An approach to developing critical thinking abilities in early years
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An approach to developing critical thinking abilities in early years

by Dr Mary Roche

July 01, 2020

A lot has been written about critical thinking – what it is, how to do it, who should do it and why. There have been many different definitions and explanations as to its reasons and purposes. These can include pragmatic reasons such as the need for workers with critical thinking skills in the new knowledge economy.


Other reasons are to do with how the ability to think critically can lead to living a meaningful life or more social cohesion resulting in increased equality, inclusion and democratic values. So, what is critical thinking, and when should we begin the process of becoming critical?


For me, critical thinking means thinking for yourself, examining all possible sources and making your mind up in the light of the evidence. It is the opposite of passively receiving knowledge or mindless herd-thinking. It means being able to sift through information and arguments, recognising that there can be several legitimate perspectives and stances. It involves being able to express one’s ideas coherently and logically. It means knowing the difference between opinion and fact and being able to support and explain the position taken after critical reflection.


Another way is to begin asking open-ended questions. Closed questions only have a right or wrong answer, for example ‘How many hours in a day?’ or ‘How many buttons does your coat have?’ Open-ended questions, however, allow for speculation, evaluation and leave scope for more than one answer being correct. For example, we could ask open questions about favourite traditional stories. Was Goldilocks silly or rude to go into the bears’ house uninvited? Why, I wonder, were the Little Red Hen’s friends so reluctant to help her? What would you have done if you were Cinderella? Is the wolf always a baddie?


I argued in Roche (2015) that critical thinking is necessary for reflecting on and making sense and meaning of our lives and our world. Without it we risk being mere receivers and consumers of others’ knowledge. In an age of powerful digital knowledge distribution, being able to think for oneself is crucial for an enlightened and active citizenry. Artificial intelligence (AI) is all around us and can be of huge benefit to humankind, but we are also only just beginning to understand some of the risks associated with the misrepresentation of truth and facts via contemporary digital media. This brings us to recognising that critical thinking is essential for critical literacy.


For example, Noriko Arai, a mathematician at the National Institute of Informatics in Japan, conducted a multiple-choice reading skill test on 15,000 high school students. The results indicated that many of the students tested ‘lacked the ability to visualise an image from a written sentence, essentially to think for themselves’. Arai argues that these results are concerning as AI is weak at tasks that humans could easily excel at, including reading comprehension, interpretation and meaning making. Young people place their future employment prospects at risk if they do not excel in these human strengths. This is a global concern and Australia is not immune, as demonstrated by the recent debates over declining PISA scores. 


While critical thinking is not new, all students will now need to develop increasingly sophisticated higher order thinking skills to thrive in a world of smart technologies. For this to occur, children need to start developing critical thinking skills from their earliest years. This can begin very simply.

Small children can be encouraged to give reasons for their answers to questions. If we ask a toddler whether she wants a red or a yellow lollipop, she might say ‘yellow’. When asked why, if she replies with something like ‘Because I like yellow – my teddy is yellow’, then she has backed up her choice with a valid reason. This kind of interaction could be seen as a simple example of practising early critical thinking. 

It would seem, then, that children need to be helped to develop healthy scepticism and critical engagement with all kinds of texts. Teaching children to think for themselves can begin as early as toddlerhood and can continue into primary school and beyond. That’s where, I believe, an approach called ‘Critical Thinking and Book Talk’ (CT&BT, Roche, 2010) can play a role. It is premised on the idea of developing young children’s ability to make meaning from the texts and images of picture books as they discuss them together. 


Developing the Critical Thinking and Book Talk approach

Since the mid-1990s I have been discussing picture books with children at all levels of primary school, as well as with teachers at in-service courses and with parent groups. One thing is common to all groups: everybody loves a read aloud. Whether the audience is composed of the smallest kindergarten children, the senior classes, teachers, parents or grandparents, a calm atmosphere – a sense of tranquillity and relaxation often descends when people are engaged by a good story and visually stimulated by wonderful artwork. 


