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Table of Contents

How Critical Thinking Skills Develop: A Brainy Overview

Our greatest hope as parents and educators is that our children grow up to become high functioning members of society who can think intelligently, make educated decisions, and succeed in their chosen professions. The skill sets our children will need to develop to succeed in the 21st century are, however, different than those needed in previous decades. This change in skills demanded from the labor market has been the result of an economy transformed by ever-expanding automation, artificial intelligence, big data, and globalization. To succeed in our new, information-based economy, students will need skills beyond those traditionally tested in the classroom.

Comparing skill sets across several sources, including Forbes, Indeed, the World Bank, and Pearson & Nesta, it is clear that employers value high-order cognitive skills. Employers are seeking employees who can solve problems creatively, collaborate with team members effectively, work independently, and think critically among other interpersonal and interpersonal skills.

In order for us to best prepare our students for the opportunities and challenges awaiting them, we need to understand how higher-order thinking skills are developed. The brain can teach us a lot.

A Brief Overview of a Child’s Neurological Development 

Sources: (1) (2) (3)

While the brain takes nearly 25 years to fully develop, its most rapid changes occur during adolescence making it a critical period for students to engage in stimulating activities that promote thinking.

The Prefrontal Cortex: Home to Higher-Order Thinking

Put your hand on your forehead (as if you have a headache) – the area behind your hand is where your prefrontal cortex is located. The prefrontal cortex regulates our thoughts, emotions, and actions through extensive connections to other neural structures, and is the main center for critical thinking. Without it, we would not be able to perform many executive functions like problem-solving, reasoning, self-motivation, planning, decision-making, self-control, and the list goes on.

Compared to all other animals, the human brain has the greatest volume of prefrontal cortex — which is why humans have the greatest potential to think critically!

The prefrontal cortex is the last neural structure to mature. During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex both grows in a process called myelination and shrinks in a process called pruning

The Growing Adolescent Brain

New neural networks form when we repeat activities and link ideas. In a process called myelination, fatty “myelin sheaths” insulate connecting neurons to increase the speed and efficiency of the flow of information from one neural region to another. While myelination begins early in life and continues into adulthood, the production of myelin sheaths escalates during adolescence. Because myelination facilitates faster long-range connections in the brain, adolescents gain an increased ability to think abstractly and bring ideas together from different locations in the brain.

The Shrinking Adolescent Brain

During childhood and adolescents the brain soaks up information like a sponge, but there is only so much storage space in the brain. As a result, “synaptic pruning” occurs. This process is often referred to as the “use it or lose it” philosophy — the neural pathways that are underutilized are pruned or removed from the brain.

Basically, the brain decides which neural links to keep depending on how often they are used. So, if you want to speak a foreign language, play a musical instrument, or become a great athlete, you should engage in those activities before and during adolescence. 

Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together

During this period of rapid neural development, learning actually changes how the adolescent brain is structured and how it functions. As teachers, parents, and mentors it is our responsibility to provide students with the foundational information and learning opportunities necessary to stimulate their developing neural networks of executive functions.

Neurons that fire together, wire together. Basically the more often you stimulate a neural-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. This phenomena explains why it becomes easier to speak a foreign language with practice and why learning how to play a second musical instrument is easier than learning how to play an instrument for the first time — practice strengthens the involved neural circuits.  

Given that schooling occurs when the brain is undergoing its most rapid period of growth, caregivers and educators play a critical part in changing adolescents’ neural structures and shaping their brain function. Research shows that “a well-developed prefrontal cortex with strong Executive Functions can improve both academic and life outcomes.”

Students, even if they don’t know it or admit it, need help in order to  take full advantage of this transformational period in their development.

How Can we Help Students Take Full Advantage of This Period of Rapid Brain Development?

1. Encourage Students to Try Many Activities

Many parents with student-athletes ask, “should my child play many sports or specialize?” Research has shown that children who play multiple sports become better athletes compared to those that focus on just one.

The same is true for the brain! Adolescents who are enrolled in a range of extracurricular activities engage more with their caregivers, learn more about their personal interests, are more active in their communities, and are less likely to engage in criminal activities.

2. Engage Adolescents in Conversation and Encourage Them to be Curious

MIT cognitive scientists have found that conversations between child and parent actually change the brain’s structure. Conversations that focus on solving problems collaboratively and building connections with others trigger physical and emotional changes in the brain enabling us to form relationships and think with empathy. Trust is mediated by the prefrontal cortex, so creating a safe-space where trust is present, is a prerequisite for the activation of the brain’s ability to think strategically, empathetically, and compassionately.

Asking adolescents open-ended questions is a great way to get your teen to think creatively without fear of giving a wrong answer. You can learn more about the power of understanding different perspectives here. (link to other blog post)

3. Create Safe and Secure Environments (with Reasonable Boundaries)

Creating a safe environment is important for more than just creating conversations. While the prefrontal cortex is developing, the amygdala (the brain region in charge of emotion) takes over. This explains why adolescents interpret most conversations and situations through an emotional, fear-attuned mind rather than a trust-seeking, rational one. By creating safe environments we help calm down the fear center of the brain and enhance learning. Furthermore given that the emotional and rational centers of the brain are not yet fully connected, it is normal for teens to act impulsively, engage in risk-taking behaviors, and feel overly self-conscious.

Creating safe spaces, defining boundaries, and creating opportunities for those boundaries to be negotiated, enables teens to take healthy risks and experiment with their sense of self, both of which contribute to healthy development. 

4. Promote Healthy Eating and Sleeping Habits 

The brain requires energy — sleep and healthy foods — to form new neural networks. Specifically, healthy fats like omega 3 fatty acids are used in the formation of myelin sheaths, which if you remember is what enables neural pathways to speed up connections between neurons and prevent connection interference. 

The brain only has so much room for new information — when we sleep the brain prunes (e.g. removes) unused networks and builds more streamlined efficient pathways. Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like trying to walk through a dense jungle. 

5. Provide Instructional and Motivational Feedback 

Given that the prefrontal cortex takes the longest time to mature, teens tend to process information with the amygdala, the brain’s center for processing emotion and fear. Because the connections between the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part, and the amygdala are not yet fully formed a teen might misperceive a benign “hello” as “I’m watching you” or “I noticed that pimple.”  Additionally, until the prefrontal cortex is fully developed, teens might find it difficult to identify and balance short-term and long-term consequences of an action.

In a parenting guide published by Stanford Children’s Hospital, we learn that  “discussing the consequences of their actions can help teens link impulsive thinking with facts.” Our teens rely on us to point out these cognitive errors, and help guide them through complex decision-making. By setting good examples for our teens and providing feedback we can help rewire their brains in a healthy way.

Now you know how you can help teens maximize their brain potential! While adolescents are a crucial time to develop the brain, remember that everyone’s brain is plastic, including yours. No matter how old you are or what level your brain function is at today, your brain can improve. Stay engaged, stay curious, stay active, and read The Juice!

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