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Teaching Children Critical Thinking

Bill Samuels, Ph.D., ASPCA Director Humane Education


The Inquisitive Mind
Teaching children to question their world.

By Bill Samuels, Ph.D.

I have always had a zoo in my head. Ever since I was five years old, I wanted to be a zookeeper. As a little boy, my imagination ran wild, and I thought about the kinds of homes I would need to build for my pet dragon, giant panda and green gorilla.

When I was eight, we moved into a house at the top of a steep hill, overlooking a small river. A forest encroached on our backyard, and in that forest, I discovered a menagerie more awesome than anything my imagination had conceived. I searched for groundhog holes and discovered salamanders. At night, I learned that fireflies glow. I listened to the whisper of bats cleaning the air. As my world of animals gained realism, it also gained depth. For example, my explorations filled me with questions about our own cats: the venerable Ginny, graceful Tippy Toes and big Bandit. I watched them with new wonder and tried to understand their actions. With understanding, my love for them matured and deepened. They changed from being animated teddy bears to sentient companions. My early wonder for fantastic creatures grew into a love for real animals. I saw their world as greater and richer than any I had concocted in my head. I came to understand that it was I who was housed in a mammoth zoo.

Animal Watching

Not long ago, I realized that as a child, I had engaged in primitive self-directed inquiry – not dissimilar to that sanctioned by many science teachers and educators. My observations of animals generated questions. These questions led me to seek answers. Guiding myself, my investigations were unstructured. Had these queries been voiced in class, an experienced science teacher might have suggested that I form a hypothesis: a question that can be answered by observation. Then, the teacher might’ve helped me think about how I could go about collecting information. We’d look ahead and figure out ways of ruling out different interpretations, so we could be sure we understood what was happening. Afterwards, we would interpret this information together and present the conclusions clearly. We would have conducted an experiment.

I can hear you now. “Phooey!” you say. “No eight year old could endure that!” But they can. When children explore their world, they continually hypothesize and experiment. The difference is whether they are given guidance to think critically about their observations.

Of course, the experiment must be simple, and the interpretation should be straightforward and concrete. Although the child will need supervision, he or she should be allowed to do as much as possible. The more in control the child feels, the more he or she will be interested and feel empowered.

Children will probably need the most guidance directing their thoughts and interpreting the results. When children ask, “Why?” respond first with, “Why do you think?” Do not denigrate their answers! The point is to encourage questions that lead to answers.

Critical Thinking

I was in college before I learned to think critically. I was in graduate school when I truly learned to conduct experiments. How late that was! Fortunately, none of my classmates had learned any earlier. How easily I would have been left in the dust if they had been taught these inquiry skills when they were first ready – and so willing – to learn them.

Although I wouldn’t learn these skills until after high school, I was fortunate that my childhood adventures and discoveries had taught me to love animals and nature. My parents and books answered what questions they could, but the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. The more I understood animals, the more I appreciated and loved them. The more I saw how some people mistreat animals, the more I knew I wanted to help give a voice to these victims.

Having always loved learning, it’s no surprise that I embraced the value of education. In future issues, I will continue the fine tradition of Dr. Sheryl Pipe, the previous ASPCA director of humane education. I will address issues that directly affect the classroom. I will expand on how to empower students with knowledge and understanding, and explore ways to bring animals safely into children’s hearts and lives.

Dr. Samuels ( is the director of ASPCA Humane Education. He has a Ph.D. in educational assessment.

© 2003 ASPCA

ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2003

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424 East 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128-6804

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