Listening to literature being read aloud is probably one of the most valuable and pleasurable experiences beginning readers and writers can have. The process has many advocates: literacy experts like Michael Rosen, Teresa Cremin, Mem Fox and Jim Trelease support read alouds as a part of every child’s day both at home and at school.


Neuroscientists and paediatricians like Hutton et al (2015) suggest that interaction and discussion during or following read alouds stimulate high levels of brain activity. Promoters of the Philosophy for Schools movement have also discussed the benefits of doing philosophical and critical thinking with children.  


Read alouds offer adults a chance to model good reading and thinking strategies and to expose young learners to a rich variety of literature. When this exposure is accompanied by supportive and engaging discussions, children can extend their world view and develop important critical thinking skills.


Read aloud and CT&BT are not the same thing, however. A read aloud is simply that – the teacher or adult reads a story aloud. CT&BT (Roche, 2010) takes that process a stage further. We finish the read aloud and immediately discuss the book. This process is grounded in the idea that a read aloud can be a powerful entry point into classroom dialogue, discussion and critical thinking.


I call my approach Critical Thinking and Book Talk to distinguish it from Circle Time (Mosley 1998), the Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement in Australia, the US, the UK and elsewhere, and from the Irish process known as ‘Thinking Time’ (Donnelly 1994).


I focus solely on picture books as discussion starters. But all these programs share some features, such as democratic practice and social construction of knowledge.  

The concept of CT&BT is grounded in values of reciprocal care, courtesy and respect for others’ views. No conclusions are sought. Children are expected to listen to each other with attention, contribute to the discussion if they wish and provide reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with others. 

When they are engaged in the process of listening to a story being read aloud, looking closely at the images and then engaging in discussion together about the story, children are not just developing their literacy or their critical thinking. They are developing cognitively, socially and emotionally. They are learning to be part of a community of enquiry; to be reflective; to co-construct knowledge with their peers and teacher; to make meaning, to develop moral judgement. 


Fisher (2006: 33-4) speaks about how engaging in this form of classroom discussion develops in children ‘the habits of intelligent behaviour’. The children negotiate the rules with the teacher. They basically follow the golden rule of ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’, i.e. listen actively and respectfully, think hard, don’t interrupt, speak respectfully, agree and disagree with courtesy, always providing a reason for why you agree or disagree. These are all essential skills for their future lives, particularly an AI-influenced future in a knowledge economy.


I have given examples from my own work with very young students during my teaching career (Roche 2000, 2007, 2011, 2015) where the children saw problems with some traditional stories very quickly.


Some 5-year-olds said: 


  • ‘The little red hen needs to get new friends. Simple.’ 
  • ‘Goldilocks is so stupid. She shouldn’t have gone into the house: worse things than bears could have been in there.’ 
  • ‘There’s a lot of violence in them stories.’ 


As my research advanced, I chose several sophisticated picture books for discussion. These included Mike and Dosh Archer’s ‘Yellow Bird Black Spider’, as we will see below. My approach to teaching critical thinking positions it as the opposite of receiving information passively which is, sadly, what happens in many didactic classrooms. Because it involves active engagement with ideas, there is some effort involved. It does not automatically mean that you reject the thinking of others. Instead, you look at the issue and evaluate their responses and arrive at your own conclusions as to whether you agree or disagree with their ideas. But you must be prepared to provide reasons for your judgements. 


Sometimes, more than one answer is acceptable. I have had many experiences where children could not reach consensus on something and realised that several people could hold a correct or partially correct view. This happened, for example, when discussing ‘Yellow Bird Black Spider’, in which an anarchic yellow bird flouts convention and is reprimanded by a conservative black spider (Roche, 2007, 2015).

Most children are happy when the bird tires of the spider’s nagging and eats him. They argue that the bird has the right to be different, to be himself. However, one day a young girl in my group said, ‘but what about the spider’s right to be himself?’ And, suddenly, we all realised that perhaps this was a contest of two rights where the problem could have been resolved by dialogue. Each had to accept that the other had rights. This is a very empowering realisation for children.

