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Critical Thinking and Science

Science is the study of the universe and the beginning of that study is in critical thinkingA person who thinks critically asks questions about nature and attempts to find answers.

When a person is thinking critically, he is attempting to explain events, solve problems, or just simply— to understand God’s universe.  Thinking critically does not mean just being critical, but the the ability to probe and examine a subject open-mindedly and from many points of view.  Once we understand the value of these kinds of thought processes, we can incorporate them into our homeschool agenda.

Critical thinking skills are vital.  Those who can employ critical thinking are better problem solvers, better equipped to understand how and why things work, and better at presenting and defending a logical argument not only in science but in nearly every field of study.

It is only natural, then, to teach critical thinking skills in home school, but what kinds of activities teach critical thinking skills?

First, we have to determine just what is this thing we call critical thinking.  There are several processes involved— analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and attempting to answer the question “why?”.  These types of thought processes really can’t be easily separated one from another, but it is helpful to distinguish them for the purposes of instruction.  These four thought processes are considered to be higher order thinking, and when they are used together, they become problem solving methods. 

Lets examine the four thought processes and then discuss problem solving methods in a bit more detail.

  1. During analysis, the thinker will try to break down ideas to determine an underlying pattern.  For example, you can check your student’s compositions to see if there are any consistent mistakes.   Another example would be checking over test answers to find a pattern revealing a weak understanding in a particular area or subject mastery in another.  In reality, these analyses are what a good teacher does with every test or paper.  Similarly, a scientist will look over data to see if she can determine patterns which would explain the data.  Analysis is often the first higher order thought process applied to solve a problem.
  2. Synthesis is another higher order of thought.  When a person uses synthesis, he or she is combining ideas to get a larger idea or concept.  In the case of a major weather event, scientists often attempt to determine if there is a pattern to the weather system which can be predicted based upon signs like temperatures or barometric pressure patterns.  A common example of synthesis is the combination of high strength of steel with the flexibility of thin strands to make a steel cable for a suspension bridge.  When a new idea emerges from a body of current knowledge, synthesis is at work.
  3. Evaluation is the thought process whereby we try to decide whether an explanation is true.  In school, we teach the children to evaluate their own work and they gradually begin to judge the work of others.  Another use of evaluation is deciding if a conclusion is justified, or correct, or true.  When writing up an experiment, the student is asked to write a conclusion: why did the experiment do what it did?  The student may have used analysis and synthesis to reach the conclusion, but at some point the student will have to decide that it is a good and satisfactory explanation. 
  4. Simply trying to answer the question ‘Why?’ is another type of higher order thinking skill.  Involving you children in this activity is a great way to practice higher order thinking.  These are the ‘I wonder” questions which spark a young scientist’s imagination.  Training a child to ask himself these questions is the goal of a good teacher.  A person who is curious about the universe is one who will learn easily.  This skill is really two-fold: first, the asking of the question, then the attempt at an answer.  Both of these can be learned and practiced.

Techniques for Problem Solving

Problem solving is a way we can practice critical thinking.  Two principle ways of problem solving are the scientific method and the engineering method.  The scientific method allows a scientist to determine what factors may be affecting a system.  By eliminating all but one factors, the scientist can then vary that one factor and measure its effect.  Norman Edmund, founder of Edmund Scientific has written a wonderful book which details the many parts of the scientific method.  Really a book about critical thinking, The General Pattern of the Scientific Method is valuable to every student.

The engineering method, like the scientific method, is systematic, but it is usually applied in concrete rather than theoretical situations.  When a person uses the engineering method, she attempts to solve a very specific problem using the materials at hand.

  1. First, she will carefully define the problem in order to understand exactly what she needs to do.  
  2. Then she will brainstorm ideas to determine many possible methods to overcome the problem.  
  3. Next, she will weigh those ideas to determine the best one for the situation.  
  4. Last, she will refine her work. 

Practice, Practice, Practice! 

