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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

The Best Ways to Teach Students How to Think (Not What to Think)

By Angela Duckworth — June 16, 2021 2 min read
How do I help students develop better judgment?
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How do I help students develop better judgment?

You’ll want to teach kids by example how to think for themselves. Here’s something I wrote about the topic recently for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

My dad taught me how to think.

Not what to think—but how.

I was in 7th grade when we started a ritual of sneaking out of the house early on Saturday mornings, letting my mom sleep late, and walking 10 blocks to the neighborhood diner. We’d settle into a booth and order our usual (two eggs, over easy, with home fries and bacon).

Eating always took less time than the walk there and back. For one thing, my dad walked ponderously, as if thinking took so much attention that only a very little bit was left over to direct his feet to keep moving forward. For another, Dad would come to a full stop whenever he thought especially hard about what we were discussing. It could take forever to get to breakfast.

Often, we’d talk about whatever was on Dad’s mind—thermodynamics, the economy, his work. Wherever our conversations started, their destinations were, unlike the diner, neither planned nor foreseen at the start.

As I grew older, our conversations more often started with my preoccupations—the meaning of life, the difference between science and art, what made a person charismatic.

Once, I asked my dad whether he believed in life after death. He stopped, looked at me, and exclaimed, “Good question!” Then he rubbed the bridge of his nose and thought aloud, arguing both sides, and concluding in the end … well, I can’t remember what he concluded, but whatever it was, he would not have said it was decisive, certain, or true.

Dad would have fully admitted that his judgment was not a fact but the best possible answer he could come up with at the moment. He would have enjoyed my taking the opposite position, and he would have tried sincerely to see my perspective.

Are you teaching the young people in your life how to think? When you face a problem that requires judgment, how many of these things are true?

  • I try not to jump to conclusions.
  • I am aware that this is a matter of judgment: I ask myself what someone I trust would think of this problem.
  • I independently ask several people for their judgment and I consider their reasons.
  • I try to separate my hopes and fears from the facts and beliefs supporting the judgment.

Don’t believe for a minute that children should be seen but not heard or that “because I said so” is a sufficient explanation for your own judgments.

Do engage young people in authentic discussions that, by example, teach them how to think. And check out Character Lab’s new Judgment Playbook, co-authored by Danny Kahneman and Olivier Sibony, on how to model, celebrate, and enable this character strength. As with each of our Playbooks, we will be adding Tips over time—all based on scientific research.

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The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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