The idea that the teacher does not hold all the answers is equally liberating for the teacher. As I reflected on this incident, I realised that I had been uncritically siding with the yellow bird group all along. The children had taught me to think more critically. This happened more and more often as we continued with the work. 


This is just one example of what critical thinking looks like in practice, and these are the types of thought processes that teachers can look out for to see if their students are beginning to think critically. Watch out for (and model) tentative suggestions such as ‘well maybe’, ‘what I wonder is’ or ‘what if’.


Teachers need to be careful too, that they don’t tell children what the book is about. I discussed ‘Yellow Bird’ with several groups of 8-year-olds. Only one group felt that the dominant message in the book was about freedom. Their explanations were stunningly sophisticated. It was very tempting to take the book into the next group and say ‘X class said they think this book is all about freedom. Do you agree?’ However, that would have been a denial of the principles underpinning the teaching approach. That would have involved me imposing the views of another group on the children – essentially telling them what to think. It is important that each class group can think in ways that are appropriate for them and make their own meaning of the book. If they wish, after several readings with different groups, teachers could discuss various interpretations with different classes.


Planning for the session 


There are many factors to be considered when organising a CT&BT session. 


A list is provided below, however it is far from exhaustive and you can create your own as you go along. 


Bear in mind the outcomes you are hoping for

These include engagement, pleasure, active NSW Department of Education 19 Future EDge thinking, co-construction of knowledge and active dialogue. What we are seeking to achieve has to do with ‘promoting meaningful interactions among people’ (Hoffman, 2010: 13) and ‘learning to be curious, sceptical, engaged, and noncomplacent’ (Luke, 1991: 143). Sipe’s and Bauer’s (2001) work with young children showed that kindergarteners can respond very knowledgeably to traditional fairy tales told in picture books. They suggest that literary understanding emerges as the young readers make both intertextual and real-life connections during interactive read alouds. 


We need to keep in mind that readers are positioned by texts, and so texts need to be interrogated for any assumptions and underlying agendas. Hilary Janks (2010) argues that from the writer’s point of view the ideal reader ‘is the one who buys into the text and its meanings’. Teachers and parents can assist children to be critical about texts before buying in completely by engaging dialogically with it and them.


Choosing which book to use is important 

The best picture books have relevance for the child’s life. This prompts them to think and talk about issues that have meaning for them. They are the kinds of books that are open to a variety of interpretations and responses: books that leave ‘gaps’ for readers to fill. Iser (2010) spoke of the virtual space created between the reader and the text and maintained that texts should have gaps in characters and events that engage readers in the kind of dynamic process of reading that leads to revealing the text’s meaning (Khrais, 2017). 


You must like the story yourself or find it intriguing or puzzling or attractive in some way. Read it to make sure and to make yourself familiar with the ideas and concepts. Your enthusiasm will be infectious. Remember that a picture book is unique in that the pictures and the written text work together to tell the story. Sometimes they even tell different stories, such as Pat Hutchins’ ‘Rosie’s Walk’.


Make sure everyone can see the pictures

Use a visualiser if your school is lucky enough to have one. Alternatively scan or photograph the pages of the book and beam them onto the whiteboard via the data projector. 


Set aside at least thirty minutes to allow engagement with the story 

You cannot rush through a story and then expect children to engage seriously with it. Allow time for discussing the cover, the ‘peritext’ (endpapers) and predicting what the story might be about. Allow time also for reading the images. Children need to see the pictures, and they often see far more in them than adults do.


You could decide to read the entire story aloud first, and then perhaps reread and provide opportunities for the children to examine the pictures, encouraging what Jane Doonan called ‘close looking’. Many experts advise that children need adequate time to examine both text and images. For example, Goodman (1998) suggests that often teachers privilege the act of decoding text over the need for closely examining and making meaning from the pictures. A parent in a one-toone situation would find this step of ‘looking closely’ much easier. 


