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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Standard Time

By Jay Ryan at

In the modern world, we use “Standard Time” in which the whole world is divided into 24 time zones. As a result, on any day of the year at any latitude, the times of actual sunrise and sunset vary depending on your location within a time zone — the Sun rises and sets earlier in the eastern end of a time zone, and later in the western end of a time zone.

Standard Time and Daylight Savings are conveniences of our modern world, but this whole scheme tampers with the classical practices of astronomical timekeeping. Throughout history, time was measured according to “Sundial Time.” “12 Noon” was simply the time when the Sun reached it’s highest point in the sky, directly above Due South. Each person saw Noon at a unique time for that location. One sundial would point to Noon while a sundial 50 miles away would read differently by a few minutes.

This system worked fine until our current modern period where inventions of the telegraph and the railroad enabled high speed transportation and communication, requiring a common standard reference for telling time. The problem is, with the current system, the Sun no longer reaches its highest point in the sky at 12 Noon.

Nowadays with Standard Time and Daylight Savings, the Sun can reach “High Noon” in the sky as late as 1:30 PM. The modern system of timekeeping plays havoc with the natural order of “Sundial Time.” Thus, timekeeping is now decoupled from God’s natural timekeepers, the Sun and Moon. Perhaps this is one reason why so few people today understand or appreciate Classical Astronomy, since we no longer take our time directly from the Sun. Sundials can be corrected for Standard Time and Daylight Savings, but not many people today know the tricks. So nowadays most sundials are simply lawn decorations, but not useful as timekeepers.

Jay Ryan is the author of Signs and Seasons, an illustrated, Biblically-centered homeschool curriculum for Classical Astronomy. He is also the creator of the Classical Astronomy Update, an email astronomy newseltter especially for Christian homeschoolers.  Visit his website at

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How Gifted Kids Learn to Read

By Deborah L. Ruf, Ph.D.

One of my doctoral studies’ advisors specialized in how people learn to read. I paid little attention to that research at the time, and by the early 1990’s, my own understanding was still mostly anecdotal or from my own experiences. I had some personal family stories, taught school in a very intellectually diverse community, seen differences between generations and when they started to read, and watched my own three children’s learning paths.

When I was a little girl in the 1950’s, my mother read Dr. Spock’s baby book and anything else she could get her hands on to make sure she was doing all the “right things.” Parents were told not to push their children. This meant that many in my generation were not encouraged to read before starting school. “Don’t interfere with what the trained educators will teach your children,” our parents were told. So, I started school not knowing how to read, although I certainly knew how to sight read many signs, logos, record labels and book titles because I’d memorized their associations, e.g. we stop at the “stop” sign. When I started school, my mother was alarmed that I wasn’t learning to read. She made flash cards and taught me phonics. I remember the hardest word in the stack of flashcards for me was “baby.” How do you phonetically sound out “baby”? I kept saying “baa-bye,” which rhymes with rabbi. My mother was a yeller. This was not a good experience.

Then one day when I was about 7 years old, I simply started to read. The first book I read was Lassie Come Home by Erik Knight. One day I couldn’t read … and the next day I could literally read and understand anything. I see this with my client children all the time except that it usually happens when they are younger than I was. My own children’s father grew up a 1,000 miles away from me, but he experienced much the same reading delay as I had. He got very ill when he was in second grade—still not a reader—and the school sent a tutor to his home to work with him while he was recuperating. Same thing happened; he went from not reading to reading anything – in one day. What happened?
My mother, on the other hand, born in 1927, came from a generation that got to do what they were ready to do whenever that time arose. Grade skipping was common. If a child was ahead of age-mates, she got moved up a grade level or two to learn with older students. My mother was the fourth child in her family. One summer morning when she was four years old, she walked to the public library and wanted to take some books home. The librarian told her she needed a library card. “How do you get a library card?” she asked. “You have to know how to read,” came the answer. Mom ran home, confronted an older brother, and told him she needed to learn to read “right now!” She went back for her library card—and some books to bring home—that afternoon.

I currently tell parent clients that gifted kids learn to read after they develop their vocabularies and learn to know what should come next in a sentence. The brighter the children, the earlier they start absorbing verbal—language—information from their surroundings. Phonics is a useful tool later, but teaching smart children to read with phonics is very confusing to most of them and sometimes slows them down. Phonics works to teach “decoding” skills, but a child who knows how to decode still may not understand what he reads. Most really bright children appear to start reading almost spontaneously. Most parents of such children report that they aren’t sure how their children learned to read.
Bright kids learn to read when they are exposed to how the printed word gives information or tells a story. There are studies showing that the parents of poor children use fewer words with their children, read to them less, and have fewer books in their homes than do typical parents from higher socioeconomic status groups and even some specific racial and ethnic groups. But the big question is this: is it equally effective for all children—regardless of the intellectual abilities and overall interests that the children individually possess— for parents, teachers, and other adults to talk and read to them more? Our public school policy is largely driven by the assumption that all children learn to read the same way and with the same tools and approach. Will providing the same level of vocabulary, conversation, books in the home, and parents who read to them turn the vast majority of American children into capable, high-level readers? Right now the adult literacy rate in the United States is only about 86%. But even that number is misleading because regular reading for information or pleasure is done by only a very small percentage of our population.

It is precisely these questions that makes typical public school classes so problematic for so many gifted children and their parents. For example, research by McCoach & Reis at the University of Connecticut shows that gifted children learn more over the summer than during the school year. Although some interpret this as proof bright children come from stimulating rather than impoverished homes, I propose it is more often due to these smart children finally being freed to read and learn what they are ready to learn—at their own pace and in their own time. The No Child Left Behind school day is set for the majority of learners, not the brightest ones who are still required to be there with others their age who learn much differently and more slowly.

Studies consistently show that the brighter the child, the earlier in their lives they start to absorb vocabulary, normal sentence structure, and the nuances of language in general. When Sesame Street first aired, the goal was to give children in poverty the same early start as their higher socioeconomic counterparts. This is one reason I ask new clients when it was that their children started to pay attention to television, movies, and videos. How early in their lives did they begin to absorb language and verbal skills from their environment? The Sesame Street study uncovered the fact that there appears to be a difference not in how much parents from different socioeconomic groups use TV as a babysitter, but in what the preferred TV programs were for children from each group. Brighter children have an earlier ability to attend—pay attention to—educational programming than do less intelligent children regardless of whether they live in poverty or affluence. Gifted children start learning sooner than other children. They start school “better prepared” because their intellectual profile allows them to absorb sooner and more intensely from whatever environment they are in. Please note that the excellent article linked here—like most educational policy examinations—does not adequately address how intellectual level and profile affects readiness.

Because most children have no options except to attend public schools, it is imperative that those schools instruct all children appropriately–taking their abilities and readiness into account–if they are to learn. It is not true that “by third grade (or fourth grade) we can’t even tell who the early readers were.” It is an unacceptable excuse for keeping all children of the same age in the same classes for instruction. I’ll talk about the topic of gifted children and reading much more in future blogs.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the author.  She says this about her website:  “I founded Educational Options to provide accurate information regarding intelligence, what it is, where it comes from, and how our family, school, relationship and workplace environments either nurture or stifle its expression. When someone is highly intelligent – different from the majority in thoughts, expression, and interest – the wrong environment can lead to confusion, sadness, and underachievement. My continuing purpose is to open the eyes and awareness of adults in ways that will benefit them and the children under their care.”

Check out Dr. Ruf’s latest project at, especially the page on Ruf Estimates of Levels of Gifted Assessments.

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