Tuesday, August 9, 2011

12 Questions That Will Make Your Teen Think

In other posts I've written about the time-sensitive window of opportunity for teens to develop a substantial foundation in the prefrontal cortex for critical thinking - so they can understand, evaluate, foresee consequences, analyze, problem solve, make decisions, plan, organize, manage and control impulsive reactions.

One point I can't emphasize often enough is that developing the prefrontal cortex is a catch-22 for teens. The consequences are hugely important, but because this area of the brain is "under construction," it's hard for teens to actually do the critical thinking work that ingrains the neural pathways and solidifies the foundation. As a result, many people grow in adulthood with a minimal foundation for critical thinking, creating a kind of intellectual disability that limits their success in life and work.

In other words, teens need help - coaching to do the thinking even though they aren't inclined to do it on their own. The people who can help are the adults who care about the teen - parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, and counselors.

I believe that parents are in the best position to help, but they don't know what to do. Teachers are also in an excellent position to coach teens to think. A teacher may work with your child several hours a week - with the purpose of helping the teen grow and develop for life beyond school.

I remember years ago when I was an adjunct instructor at the Center for Creative Leadership, one of my colleagues was a very bright young woman. On a break we were talking about the people who made a difference in our lives. She said, "the person who helped me the most was my freshman economics professor." When I asked her why, she said, "He taught me how to think."

How can a teacher encourage a teen to think? It's as simple as getting the teen to analyze and reason, not just to memorize a fact. For example, a history teacher might point to B.J. and ask, "When did the Battle of Gettysburg take place?" or "Who led the Southern Army at that battle?" These are factual questions. The answers are "July 1-3, 1863" and "General Robert E. Lee." Factual questions don't engage the prefrontal cortex.

Lithograph by Currier & Ives, courtesy Library of Congress
What the history teacher could have asked was, "General Lee was the aggressor. How was General Meade able to defeat him?" or "Why was this battle so important?" Rather than recall a fact, the student is required to analyze cause and effect - to think critically.

I recently spoke with Evan Peterson, the head of school at the Fort Worth Country Day School. He was formerly headmaster at the Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News, Virginia, during the period when my business partner Meredith Bell's daughter was a high school student there. According to Meredith, most of the teachers at the academy were trying to get the kids to think critically. Mr. Peterson told me that it took a few years of "purposeful conversations" with the teachers, coaches and administrators to get them to buy into the approach, but in the end they stopped using true-false and multiple choice questions on tests. Instead, they required students to give their thinking in writing.

This, of course, is the exception, not the rule. Unfortunately most schools put a priority on preparing teens to score high on state standardized achievement tests, which use mostly factual questions.

So if this kind of coaching isn't happening systematically at school, what can parents do? Actually, it’s quite simple. Get in the habit of asking questions that get your teen to evaluate situations, think about cause and effect and imagine future consequences. When the situation arises, approach your teen in a calm, caring way, and ask questions such as:
  • “How are these things related?”
  • “What do you think that person was thinking?”
  • “If you had done that, what could have happened?”
  • “What are the potential dangers?”
  • “How will doing this benefit you?”
  • “If you were in that person’s shoes, what would you do?”
  • “Why do you think I want you to do this?”
  • “If this does happen, what’s likely to happen next?”
  • “How will this help you achieve your goal?
  • “What’s possible in this situation?”
  • “What other options do you have?”
  • “Why do you feel that this option is best for you?”
Another technique is to be ready when your teen is frustrated by adversity or failure. Then, instead of lecturing or telling the teen what to do, ask the "5 magic questions."

The window for development opens at puberty. The window closes around age 22, plus or minus. If it matters to you whether your teen develops a substantial foundation for critical thinking, you can get in the habit of asking questions that make the child think. It may seem awkward at first, but the more you do it the easier it will get.

Two books that will stimulate your child to think about what's important...

Conversations with the Wise Aunt - for girls

Conversations with the Wise Uncle - for boys

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


Meredith Bell said...

This is a very important article that every parent, teacher and coach of a teen should read. The future of our country depends on young people learning how to do critical thinking, and you clearly explain not just WHY this is so important but also WHAT these adults can do to encourage this type of brain development.

Glad you gave recognition to Evan Peterson. He was a remarkable headmaster at Hampton Roads Academy, and my daughter was fortunate to attend the school (grades 6-12) while he was there.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Maybe those essay questions I hated so much in high school weren't so bad after all.

Love to you and Kathleen. I hope y'all are managing to stay cool. Personally, I'm ready for autumn.


Chandra Achberger said...

Great article. I have two small children 6 & 4 (just yesterday :) These questions are basically what we ask them constantly about their decisions and goals. These should be the foundation for what our education system and society are teaching our children. Creating a lifelong thirst for knowledge and the tools to be accountable, thoughtful & caring citizens of the world. Thank you, this was inspiring and well put.