As the children get used to being free to articulate what they think about a book, you could begin to nudge them to look beneath the surface more and more.  

Can we tell what the author thinks about friendship/inclusion/home/ beauty/war/peace? How do we know? Is the author trying to tell us something or trying to get us to think in a certain way? How do we know that? These kinds of questions encourage children to look for underlying ideologies both covert and overt – the beginnings of critical literacy.

The messages are continued in the artwork. Do the colours in the illustrations convey meaning? How? Think of the opening spread in Anthony Browne’s ‘Gorilla’ (1983). At breakfast, Hannah is wearing red, but the rest of the picture is rendered in cold blues and black. Her suit-wearing Dad, seated opposite, is remote, emphasised by the newspaper he is reading. Contrast that with another image towards the end of the book. They are together, both wearing red, and the room is depicted in a warm yellow glow. What is Browne asking us to think and feel?


Every part of the book matters 

Whichever approach you decide to use, do let the children have time to closely examine all of the pictures – including the covers front and back, the endpapers and the introductory pages. Many people skip over the opening pages in order to get to the ‘story’. If you search for examples of people reading stories aloud on YouTube, you will see what I mean. The readers rarely pay any attention to the cover, endpapers or front matter. Yet this peritextual, or paratextual, material often provides hints and clues about the story and frequently provides interesting areas for prediction and inference and animated discussion. The peritext is very important for setting the scene and providing clues and cues as to what the story is about. The covers and endpapers and title pages have been carefully chosen and considered by the design team in conjunction with author, illustrator and the publisher. 


Prepare to document the session

For teachers, it might be useful to record what is said either by audiotaping or videoing (both of which need permission from participants and/or parents) or by writing down what is said very quickly. This allows you to later enjoy the ‘nuggets’ you may have missed in the heat of the moment. It also helps with assessing and evaluating the process. There is no requirement to do formal assessment on CT&BT in Irish schools, however good practice would include assessment for progress. In my resources section for the Irish National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) I provided some advice on assessment, for those who wish to do this.

Here is an example from practice with pre‑schoolers 

(This episode is available on the NCCA’s Vimeo page) In the clip I read ‘Penguin’ by Polly Dunbar (2007) to a group of 3-year-olds. I began by identifying new words like cover, front/back, author, illustrator, blurb, spine, endpapers and dedication. I pointed to the ‘front cover’ and we discussed what we saw. Lily was very excited and told me gleefully she had that book at home. Based on our discussion around the peritext, Evan was able to predict and even summarise quite a lot about the story before we even started to read it.


You might be wondering just what this has to do with critical thinking. It is all to do with creating an invitational approach. In Roche (2015) I explained that by suggesting to these young children that they might listen to the story and look at the pictures and then decide for themselves afterwards if they considered that Polly Dunbar’s blurb worked well, or if the understanding they had in relation to the stars on the endpapers were probable, they are being invited into a dialogue. It is open ended and there are several possibilities for being ‘right’.


When a parent or teacher says ‘I wonder why Polly Dunbar chose stars for the endpapers’ children can offer guesses, opinions and explanations. By the time they come to discuss the pictures and the story they are confident that their thoughts and ideas matter. They realise that artists and authors and publishers make choices and that everything they see in the book has been deliberately put there by someone. This is a very important lesson and could provide the foundation for critical and visual literacy. 


Yes and no answers can be avoided by carefully posing open-ended questions. Even where they occur you can gently nudge the child into providing a reason. This is important especially when children start a discussion with ‘I liked the part where’ because, by asking them for reasons, they are encouraged to think critically.  

The children may not always respond to a story 

They might be tired. There might be too many interruptions – roll call, milk delivery, ‘my teacher wants a loan of a black marker, please’, the intercom. They might not have got out to the playground because of the rain. If this happens, acknowledge it and try again another day. 