Now, for some ideas you can use at home to practice critical thinking skills.  A student may be asked to solve a problem like making a lunch which includes all of the major food groups with an assortment of good-tasting foods— and be made up of what is available without a trip to the store.  This may sound simplistic, but is a good way to introduce the engineering method to your students.

Another good exercise is to build a crane of building blocks (or Legos or whatever) capable of lifting a glass of water off the ground.  Your students use the materials on hand to solve a particular given problem.

Problem solving can be done in the imagination, too.  You can present the children with a hypothetical problem— or one they have read about— and get them to brainstorm possible solutions.

Practicing brainstorming is another fun activity for home.  Science, without brainstorming or divergent thinking, would never have progressed to our high level of technology.  Just think of all of the everyday things you use which have been invented by people doing divergent thinking.  Velcro, transitors, tape recorders, airplane wings, and even the screw, are all examples. 

There are many fun ways you can practice brainstorming, but remember the primary rule:  don’t criticize the ideas the children come up with.  The single quickest way to cut off creativity is to be critical, so make no judgements about an idea no matter how far-fetched.  The important thing is the free flow of lots of ideas.  Later, you will analyze the ideas and toss out the ineffective ones, but for the present, you just want ideas and lots of them.

What kinds of things can you brainstorm with your children?  How about these—

  • how could we get across the street without touching the ground?
  • how can we make light with no house current?
  • how can we save energy used for cooking
  • how can we arrange the furniture for convenient homeschooling?  (You would be surprised at the ideas for this one that the children will come up with.)

Teaching Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is easier to teach when you are deliberate about it.  Most curricula do not attempt to teach critical thinking, so it becomes a stretch for the homeschool parents to follow through.  However, the benefits are greatly outweigh the effort required.  Do teach the children to think— after all, the Scirpture tells us that we should seek wisdom above all else.

How to use an activity to teach critical thinking:

  1. First, do something which allows you to collect data, keeping track of weather and temperatures, for example.  
  2. Next, you chart the data.  The making of a chart is helpful to scientists and students enabling them to see relationships more easily.
  3. Then, help your student to analyze the chart for information or patterns.  
  4. Ask your student if the information applies to other situations or studies.   
  5. Have the student write a conclusion or summary of what was learned.  
  6. If your student is curious about the outcome, he may want to do more experiments to find out more information.  At this point, the wise parent will drop out of the action becoming the curious audience.  This student is now becoming a self-directing critical thinker.

Here’s an Example…

Below is a performance chart which shows some of the factors affecting an aircraft’s takeoff.  An airplane accelerates down the runway causing air to flow over the wings at greater and greater speed.  As the air passes over the wings, they generate lift.  The faster the air, the more lift is created.  But speed is only one vital piece of information in determining takeoff performance.  Weather conditions also affect the takeoff.

Aircraft Takeoff Performance

Gross Wt(lbs) Airspeed at 50 ft. Head
to 50′
to 50′
to 50′
to 50′
2300 68 0 865 1525 1040 1910 1255 2480 1565 3855
2300 68 10 615 1170 750 1485 920 1955 1160 3110
2300 68 20 405 850 505 1100 630 1480 810 2425
2000 63 0 630 1095 735 1325 905 1625 1120 2155
2000 63 10 435 820 530 1005 645 1250 810 1685
2000 63 20 275 580 340 730 425 910 595 1255
1700 58 0 435 780 520 920 625 1095 765 1370
1700 58 10 290 570 355 680 430 820 535 1040
1700 58 20 175 385 215 470 270 575 345 745

Look the performance chart above and answer these questions.
1. What is the temperature of a day when the airplane can take off in the shortest distance?

2.  What are the best conditions for take off? The worst?

A normal curriculum will ask these first two questions.  These questions ask the student to read and show understanding of the chart.  This is the type of question normally found on an achievement test.   

Read on for questions requiring more critical thinking!

3.  How does air temperature affect the lift generated by the wings on an aircraft?  Brainstorm lift factors which the temperature of the air might affect.

