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Tips & Tricks

Be Prepared to Teach Thinkers

How you can help kids uncover truth for themselves

Recently a three-year-old asked, “What if Jesus had not been born?” Ironically that was the same question my adult small group had pondered and discussed at length. Teachers who spend time with children knows that critical thinking is for all ages not just adults Educators tell us, “Young children can think critically long before thinking symbolically; that is formally or abstractly”. From a Christian perspective critical thinking could be defined as “the ability to concretely reflect about one’s faith in such a way that it changed behavior.” Think for a moment about what you do to promote this type of thinking in your class. We will look at four practical steps to encourage critical thinking among children, with strategies to help them think and act as Christians. Inviting children to think critically involves building trust, offering the right amount of content, providing time for reflection and asking questions to prompt discussion.

 Build Trust

Trust requires emotional and social safety. Your children need to know they can trust you, their leader, and the other kids in the group. They need to know they are loved by God and by you. Some professionals asked a group of four-to-eight-year-olds, “What does love mean?” Responses included: “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different.” “You know your name is safe in their mouth.” Love feels real in an environment where kids know no one will make fun of them. Trust requires intellectual safety. The learning process requires the risks of thinking out loud: being laughed at, making mistakes, feeling inferior. But in the process of expressing their thoughts children will discover their own values. Ben Franklin said, “You don’t know what you believe until you hear an opposing point of view.” Let your students know their group is a safe place to make mistakes. Start by admitting your own mistakes and declaring there are no stupid questions or answers. Trust requires spiritual safety. A woman shared with me that when she was younger someone approached her during a salvation message and said “Don’t you think you should ask Jesus into your heart?” She remembers that it was not a safe place because she felt forced to make a decision. If children do not feel pressured they will naturally ask the most amazing questions about God, like the following:

  • Why do people wait to the last minute to pray?
  • How does God know what we are praying if we pray in our heads?
  • Why do some people ask for sunshine and some ask for rain?

These children demonstrated they were using critical thinking skills in making sense of God and our interactions with Him. Think about what you are already doing that creates safety and builds trust and belonging in your group. What else can you do?

Keep Content Simple

Many teachers believe children are like sponges-the more Bible stories and lessons they hear the better. This thought leads to the belief that more is better. Therefore, since kids are being inundated with the secular media, we must teach our students as much as possible to counter all they are taking in. But if we take a little plant and immerse it in water, most of us would agree more is not better. Too much water, sun or nutrients will drown the whole plant. If we allow the plant to take in just enough water, sunshine and nutrients, healthy growth and good fruit are more likely to occur. The same logic is true for kids and spiritual feeding. Gradual steps are needed for their growth. Remember, less is more!

Give Time to Reflect

After teaching a lesson do you ever wonder if the children understood even half of what you said? When I give my class time to reflect, I spend less time worrying about that question. The pace of our teaching is often built around quarterly curriculum. An objective is covered and completed each week. It’s easier and faster to tell kids the Bible story, explain what they need to know, ask fact questions, and a few application questions and move on. In our hurriedness we can fall into the trap of assuming if there is knowledge there is meaning. But better way for a child to gain meaning from the lesson is to ask good questions and provide time for children to dialogue. “Conversation is the laboratory and workshop of the student,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. Giving your children time to verbalize their thoughts and feelings help them construct meaning. When you hear them restate, refine or change their point of view you’ll know they are thinking critically. Meaning must be personally constructed. Then the child will have a compelling why to act upon what he knows. Through exchange of thoughts, especially from child to child insights occur and the desire to learn actually becomes play-particularly when the answer is not obvious. Think about the last lesson you taught; then draw a pie chart. Divide how you used your time with your kids; e.g., 20 percent telling the Bible story, 15 percent music, 15 percent craft activity, etc. This exercise will help you determine how much reflective time your kids actually engage in. Look at your next lesson and create two or three reflective statements to use after telling the story, such as, “I wonder what Paul and Silas were thinking about when they were in prison.” Pause and allow kids to wonder and respond.

Ask Questions that Promote Discussion

To create relevant questions know your children’s world. Consider how a child spends his week. How will he think differently about characters in a Bible story when he has watched a superhero movie the day before? At church a child hears the story of Jesus calming the sea and walking on water. He learns the biblical truth that Jesus is the one who is all-powerful. Many children probably just walk away thinking, No big deal! Superheroes do it all just like Jesus does it all. Prepare questions that compare and contrast Bible situations to what kids experience today; e.g., “Are there any ways Jesus and superheroes are the same? How are they different?” The idea that Jesus and today’s mythical superheroes can do the same things goes unquestioned because seemingly it’s “no big deal.” Biblical relevancy is often dropped from discussion times, seen as outdated or nonexistent. Help kids uncover the material and go deeper by looking at your lesson through their eyes. Children who engage in critical thinking are more likely to make good decisions and wise choices throughout their lives. They also worship and enjoy God on a more personal level. By creating a safe environment and planning to engage kids in critical thinking, you will experience sacred moments when concepts of God are being formed in their minds. You will have the privilege of seeing God at work when a child understands why Jesus had to be born. More sacred moments are bound to occur-because the story keeps getting better!

Understanding the Spiritual Journey

Just because kids hear biblical truths does not mean they believe them or act on them. Reflect on the big picture: How will you help move kids on their spiritual journey through the following stages?

  • Hearing God’s truth clearly, relevantly and creatively.
  • Acquiring meaning/understand.
  • Giving time to respond and sort information.
  • Raising confidence to respond in a way that Jesus would.

Because the Holy Spirit is at work there are unpredictable pieces to this process it happens in various time spans but can happen simultaneously. Each of us comes to new learning based on our previous knowledge, understanding and experiences.