How to do a Critical Thinking and Book Talk session


Simply seat the children in a circle and re-read or ask the children to recall the main points of the story. Invite questions or reactions. Then sit back and listen to what the children say. Wait your turn to talk.


Donnelly (1994) advocates the use of a ‘tip-around’ to allow all children to participate in the discussion. A child volunteers to begin the discussion and then ‘tips’ the next child lightly on the shoulder. The ‘starting’ child has the power to choose in which direction the discussion goes. I usually remind the participants at the end that if the discussion had started somewhere else, or had gone in the opposite direction, it would have been very different and completely new knowledge would have been created.

This idea of the creation of new knowledge, thinking thoughts that no-one has thought before, connecting new ideas with old and building up insights from listening to others is a very powerful experience for children. So is having the power to speak or not. In didactic classrooms silence is expected or even demanded. Here, in this dialogical setting, it is permitted. It can mean ‘I’m still thinking’ or ‘I’m happy to just listen’. 

This involves recognising the child as a knower who has thoughts worth listening to. It also means recognising knowledge construction as a process. If we reify knowledge and see it as a ‘thing’ that can be transmitted or delivered from a knowing expert to a non-knower – in the sense of Freire’s (1972) ‘banking model’ – then we will be very unlikely to see any value of discussing picture books with children as a means of generating knowledge.  


Such a stance would also mean that we would find it difficult to imagine teachers learning from what their pupils say. Yet the idea of ‘teacher as learner’ dates right back to Socrates. If we see knowledge as an always incomplete, partial, evolving and dynamic process that is socially constructed then we can engage in discussion as a form of ‘problemposing’ (Freire, 1972) and see our discussions as a way of becoming a community of enquiry. It is not just about having skills. This kind of work embraces knowledge, skills and dispositions – the cognitive and the affective domains. It encompasses the idea of working together to construct knowledge and make meaning together. Each group of children brings their own ways of knowing to the process. 


Some focus more on making meaning from the story as a whole; others engage wholly with images. 


For example, in Roche (2015) I described how Deirdre, a teaching friend, used a visualiser and a whiteboard as she read Anthony Browne’s ‘The Tunnel’ (1992) aloud. She said her class of 8 and 9-year-old boys took nearly two weeks to digest the book.  

They actually only paid cursory attention to the story. The real engagement for them was studying the illustrations. They spent ages examining each picture, discussing it, going back to check details on previous pictures, explaining to me and to each other what they thought the various elements of the pictures meant. It was a real eye-opener for me. Up to now I always focused almost exclusively on the text and the narrative … the CT&BT approach has given us permission to linger! (extract from conversation with DL, 6 July 2013)


In a research review on using picture books in classrooms, Wolfenbarger and Sipe (2007) state that ‘our society is inundated with visual images. Sport team logos, automobile emblems, yellow arches, and other product packaging have become symbols to which children and adults attach recognition and meaning’ (citing Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996). They suggest that visual images such as these logos ‘signal meaning without requiring an accompanying verbal text because they are linked to other visual media (television) and highly contextualized places and experiences (such as ordering fast food, eating cereal, attending sporting events).


Children have learned to expect pictures to have personal and social meaning’ (2007: 274). Wolfenbarger and Sipe (2007) also speak about Carger (2004) who worked with 8- and 9-yearolds in Chicago. Carger provided opportunities for the children to talk about picture books she read aloud. She found that the children developed as art critics and their command of English language flourished. She writes that the ‘students engaged in divergent thinking … [A]rt provoked them to reflect and to engage in authentic inquiry’ (2004: 280). 


Most teachers have had training on decoding text during their courses on teaching reading. I doubt that most get anything like the same training in decoding images. Yet it is a vital part of critical literacy. Our society is bombarded with images through advertising, social media, television, cinema and packaging. Children need some skills in deciphering and decoding the constant stream of visual imagery coming at them. They can make a start in early years classrooms by examining picture book images with a knowledgeable teacher. Teachers could read work by Moebius and Doonan as a starting point for examining the picture book codes of line and shape, colour, positioning, size, perspective, viewpoint and framing. The more that teachers know about image construction, the more they can encourage children to examine images intelligently and critically. I have listed some of these resources in the appendix.