4.  In a gas, the molecules have more energy and are farther apart when the temperature is warm.  How does this fact relate to the data in the chart? 

5.  What could you do to the design of an airplane to make it takeoff in a short distance?

6.  If you put ice in the wings, it would cool them and the air around them.  Would this reduce the takeoff roll of the airplane? 

7.  Could you reduce the take off roll by putting big fans at the end of the runway and blowing air down the runway towards the plane?

Are you teaching critical thinking in your homeschool?  Leave a comment and let us know how you’re doing it!

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Inventions, Creative Thinking, and Problem Solving

by Kathleen Julicher
Of the many ways that distinguish people from animals, creativity and the ability to invent is most obvious.  God, when He breathed life into Adam, also gave him intelligence and the desire to create.  While creativity is given in some measure to all people, some like artists, inventors, or authors may have a special gift.  In our homeschools, all of our children will show a spark of creativity.  Nurture that spark in your children by using some of the ideas and resources mentioned in this article.
Creativity is the ability to create something new, or to change something to improve it.  We usually think of creativity as having to do mainly with art, but there is a technical kind of creativity which produces inventions and allows the scientist to solve problems and to design experiments.  Technical creativity and artistic creativity use a similar style of thinking, creativity, but in different ways.  In this way, inventions, artistry, and compositions are all products of creativity.  In science, creativity is expressed by invention, problem solving skills, design of experiments, and thinking of explanations of events.  Since an artist and a scientist use creative thinking in different ways, a good problem solver may not be able to paint, just as an artist may not be able to design experiments.  An excellent mathematical problem solver may not be able to arrange a room or design a bridge.  Technical problem solving and creativity are both part of inventing.
There have been many famous inventors in the past whom you can study in your homeschool.  Among them are Edison, Marconi, Da Vinci, Curie, Kettering, Whitney, Carver, Tesla, Land, Babbage, Bell, and the Wright brothers.  What can we study about these inventors?  What similar characteristics did they have?  Curiosity must have been one.  Other similar traits might be: the desire to try something new, the persistence to overcome obstacles; an idea or concept, or maybe a dream; a willingness to take the time to work on a project.  Most inventors have an ability to think “outside the box”.  “The box” refers to common knowledge, or the usual way of doing something.  Discuss the things inventors have in common with your children.  Does your student have any of those characteristics?  Have you told him so?  How would you encourage those characteristics?  Below is a list of activities you can do at home to encourage or to train your young inventors.
Practicing Inventing

  • Let the child use tools (saw, drill, sewing machine, soldering iron, etc.) (safely, of course)
  • Let them have scraps to work on.
  • Compliment them on their projects.
  • Be surprised and pleased when they change something. Even if it is not the way you would have done it.
  • Let them make something without the instructions.
  • Let them make mistakes.
  • Teach them to learn from mistakes without being critical.
  • Let them change the instructions.

