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Thinking about Thinking

Thoughts on thinking about thinking from the Raising Thinkers Series


Will your investment in your child’s private education eventually pay off? Here are some early warning signs that it may not.

Tremaine du Preez

Investment returns are not guaranteed and past performance… well you know the rest. Does the same apply to the average US$30 000 in after tax funds that a parent invests per annum per child in a private school education here in Asia or in the UK? Immediate returns are evident in school rankings and facilities, lessons paced above the national curriculum and dense IT resources. Then there’s that feeling of wonder when walking through a junior school where ponytail-bound 8 year olds are programming if-this-then-that sequences on lego robots or philosophy club tots wrangling with socratic enquiry after their fruit-only snack. Nothing like in your day, right? This must be a good investment in your child’s future? Surely?

Yes, but only if the school is achieving it’s objective. It’s worth asking what exactly that objective is? What is the return you want on your investment? Helping your child lead a happy life doesn’t need to cost this much but perhaps you are wanting more? Perhaps to prepare your child for a future of uncertainty and global challenges? This is a good start but what are those challenges? What skills will be most valuable over the next two decades and is your child’s school teaching with those skills in mind? Schools are awash with technology and ICT classes - my son has been designing powerpoint presentations, that wouldn’t look out of place at a PanAsian conference, since he was 6, but so have the other 191 children in his year group. The reality is that our children have a better than average chance of not being another Steve Jobs or Larry Page. This isn’t a comment on the budding intellect of our dimpled darlings but a reality check. Everybody is learning the same technology as they are and it is no longer an advantage. 

Being tech savvy is no longer a competitive advantage 

Where technology to implement corporate strategy doesn’t exist, the skills to create it are easily found in mid-level programmers.  The real challenge results from the product of all that technology: ‘We’re drowning in data. What we lack are true insights,’ a life sciences CMO in Switzerland commented. An energy and utilities CMO in the Netherlands put the problem even more bluntly: ‘At this moment, I don’t know how our marketing department will cope with the expected data explosion.’ These thoughts are from IBM’s annual C Suite research that analyses the trends that thousands of executives are grappling with in large corporations today, they seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet. The real work will be done in generating insights from data, probing new perspectives and creating systems that deal with risk and interconnectivity. Yes, we need facts and data but the focus of education must shift from teaching our children what to think to how to think.

Does your school really deliver on teaching critical, creative and systems' thinking?

Our children need a more durable advantage – skills with a vast set of applications and the ability to source novelty or produce new ideas from old. You may already have guessed that this is not a skill taught in any one subject but rather in how a school approaches their pedagogy. Critical, creative and systems thinking are not skills that will develop organically unless a child is exposed to an environment that not only specifically builds this into the curriculum but understands that critical thinkers are harder to teach.

What do I mean by this? 

At a previous school my son’s teacher called me to explain to me that my son insisted on questioning her throughout the school day. His questions included: “Why do I have to do this? Why must I start here if I can start there and be finished quicker? Why should I learn 3 different ways of doing long division if I already understand the efficient method and can use that straight away?”

“So what’s the problem?” I asked.

 “Well I can’t be explaining why a child has to learn something to 24 children, your son must just do as he is asked to do in class. He’s not impolite but his questions slow us down,” she hesitated, “they are disruptive.” 

I get it. There are 24 children and mine thinks he’s special. I walked away knowing that I was doing a good job in raising a thinker. But also didn’t expect him to run into problems with his incisive ability to question the status quo so soon, especially not in that school.

“Think critically about the subject matter but not about the teacher’s instructions.” Is the message I walked away with. At this rate, questing the status quo will be drilled out of him by the time he is ten, then they can get on with the important business of teaching facts and figures.

How will you know if your child’s school is delivering on their promise to help you raise a critical thinker?

Here are some questions you can ask your children. 

1. Are you ever encouraged to double check the facts and data given to you by your teachers? Or do you accept that everything that a teacher gives you is correct. 

2. Are you allowed to negotiate with the teacher if you already know the most efficient method of working something out?

3. Do you ever discuss how textbooks present information, especially in History, are you made aware of who wrote the textbook, and where their facts were obtained? 

4. Has your teacher ever said, “Well, I could be wrong,” or, “I don’t know the answer to that.”

I leave you with the wise words of Morgan Freeman, “Question everything.” And this includes the return that you are getting on your child’s private education.

Tremaine is a behavioural economist and lecturer in Critical Thinking, based in Asia. Follow Tremaine on Facebook for thoughts on thinking and raising your children as critical thinkers at or her blog at 

Her book, Raising Thinkers - Preparing your child for the journey of a lifetime will be out soon.