Be prepared to be amazed at the philosophical turn the discussion might take 


Timetable the discussion as ‘discrete oral language’, ‘comprehension’, ‘literacy’, ‘Social Personal Health Education’, ‘Nature and Environment’ or ‘Civics’. Be creative! Look at what a 9-year-old child in 3rd class said after I read ‘Yellow Bird, Black Spider’ aloud: 


I disagree with some people and I agree with others who said that freedom is doing whatever you want, but only in a way. You can only have freedom if you’re alone. Because if you were really free to think what you like and say what you like and do what you like it and there were other people around, it could be the baddest thing ever for them because you might want to do all bad things with your freedom … Freedom could be sometimes good but sometimes it could be the baddest thing ever. (7 February 2006)


That shows that the issues raised by the book far exceed a ‘literacy’ lesson. Bear in mind, however, that this class had been doing classroom discussions since Kindergarten. However, I did not tell them that the book was about freedom. I did not even think of linking with that concept at the time! This is really important. I used this book with several classes, yet only one group discussed freedom. I learned from listening to the children.  


One class discussed rights. They all agreed that the yellow bird had the right to be himself, but as we saw earlier, one girl thought that the black spider also had the right to be himself – and a fair old ding-dong of an argument ensued as to whether it was a contest of two rights. Another class, in true black spider mode, thought it was a ‘stupid story cos birds don’t wear stripy socks or eat ice cream’. 


Critical thinking is all about thinking for one’s self, challenging assumptions and stereotypes, asking questions and questioning answers. Philosophising is about pondering alternatives, asking ‘what if’, and ‘I wonder why’ and offering ideas such as ‘well, I think … because’. Try it out, the ‘read aloud’ factor alone makes it worthwhile. Remember that picture books are not solely for the infant classrooms. Properly chosen books can provide a stimulus for discussion to senior primary and beyond. These kinds of ideas are located within the notion of seeing literacy as more than decoding and encoding text. 


For example, Jewett and Smith define literacy as social practice and argue that: [E]ffective literacy draws on a repertoire of practices that allow learners, as they engage in reading and writing activities, to act as code breakers, meaning makers, text users, and text critics …the fourth component, text critic, is not as widespread, especially in elementary classrooms. In this domain, learners critically analyze and transform texts by acting on knowledge that texts are not ideologically natural or neutral – that they represent particular points of views while silencing others and influence people’s ideas. In other words, the reader learns to look beyond the words on the page and into the province of how the text ‘works’ – linguistically, politically, culturally, and socially – to position the reader (2003: 69).


Leland et al (2013) argue that critical readers, who are able to size up the situation and draw their own conclusions, become agents of text. This is because, they say, readers have the power to make their own rational decisions about what to believe. However, those who do not engage in critical reading are far more likely to become ‘victims of text’ since they passively accept assumptions (Leland et al., 2013: 4). Children will not become ‘agents of text’ without a real effort by teachers and parents.  


The why: recognising the other 


The CT&BT teaching approach rests firmly on the assumption that the adult will recognise the child as a real person who is likeable and who deserves respect for their uniqueness – not generally a problem for a parent. The CT&BT dialogical approach is premised on real people talking to each other face-to-face. Its success depends on the interpersonal pedagogical relationship between the children and the teacher, and also between the children and their peers. It is a deeply affective approach.


This was brought home to me recently when I met some of my former research participants. They are all now in their early twenties and finishing university. When describing their memories of the process they returned again and again to how they had felt. They spoke about being proud of being listened to and about realising with some surprise that the children who attended learning support were just as able – and sometimes better able – to think and speak as they themselves were. Some of the shyer people spoke about how discussing things together gave them entries into approaching the ‘cool gang’ in the yard.


