How To Raise a Critical Thinker


Raising a critical thinker while homeschooling is easier than you may think. My fifth child just earned a 32 on her ACT. The highest possible score is 36 and the average ACT score, nationwide, is 20.6. So 32 is a terrific score, worthy of plentiful scholarships.

Raising Critical Thinkers When Homeschooling

She’s been homeschooled her entire life and this is the first test she’s ever taken, aside from the AP Calculus test last year, but that wasn’t the same type of test. She didn’t take any test prep classes and we didn’t hire a tutor or anything, and this was her first time taking the test.

This wasn’t a fluke, because my older four children, also homeschooled exclusively, earned scores ranging from 32 – 34.

I don’t tell you this to brag. In fact, quite the opposite. 

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the world’s best homeschooler. Not even close. 

I have eight kids and I currently work full-time, although for many years when all of my kiddos were little I just worked part-time. In addition, we own a small farm with livestock, dairy cows, an orchard, and a huge garden. 

I care deeply about nutrition (and our family budget), so I make raw cheese, sourdough bread and I cook three meals a day from scratch. Knowing all of that, you might be tempted to think of me as superhuman, but you would be very, very wrong.

All that really means is that sometimes things slip through the cracks. Frequently, it’s homeschooling.

Currently, I only dedicate an hour per day, Monday through Friday, to homeschooling. We dedicate that hour to math. My kids also learn on their own; they are voracious readers, have a few community and co-op classes, and take music lessons.

But subjects like science and history usually only happen once or twice a month (aside from my kids’ insatiable appetite for reading) and even then I have to really stop and think, “Have we completed science yet this month?” and “Yikes! How long has it been since we cracked open our history textbook?”

The ACT test is a whole lot less about what you know and more about how well you can reason things through — critical thinking. The math section obviously requires knowledge of math up through trig, but all of the other sections, including science, are based on your reading comprehension and your ability to extrapolate data correctly from charts and graphs.

The reasons behind our success may seem anecdotal because this is solely the experience of my family. However, it has been the experience of five (so far) very individual and different humans (two of whom have developmental disabilities), so I am pretty confident that my children’s critical thinking skills can be attributed to three subjects on which we’ve focused in our homeschool. 

I’m going to share my recipe with you for helping your children develop critical thinking skills.

Critical Thinking Skills in Homeschooling

Focus On Math

Math is all about finding patterns and making connections. It develops neural pathways that strengthen your brain and facilitate the ability to make deep connections between concepts that might otherwise seem unrelated.

It requires both abstract and concrete thinking, which furthers brain development. Math enhances analytical and problem-solving skills and its sequential nature improves the skills required to arrive at logical conclusions.

Math provides students with a system for solving problems, teaching them to handle unfamiliar tasks with ease and confidence. This knowledge translates to real-world, non-math problems, too. Math students learn to outline a problem, identify the knowns and unknowns, find possible, logical solutions and examine data in order to settle on the best solution.

Research by Dr. Tanya Evans of Stanford University found, “Children who know math are able to recruit certain brain regions more reliably and have greater gray matter volume in those regions, than those who perform more poorly in math. The brain regions involved in higher math skills in high-performing children were associated with various cognitive tasks involving visual attention and decision-making.”

A group of students, ages 14 – 18, participated in a study at Oxford University. About half of the students were not studying math at that time because they had chosen not to study math beyond the requirements, which they had completed at about age 16. The other half were studying math during the study. 

Each participant underwent a series of brain scans and cognitive assessments over a 19 month period. According to the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the students who were not studying math had less gamma-aminobutyric acid, a chemical that is crucial for brain plasticity, than their counterparts. The chemical, which works as a neurotransmitter, is key in supporting the area of the brain that affects memory, learning, reasoning, and problem-solving.

All of the science disciplines, biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy are based on math. We literally cannot understand our world without first understanding math. Curious minds have solved humanity’s most pressing problems by harnessing the power of mathematics. 

Galileo said, “If I were again beginning my studies, I would follow the advice of Plato and start with mathematics.” I couldn’t agree more. Outside of literacy, math is the most powerful tool you can give your children if you want them to be critical thinkers.

Establish a Reading Culture in Your Home

You already know I’m a slacker when it comes to homeschooling. I just have so much going on I can’t manage to allot more than an hour each weekday and since I prioritize math, that is where we spend our hour. 

Does that mean my kids are suffering academically? Absolutely not!

Obviously, my older children have all earned excellent ACT scores and are attending university on full scholarships. Additionally, they’ve each been invited by their professors to be research assistants, TA’s and have received other accolades. 

How are they prepared if I didn’t prepare them?

I gifted them with a voracious appetite for learning and reading, a well-stocked library and they prepared themselves! 

It would be difficult to learn math strictly by reading. Euclid’s Geometry and Principia are pretty tough to slog through, even for a math connoisseur like me. And math requires a holy ton of practice that you can’t get by reading.

Pretty much all of the other subjects in the universe, though, are ripe for learning about by reading. I do have to guide my children’s reading selections, but they do all the heavy lifting. Here is how I’ve established a reading culture in our home.  

Provide Musical Training

It may not seem like music and critical thinking have all that much in common but hear me out. 

As a new mom, I read all of the child development books I could get my hands on. I’m a pianist myself and figured I would teach my children to play the piano as well, but then I read somewhere that stringed instruments were the very best way to develop brains because each hand is performing a completely separate function, requiring the brain hemispheres to work together, increasing connectivity. 

String players are subjects of ongoing neuroscience research because they offer distinctive evidence of brain plasticity. The brains of musicians have stronger structural and functional connections compared to those of non-musicians, regardless of innate ability. Years of musical training shape the brain in dramatic ways.

I’ve taught each of my children to play the piano, plus they have each learned a stringed instrument (or several). They also play bagpipes, harp, flute, guitar, organ, ukelele, and more.  Our music room is like Grand Central Station in that there is always a long line of users waiting their turn to play the piano (not forced practicing, but voluntarily playing music for fun). So much so that we added a second piano in the basement in order to handle the load.

While college entrance tests don’t test musical knowledge or ability, I believe that the exceptional organization and connection music contributes to brain development also contributes to critical thinking skills, which are tested by college entrance tests. Of course, learning music has numerous other benefits as well.

I’m not a child development expert nor am I a neuroscientist, but I think incorporating these three strategies into any homeschool will yield the best possible outcome for its students in terms of the ability to think critically. I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below! 

Amy Saunders

About the author

Of necessity, having birthed eight wonderfully creative, but messy humans, Amy has honed her superpower, ‘Entropy Annihilation’, to shiny, razor-sharp perfection. Amy advocates sunshine, pinches pennies, cooks nutritious meals from scratch, homeschools her children, and is a perpetual DIYer. Amy is a musician, an artist, and a software engineer.

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