There are thousands of other inventors about whom little has written.  For example, we do not know who invented the stirrup, the metal plow, the needle, the iron, weaving, or the written word, so we cannot study the inventors, only the inventions.  In cases such as these, your student can draw the invention, decide how it would affect the way work was done and try to imagine how life must have been without the invention.  For example, stirrups were a terribly important invention and literally transformed Asia and parts of Europe.  In the fifth century, the hordes of Mongolia had stirrups while the peoples they conquered did not.  How must it have been to ride without them for your feet?  How did a soldier swing a saber or throw a javelin accurately and with power while on his horse without stirrups?  By studying the befores and afters of inventions, students can learn about changing and adapting things.
Conflict with traditional thinking
The problem with creative thinking is that it involves a change in the way we do things, or look at things.  A conservative person will have a certain set of recipes to be used on certain days and will resist learning any new recipe and a new or different technique.  This person will ask “When the way we cook dinner is perfectly fine, why change it?”  And so it is with schooling,  If the way we school is working, then why change that?  The natural instinct of most people is to leave well enough alone.  Homeschoolers, by nature are in conflict with traditional schooling, but we can still exhibit conservative, non-creative thinking.  This is exemplified by those who refuse to leave the textbook to do some project or field trip.  Those who wish to teach inventing or creativity, though, must leave the text behind and move at least part of the time into divergent thinking  There are three steps to the teaching of creativity: 
  1. allowing time to think up ideas
  2. allowing the children’s ideas to be different
  3. allowing them to put the ideas into action.   
By doing these things to practice creativity, you encourage it.  You must also model creativity if you expect your children to be inventive.
Practicing creative thinking and invention is easy.  First, set aside some time, perhaps two hours per week, for an activity.  Next, check out some of the activities suggested or some of the books from the resource list for ideas.  If you are doing a craft or an art problem then collect the materials to use.  In this way, your young inventors will have the necessary materials (plus a few unnecessary ones) to do their projects.
The most important thing is that the atmosphere must be conducive to creative thinking.  Do not interrupt brainstorming as this will stop the flow of thinking.  While brainstorming, do not be judgmental or point out the obvious flaws in their ideas.  To do so will inhibit the free flow of thought.  You may expect a product to be made; that is, a physical invention or creation.  It is reasonable to provide a deadline for the work, too, as this will help the children stay focused on the problem at hand.  You should control your own desire to help solve the problem as that is an inhibitor of the children’s creativity.  This may be difficult to do if the problem is especially interesting.  Your own work on the problem must be as collaborator not as an actor.  You should give your student an opportunity to explain the workings of the product.  Smiling is very important for parents, too.
Measuring Creativity
Paul Torrance developed a test which attempts to measure four components of creative ability: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration, all related to the ability to think creatively.  Fluency is the ability to think of many ideas on one topic, whereas flexibility is the ability to use given figures in original ways while elaboration is tested by asking the student to put many details on a picture.  There are other tests which try to measure creativity and each approaches the goal differently.  At home, you can encourage fluency, flexibility, and elaboration by practicing the same skills.  For example, give your child a drawing of a box.  Ask him or her to draw something with lots of details using the box.  He might turn the box into a house, an office, a railroad car, an airplane, a dinosaur, or a hologram of a planet.  The many details of the drawing show elaboration.  Give your student a set of pages with boxes and within each box draw an “x”.  Ask him to draw something different in each box, using the “x” in the drawing.  The idea is to have him draw many different pictures.  Another time you might want him to think of unusual things to draw, uncommon things, out of the lines.  This would be an exercise in originality.  List making is another way to practice creative skills.  Ask your child to make a list of all of the blue things in the room.  He will probably start out with a list of blue colored things, but later, he may start adding things like a sad face, or blues music tapes, the number “3” which seems to be colored blue in his mind’s eye.  The longer the list the better.
In science, we normally think of inventions and problem solving when we think of creativity.  That is another great way to practice creative thinking.  An example of problem solving would be to attempt to answer the question: how could you make a structure made of popsicle sticks stable, so it would not move when pushed? Can you design a car which is drivable by a person without using legs?  Or, what could you use to provide light for reading if your electricity went out?  Invention really is very much like problem solving and you can use problem solving activities to train your children to think inventively.
Creative problem solving ideas:

  • Use these materials: five paper clips, tape, scissors, and a fifteen inch piece of string, and one or two of the following: paper plate, socks, shoelaces, pencils, feathers, hot glue gun and a nail.  
  • Give your students a list of possible projects, like the following:
    • Design a toy for a cat
    • Make a chair for a doll
    • Make a noise maker
    • Design a game
    • Make a tool which will keep a person cool
  • Give your students a time limit and watch what happens!

