Teach your children how to think, not what to think

 A Sufi Master had the habit of telling a parable to his students at the end of each lesson, but they didn’t always understand the message.

– Master – said once defiantly one of the students – you always tell us a story, but never explain us its deeper meaning.

– I beg your pardon for this – the teacher apologized -, allow me to repair my mistake, while I offer you the fish I’ve just caught.

– Thank you teacher.

– However, I would like to thank you as you deserve. Do you dare if I clean the fish for you?

– Yes, thank you very much – said the student surprised and flattered by the offer of the master.

– Would you like, since I have the knife in my hand, that I cut it into small pieces so that’s easier for you to eat it?

– I’d love to, but I won’t abuse your generosity, Master.

– It is not an abuse, if it’s me that I’m offering. I just want to please you in everything I can. Also let me cook and chew it before I give it to you.

– No master, I wouldn’t like you to do this! – Replied the student surprised and shocked.

The Master paused, smiled and said:

– If I explain the meaning of each of the stories to my students, it would be like to feed them with fruits already chewed.

Unfortunately, many teachers and parents think it is better to give children the perfectly cut and chewed fruit. In fact, the society and the school are structured in such a way that focus more on the transmission of the knowledge, of more or less absolute truths, rather than teach children to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

Even the parents, educated in this scheme, repeat it at home, because we all have a tendency to repeat with our children the same guidelines used with us, even though we are not always aware of it.

But teaching children to believe blindly in alleged truths without questioning them, teaching them what to think, means stealing one of their most important skills: the self-determination ability.

Educating doesn’t mean creating, but help children create themselves

Self-determination is the guarantee that, choose what we choose, we will be the protagonists of our lives. We may be wrong. In fact, it is very likely that we will, but we will learn from the errors and move forward, enriching our tool-box to face life.

From a cognitive point of view, there is no greater challenge than facing problems and errors, since these do not require only effort, but also a change and an adaptation process. Facing a problem are set in motion all of our cognitive resources and, often, the solution involves a reorganization of our mindset.

So, if instead of teaching children absolute truths (that not even exists) we offer them the challenges that oblige them to think, we will develop their ability to observe, think and make decisions. If we teach children to accept something without thinking, the information will not be significant, will not produce a major change in their brains, but will simply be stored somewhere inside the memory where it will slowly disappear.

On the contrary, when we are forced to think to solve a problem or try to figure out where we’ve been wrong, the brain produces a restructuring that results in growth. When children are accustomed to think, to question the reality and search for themselves the solutions, they begin to trust their skills and approach life with more confidence and less fear.

Children must find their own way of doing things, they have to give sense to their world and gradually form their own values.

How to do this?

A series of experiments developed in 1970 at the University of Rochester offer us some clues. These psychologists worked with different groups of people and found that the rewards can improve until some point the motivation and effectiveness when it comes to repetitive and tedious tasks, but they can become counterproductive when it comes to addressing problems that require reflection and creative thought.

Interestingly, people who did not receive external rewards obtained best results in solving complex problems. In fact, in some cases the rewards meant that people seek shortcuts and assumed other unethical behavior, since the aim was no longer to solve the problem, but get the reward.

These results led the psychologist Edward L. Deci to apply his Self-determination Theory, by which for motivating people and children to give their best, you do not need to resort to external rewards, but just provide them with a suitable environment that meets these three requirements:

1. Feel that they have a certain expertise, so that the task does not generate excessive frustration and anxiety.

2. Enjoy a certain degree of autonomy, so that they can look for new solutions and implement them, feeling that have the control.

3. Maintain the interaction with the others, to feel sustained and connected.

Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2000) Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology; 25: 54–67.


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