One very shy young woman spoke about how, even though she had the option to remain silent and was very anxious, she made herself contribute because she had a lot to say. She is now completing a degree in Development Studies, during the course of which she visited war-torn zones and refugee centres where she was tear-gassed and detained. She said she felt that the grounding she got in standing up for her beliefs and continuously practising agreeing or disagreeing without losing her cool during the weekly discussions throughout primary school helped her in those very difficult situations later. The CT&BT approach therefore needs the actual interpersonal relationship of real people talking to each other and tentatively exploring their co-creation of new knowledge (Lundie, 2016: 282).


Children who are exposed to the CT&BT approach have their sense of self-worth developed as they realise that they are recognised in class as people who are knowers and meaning makers. They soon see that they are valued as being capable of forming opinions and articulating them. They are aware that they are being provided with opportunities to think critically, to listen and evaluate the responses of others and to engage in co-constructing knowledge with their peers. They see that there is an emphasis on respect, courtesy and care. The children are being encouraged to develop their habits of intelligent behaviour, as we saw earlier, as they learn tolerance, understanding and empathy towards others. I realised this when a group I had previously worked with were about to leave primary school. They were invited to present a display of memories of primary school and most of them chose their CT&BT sessions as the highlight of their primary school life. 


Teacher professional development


Teachers and parents must make themselves familiar with a wide range of picture books and be able to choose them with some discretion – especially if you have limited funds. Teachers will need to read and re-read the books themselves several times before introducing it to a class or child. You don’t just bring along a book, read it aloud and let the children have a chat. You will need to examine the pictures, doing what Doonan (1993) calls ‘close looking’, rather than merely skimming over the pictures so as to ‘get on with the text and the story’. 

You will need to think too. This is essential. It is also very hard work. You can’t encourage critical thinking in children unless you can think critically yourself. However, you will need to be keenly aware that by pre-reading the book and studying the pictures you will form your ideas about the book. It is difficult to refrain from imposing these ideas on the children. You need to guide and facilitate, not dominate. 

Developing the skill of listening attentively is important also. I am a talker, and the skill of staying quiet so as to really hear a child demanded huge effort and was something I struggled with for many years. Even when I thought I was being attentive to children, video evidence showed me that I was dominating the classroom talk. It took a lot of self-training to gradually change my practice. My PhD was a self-study action research project based on that process.  


Critically studying picture books supports students’ understanding of their own thought processes 


I have had experiences where children would frequently say ‘Hang on: I kind of disagree with myself now’ or ‘First I was thinking X and now I have kind of changed my mind and I think Y’. Sometimes children expressed surprise and they would say ‘Whoo! I never knew I knew that until I sort of thought it and said it at the same time’. One or two children have said ‘I’ll pass because I don’t really have any thought yet’ or ‘I don’t know enough yet. I need to think some more’. Sometimes, as I later transcribed my scribbled notes from discussions, I found myself intrigued by something a child said and I would type it out and discuss it with the child. They nearly always had an explanation. One of the practices I used in order to encourage reflection and metacognition was to type out several transcripts and present them to the children in booklet form for their perusal. This was often very enlightening. Some would hold fast to their views and others would say ‘Oh, I’ve been thinking about that since and I kind of disagree with myself now because now I know that …’.


In Roche (2007: 254) I described one such episode. The children were immediately engrossed and spent the first few minutes quickly scanning the pages for their own contributions. When they found their own name, they read their own contributions several times and eagerly showed them to each other. Only then did they read through the transcripts. The children then evaluated their own thinking. 

C: Actually, it’s kind of good to read these again. I wouldn’t say what I said there again now though, because when you read what other people said you’d kind of get different feelings about what to say. 


K: I think the discussion on ‘Yellow Bird’ was pretty good. I’m kind of amazed at myself …at what I said. It’s actually quite sort of … grownup. 


J: I remember after doing that Thinking Time I kept thinking about my feelings and my mind and my soul and wondering about it and stuff. I like what I said here. I’d still agree with it.