You never know when creativity and problem solving may be needed.  Years ago, when homeschooling at the beach, we heard yells for help.  A man was being electrocuted and could not release the pipe because his muscles were in spasm.  After explaining to the children that we needed something which did not carry electricity in order to break the circuit in which the man was trapped, everyone fanned out, looking, and quickly returned with items they had found.  One brought a rope, another a board, another a plastic jug, and so on.  The rope did the trick and the electrical connection was broken.  Later, after the ambulance took the man to the hospital, we went over what had happened, reinforcing the ideas of problem solving, creativity, calmness, and electrical safety.
Creative thinking is important to our lives, it comes from God, and should be encouraged in our homeschools.  We can do this by giving them time to create things, by encouraging them, and by being non-judgemental about their ideas.  Plan a weekly time for problem solving and creativity play and your children will grow in their ability to be creative and flexible.
The Art of Problem Solving: Volumes 1 and 2 by Sandor Lehoczky and Richard Rusczky  These two books are a systematic study of problem solving techniques in arithmetic and higher maths.  The authors go beyond mere techniques and teach mathematical reasoning and because of this, the student who works in these books will gain a much deeper feel for mathematics.  They are especially useful in contesting.  Solution sets, too.
Creative Thinking and Problem Solving for Young Learners by Karen S. Meador.  This book is for the youngest of school children, K-4, and the author says that the activities can be used for even younger children.  Starting out with a definition of creativity, the author lays a foundation for the teacher who wants to learn to think creatively, too, and not just use activity sheets according to directions.  The lessons detail different aspects of creative thinking and list ideas designed to teach them.  Literature resources are even used although this is primarily a thinking book.  An excellent resource for homeschool.
Inventions, Inventors and You by Dianne Draze.  A very practical book for busy parents who want to do inventions and inventors in homeschool, but just can’t bring it all together (or don’t have the time).  There are pages to copy and use which provide short lessons in creative thinking and invention.  The book includes fourteen lessons with directions for the teacher, ideas for warming up that creative thinking, reproducible worksheets, many individual projects, and patent activities, plus the answers.  Use this book to build a year of invention.  Grades 3-7. 
The Inventive Mind in Science: Creative Thinking Activities by Christine Ebert and Edward S. Ebert II.  After discussing creativity and creative thought, the authors go straight into activities you can use at home to encourage creative thinking.  The problem of the conceptual block is important for anyone working on developing his creativity, and the authors systematically cover methods to avoid blocks.  The book offers three types of inventing to be used in the classroom: discovery, Rube Goldberg, and practical.  Taking inventions across the disciplines, an invention festival, and patent studies are included in this useful book.  One important part of the book is the Invent! card game used for desktop inventing.
Minds On Science by Hilarie Davis and Anne Dudley.  The appropriate subtitle for this series of books is: Lessons to Link Science and Thinking Skills.  Scientific problem solving and techniques to do it are the subjects of this book.  A plan for solving problems is included, as are lists of possible topics for investigation.  Activities are included in which the students are asked to observe, record, measure, and even make line charts!  The books reviewed are for grades 1-3.  Use this set of books for a great way to integrate thinking and science.  Recommended  A volume each for grades 1-3.
Problems in Search of Creative Solutions by H. Allen Murphey  A wonderful book for your technically creative kids!  This is the book to get for ideas for building projects to be used in contests, team work, or just plain individual fun.  Problems like: “design and construct a device that will shoot projectiles of newspaper into a bushel basket.  This device will hurl, toss, or otherwise propel a projectile from behind a boundary line toward the target.”  The problems are similar to those used for Odessey of the Mind and are great for scout meetings. Other, shorter problems are listed if you only have an afternoon.  Have fun with this one!
Imagination Celebration Creativity Exercises by Judy Leimback and Joan Vydra.  Having trouble getting started teaching creative thinking?  Use this book to get going.  Easy to use reproducible pages with lessons on basic creativity exercises.  Listing things which are soft and white and all the “ships” you can think of (like friendship).  The authors ask questions like “what does gentle look like?” and “what does green sound like?”  Students are asked to rewrite definitions from the dictionary into their own words.  Other specific tasks are set for students which teach four skills: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration.