thinking.  I’ll keep “nudging” them, it will just take a little more time.  But at least it’s fun.

  • T-Rex

    Nothing  better than astronomy to open minds and make people think about the universe, its creation and our place in all of it.

  • but if even just a small percentage of the many thousands of kids

    I seem to recall a parable about a sower or something.

  • I had ordered a pack of five solar filters from Amazon, so I left three with my son’s preschool (to add to the two they had already).  And I planned to pick up my son early to bring him home to see it projected with our telescope.

    But when 3:30 rolled around and I looked through the filter, and saw how small it was, and impossible to really see anything, I made a slight change of plans and tossed the telescope in the trunk and drove to the preschool.  Thankfully the teachers were as excited by the prospect, so I set up in the yard and the kids crowded around and ooh’ed and aah’ed.  And some wanted to see what was inside the telescope, so after we were done and I had pointed it away from the sun they all got a look at their giant heads in the primary mirror.

    It was a LOT more fun sharing it than just watching it myself.

  • Here’s a shot of my son during the solar eclipse.

  • Patterrssonn

    Who would have thought that such a little dot could be such an amazing sight. For me personally it was the first time I had a sense of how absolutely massive the sun is, especially as that planet sized dot is a lot closer to us than it is to the sun.

  • SJH

    The universe is a beautiful place and for many of us, including me, it is easy to get excited about it. I wonder, however, if that is true for everyone? One of my children would have probably been excited to see this event. Another one of my children, however probably would not have cared. This child is much more concerned about relationships and the emotions of others than critical thinking. He cares much more about sharing time and emotions with others and much less about analyzing it. If you try to analyze something he zones out and stops listening; not because he is not smart enough to understand but because he simply does not care to analyze. Should we look down upon one child because he doesn’t care about rationalizing? This world is a diverse place. I wonder if some of us are  not wired to be critical thinkers? Perhaps these are meant to be emotional thinkers? Do we want a world filled with critical thinkers and no emotional thinkers? Are they mutually exclusive? Can we be both critical and emotional thinkers at the same time?

  • Hi SJH,
    I don’t think it has to be an either/or choice between being critical thinkers or emotional thinkers. Your son has a wonderful trait and talent, and we need people who are excellent at empathy and personal compassion.

    He will see by your actions that you value critical thinking as well as emotional sensitivity.  So even though he doesn’t naturally analyze as much as he interrelates, I think he will pick up from you that critical thinking is important, and he will respect it more than magical thinking. So that value instilled in him could for instance nudge him toward using his interpersonal aptitude as a therapist instead of a minister.

  • I agree with the general sentiment and often do the same myself. I get those little buggers while they are still young and their brains are malleable…

    There is one basic failing in the argument though and that is that the kids with those massive sponge brains are a tiny majority. Planting seeds that (in your own words) may never be seen to sprout. We have a crisis of immorality, ignorance and stupidity on this and we need to fight it everywhere it raises its smelly head.

    Show the transit of Venus and mention the awesome scientific contribution it has made to humanity (you forgot to include how the precession of Venus was used to prove General Relativity in 1919, an altogether awesome story) to any adult and you are not “creating critical thinking” in them because their brains are already accustomed to abject nonsense of religion.

    We need a better and more aggressive approach. We have the tool to do it (the internet) but we are not using it well enough. We need to beat down religion every single chance we get and create chances where there are none.

    Whenever anyone mentions “god bless” or “jesus bless” or even bless-you when you sneeze, that is a cue to go off on a tangent about how disgusting and immoral religion is and how it needs to e consigned to the history books.

    All hands on deck! This is the call to action!! Spread the word!!!

    Never let a single YouTube comment pass you by again without kicking up a fuss.

    Learn all the arguments and counter arguments and free our race, free nature, free the universe of this catastrophe.


  • SJH

     Good point. I think that he will grow to appreciate it even though he doesn’t care to do it himself. But I also think there is value in “magical thinking”. This is where art and literature come from. Would we have Lord of the Rings or Renaissance art if not for magical thinking? It seems to me that magical thinking brought us the Sistine Chapel and modern thinking bought us a Duchamp’s Fountain.

    Also, as a side note, I wouldn’t jump to assume that “magical thinking” and ministry are related. One can be a minister and rational. After all a priest was the first to theorize about the Big Bang. Galileo and Newton and most scientists throughout human history were very religious.

  • We can compartmentalize our minds, and some people do it to an extreme, giving them a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance. It all depends on how much they put into each compartment, and how isolated those sections are from the others.

    So yes, priests can think scientifically, but they do it selectively.  They take one hat off and put another one on.  By magical thinking I should have said irrational, superstitious thinking.

    Free association, imagination, fantasy, creativity, and whimsy  are all very valuable mental abilities, just as long as they’re not so isolated in their compartments that they are utterly unaffected by the logic and reason that are also in the mind somewhere.

  • Richard, you are really one of the most inspirational people I get to regularly read. We need to be pushed out of our bubbles and out interacting with people more often.

    For me, watching the transit had the same effect as seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. I was goofy and giggly for about a day. I now regret not going out looking for kids to share it with.

  • SJH

    I think you may be making an assumption that they are not thinking rationally when with regards to their religious beliefs. I would guess that they would tell you that, given their experiences and their rational, they have concluded that their religion is an accurate representation of reality. They might say that they have taken their limited, but acceptable, amount of data and formulated a conclusion in much the same way that a scientist might become certain about a theory that has not been proven absolutely. I grant you, there are those out there (too many) that will accept theories about our existence without giving them enough thought but this is probably true whether we are talking about religion, science, economics, medicine, etc. This goes back to your point that it is important for people to either become critical thinkers, or if they are not inclined to analyze things then to at least value that quality in others.

  • While this is very important for children, let’s not overlook adults. I opened my own observatory (Cloudbait Observatory) to the community during the transit, and the adults were just as excited as the kids. Maybe more. And they asked lots of good questions. We also have a nice observatory at our little K-8 school (Guffey Community Charter School), where we do star parties several times a year. This has really been an education for the adults in the community, not just the kids.

    Nobody is ever too old to develop their critical thinking skills.

  • tracy88

    BRAH-VOH, Mr. Wade.  Spot on, as always.  You are soooo appreciated!

  • Excellent point, and the adults on Tuesday were asking great questions and were very appreciative for their own sake. 

  • I_Claudia

     That was beautiful Richard. Thank you for your work on behalf of children. The research institution where I work has periodic volunteer drives to get us out to science festivals oriented to the general public and especially the very young. I’ve missed the last few but you’ve inspired me to stop shirking my responsibility and make a firm pledge to volunteer the next time.

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