Metacognitive activities that ask students to reflect on what they know, care about, and are able to do help learners develop an awareness of themselves. CT&BT helps to develop a culture of metacognition in a classroom. The very fact of having to justify their stances and explain their viewpoints, means that children are automatically being given opportunities to become metacognitive learners.


Maxine Greene suggests that activities that engage us in our own quests for answers and for meanings, also serve to initiate us into the communities of scholarship and, if our perspectives widen sufficiently, into the human community, in its largest and richest sense: 

Teachers who are alienated, passive, and unquestioning cannot make such initiations possible for those around. Nor can teachers who take the social reality surrounding them for granted and simply accede to them. (Greene, 1978: 3)


Critical thinking in an AI future: some concluding thoughts 


AI is here. It is all around us as we use the internet, hail taxis, check our smart watches or set the many devices in our homes to function in our absence. Whether it ultimately becomes a blessing or a curse for humanity remains to be seen. It will depend on how we understand its power and potential. 


In an article for Irish Tech News in May 2018, Alison McGuire wrote about those speaking out about the threats posed by applications of AI. She mentioned Stephen Hawking who expressed a concern (via his AI-enabled voice) that thinking machines ‘could spell the end of the human race’. She also quoted Anja Kaspersen – former Head of Strategic Engagement and New Technologies at the International Committee of the Red Cross, and former Head of Geopolitics and International Security at the World Economic Forum – who spoke about the threat posed by ‘AI potentially becoming weaponisable’, but balanced those fears against the idea that ‘many AI applications have life-enhancing potential, so holding back its development is undesirable and possibly unworkable. This speaks to the need for a more connected and coordinated multi-stakeholder effort to create norms, protocols, and mechanisms for the oversight and governance of AI.


According to McGuire, ‘now we have arrived at the point where governments have decided to release directives with the intentions to regulate AI. I believe ethical behaviour is going to become even more of an issue as technological intervention in daily lives increases.’ 


So, what ethical behaviour will be needed? How will we educate people to have balanced rational views on the role of AI in their lives? How will we teach children to be sceptical and critical and questioning? In the conclusion to my book ‘Developing Children’s Critical Thinking through Picturebooks’ (Roche, 2015) I stated that I believe that we owe it to our children to help them become critical and caring citizens. 


As caring parents and teachers in an age when AI – with all its benefits and risks – surrounds us, we want to help our children to be more aware of inequality and the risks of ‘fake news’. We want them to be tolerant, empathetic and courageous people who challenge injustice and are unafraid to speak out on behalf of those who are less fortunate. We would like our young people to engage creatively and morally with the world and so we encourage them to be people who think independently and who maintain their philosophical and intellectual curiosity throughout their lives. We want them to see literacy as empowering and liberating and to be competent and confident readers and writers. We want to gift them a lifelong love of reading that will provide endless hours of pleasure. And, thus, through reading and discussing picture books with them from their earliest days, we hope to provide them with what Luke (1991: 131) calls ‘equality of educational possibility’


… as teachers of literacy we need to look beyond a continual and exclusive concern with ‘new’ and better methods in order to rethink from a social and cultural perspective the consequences of our instruction, whether with elementary school children, secondary students, or adults and immigrant second language learners. Who gets what kind of competence from our teaching? To what ends? What kinds of literate subjects does our pedagogy produce? Fitted to what kind of society? 


These are the kinds of questions that keep me going in my work to promote CT&BT as a form of dialogic teaching for improving critical literacy. I hope I have managed to convince readers that simply promoting books and reading is not enough: for CT&BT to be successful, teachers, parents and caregivers must engage in critical discussion with children using picture books as stimuli.


Mary Roche PhD is an Irish education consultant and academic, and the author of ‘Developing children’s critical thinking through picturebooks’ (Routledge 2015).


This article originally appeared in Future EDge, a publication from the Education for a Changing World initiative in NSW Department of Education.

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