Teaching Kids to Think Interview

Susie McGee
Jessica Pegis talks about inspiring kids to think.

Jessica M. Pegis has worked in educational publishing for more than 20 years as a writer, resource developer, researcher, and consultant in instructional design, and has managed more than a hundred higher-ed and school titles. She has a Bachelor's Degree in English and Philosophy and Master's Degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto. Jess has written for The Toronto Star, Now, eye weekly, and Xtra and was a regular contributor to The Financial Post and the FP Review from 1995 - 1997. She is also the author of two series of books for children as well as other titles for the school and high school market. Jess has kindly offered tips to LoveToKnow readers on how to get kids to think.

How can parents use the world around them to encourage their kids to think?

  • One of the most powerful methods is to encourage little kids to be observant, especially if they are curious about how stuff works. Household appliances--vacuum cleaners, blenders--often provide great examples of cause and effect. What does that dirt go anyway? What's the filter for?
  • The outdoors is another great source of inspiration. Trees bud; weather changes. When a new building goes up, it happens in a predictable way. Everything has a "why" and a "because." If you can get little kids tuned into this idea, it will stick.
  • Older kids need opportunities to problem-solve and to use their reason and creativity. As parents, we sometimes jump in and dictate solutions to our children's problems, but kids need to problem-solve too. The handy thing is, life serves up problems every day. *Posing scenarios--what-would-you-do-if situations--is another great way to engage kids' minds and help them think through problematic or challenging situations.

Some kids dislike specific subjects, so what can parents and teachers do to create more interest?

Great question! The brain loves information it finds engaging and relevant.

  • One way is to hook the subject to what's deeply familiar and interesting to your child. Reluctant readers, for example, often enjoy books based on familiar television shows. There's nothing wrong with these books and they accomplish the same job of exposing kids to print conventions and teaching narrative structure as anything else.
  • Games that teach concepts may be another way to approach certain subjects. You can teach addition and probability with Blackjack. You can teach categorizing information by playing 20 Questions. I have instructional web pages on both these games--which I've played with my daughter and her friends for years--that you can access through my main site.
  • If spelling is your child's nemesis, get one of those 200 most popular words lists. They're easier to use than the dictionary.

I think lots of people still think that reading is a solution to everything, and there still tends to be a general panic about reading. But not every kid will grow up to be a pleasure reader. My dad wasn't, but he taught philosophy and was a brilliant scholar. When he put away his books, he watched television, and that's pretty much my pattern. I think it's better to tell reluctant readers that they will need to read purposefully and selectively and not make it this character thing that it's become. Quite frankly, your average bookstore is loaded with bad books but if you can think, you get to pick and choose with confidence.

In your opinion, why do you think some kids dislike learning?

  1. Honestly, I believe the No. 1 reason is negative experiences with learning. It used to be that the teacher stood in front of the class and spouted off and if you didn't"get it," you were dumb. Now we're beginning to understand that learning is personal and active. If a child can't learn, it may be because the person teaching the concept hasn't explained the idea very well. It's rewarding and empowering to understand; it's demeaning and discouraging to fail to understand, especially when you think everyone else does. Feeling this way never motivated anyone to do anything. The point is, everyone is entitled to understand. It should be written above the chalkboard in every classroom.
  2. Learning style is another factor. Some kids are kinesthetic learners who need to do something--pull a lever or use manipulatives--before they can understand it. Traditionally, of course, classrooms have favored the visual learners, those who absorb information easily from print. It's a great idea for parents to approach teachers and talk about kids' learning styles. Knowing your child's style can help you figure out how to help them with homework too. I am the proud mom of a kinesthetic learner, and I am so glad I figured this out! You should see her cook. She's amazing, and she loves science too because it's hands-on.
  3. A third reason would be a learning disability. It's important to get on top of something like that quickly because there are lots of terrific ways to support kids with learning disabilities in the classroom.

What are some tips and/or ideas that you'd like to share with our readers for encouraging kids to learn?

  • Show your kids that you enjoy thinking and learning yourself.
  • Show them when you don't understand and let them see how you think your way out of it.
  • Be neutral when you're helping your kids learn. This is a really important classroom research finding. Correcting kids or telling them they're wrong tends to shut down the thinking because kids no longer feel safe taking an intellectual risk. Staying neutral, which might include asking another question or asking a child to explain his reasoning, encourages the thinking to continue. We've all been there, tearing our hair out when our kid doesn't get something we thought he knew stone cold and what does it accomplish? Not much. Just tell yourself you're just going to stay with him for that five minutes while he figures out that fraction problem and not lose your cool.
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Teaching Kids to Think Interview