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Thinking about Thinking

Thoughts on thinking about thinking from the Raising Thinkers Series


Filtering by Tag: Parenting

Do good grades guarantee success after school?

Tremaine du Preez

Or is it time to rethink our definition of smart?

According to the latest OECD results the smartest teenagers in the world belong to Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. All three cities ranked in the top 3 globally for math, science and reading in what is touted as a test of critical thinking. All three are confucian heritage societies with a long history (since the 10th century) of being grade-orientated. Back then anyone could become a government official by passing the Imperial Examinations with position and rank based on test scores alone. Later, through the Song Dynasty, achievement in formal tests was the only way to advance in a career outside of government too. This system of being able to clearly define and measure someone’s aptitude based on explicit metrics seemed to have stuck. In a country of 1.3 billion people with cities like Shanghai at 23 million strong, heaving under 9,700 inhabitants per square mile, perhaps this is not surprising at all. But do these consistently admirable test scores result in superb critical, creative and agile thinkers able to solve humanities most pressing problems or at least drive innovation forward? 

Comparing apples and apple seeds

To answer this let’s compare apple seeds to apples as we look at the current scientific contributions of a nation’s adults based on their H-Index (a ranking of the quality of scientific output) with the OECD (PISA) academic ranking for science from that country’s teenagers in brackets next to it. 

H-Ranking (PISA ranking)

1. USA (28th)                 6. Japan (4th)

2. UK (20th)                  7. Italy (32nd)

3. Germany (12th)          8. Netherlands (14th)

4. France (26th)             9. Switzerland (19th)

5. Canada (10th)            10. Sweden (38th)

It would seem that high scores in math and science aren’t necessarily correlated with an increase in scientific contributions from a nation’s adults. Yet math and science are exceptionally important as building blocks of knowledge. But only building blocks. In my experience as a lecturer in critical thinking, I’ve learnt that a school system that teaches children what to think at the expense of how to think is missing a golden opportunity to create a nation of ground breakers, scientists and entrepreneurs.  

When is a goldfish not dead?

This is a story from a parent of a child at a Singaporean school in primary 2 level (age 7 to 8 years). She retells the tale of her child’s attempt at answering a comprehension test question as follows;

Excerpt from a paragraph: “… and the cat ate the goldfish” 

Question: What happened to the goldfish?

Answer by pupil: The fish died. 

Surely a most natural conclusion to being eaten by a cat, written in a satisfactory full sentence. But this answer was marked as incorrect. The correct answer, she was told, was that the fish was eaten by the cat. Death was implied when in fact there was no proof of it. Thus there could only be one correct answer. This is an example of a false dilemma where we limit our answers based on our own limited view or knowledge. For progress to continue our children have to grow up to be smarter than their teachers. This creates a dilemma in education. How does a teacher evaluate thinking beyond the boundaries of a curriculum that they are trained in, or their own ability?  

When grades don't mean what they used to

Employers are rapidly looking beyond grades to hire the thinkers and managers of tomorrow. In a company that produces the purest most valuable data that money can buy, it’s no surprise that Google’s recruitment processes have benefitted from their lead in analytics. Lazlo Block, their SVP of people ops and principle architect of their interview process made headline’s recently when he revealed what most Googlers already know; that academic success at college or one’s GPA (grade point average) is the least important metric in their interview process, in fact, he went on to say that it is discounted in the final selection stage. Their 16 years worth of data on recruitment have revealed that there is no link between formal academic success or technical ability and potential to add real value to a company that transacts in new technology.  

So what are employers looking for then?

When Lazlo Block says they are looking for incredible curiosity, intellectual humility and resilience he isn’t saying so because it sounds all googley but because he knows this is what has brought them to where they are and will take them forward. Not only does Google know what skills will drive innovation and sales but they have designed a recruitment process to help them identify candidates who have these qualities - and aren’t evil, of course. Resilience is highlighted several times because someone who has known academic success most of their life has probably never gotten down and dirty with failure. Internally, Google fails a lot, that’s the nature of exploring unchartered territory. Without resilience, no new app or technology would be shuttled into the future. It’s not only tech companies that are looking for mental agility, capacity to learn and a healthy relationship with failure, many traditional companies are also looking for recruits with so much more to offer than good academics, especially demonstrable emotional and intercultural intelligence - an area of research I delve into in depth in my upcoming book Raising Thinkers

Given that employability today and tomorrow is less about math scores and more about adaptability, resilience, social, emotional and raw intelligence you might be wondering how, or if, your child is learning these skills? What steps is you child’s school taking to go beyond test scores to foster and measure skills crucial to employers today? How are you, dear parent, doing this and how is any of this communicated through reports and CV’s?  

I don’t know about you but my son’s school report is still all about maths and science measured on traditional metrics. This is still how schools rank and grade pupils because its far easier to do than set up a system to say, measure emotional intelligence or other intangibles. Unless we as parents change the definition of success academic children may not have the opportunity to develop those intangible talents that employers are after and children that aren’t considered academic may be considered underachievers despite their valuable talents, simply because these skills aren’t defined and measured. 

Next time we’ll start looking at each of these intangible talents and how to help foster them in your children, and perhaps even yourself. 

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.

How to give your child the gift of success

Tremaine du Preez


By the law of large numbers, most children will grow up to be average in height, weight, intelligence and in their life achievements. Wonderfully, blissfully, unassumingly average. No matter which way we look at it, our children have a better chance of being average than exceptional. To date, no parent has suggested to me that they would love for their kids to be average. Happy? Yes. Average? No. Would being average live up to the expectations that are heaped upon our children today? Average children can be very happy but not if being average is seen as being a failure. This is a reality in many asian families where teen suicide rates are consistently the highest in the world. 

I am guilty of wanting my son to do the best he can in school, too. With occasional tears and more homework than play during the week – we still barely keep up with the demands of school. But something happened over the summer that got me thinking about what I really wanted for my son.

Lessons from the bird man 

We spent a morning with a falconer along the Garden Route in South Africa. A mesmerising man who rehabilitates birds of prey that have been hurt or fallen on hard times, so to speak. These birds are his all consuming passion and love of his life. A life that is entirely funded by donations from the public. Is he doing a worthwhile job? Yes. Is he happy? Absolutely. But would I like my son to grow up doing something he loves that is entirely reliant on fickle handouts from tourists over a few summer months? To be honest; no. He’d be happy but he’d be poor. I’d worry too much. If not happiness, then what do I really want for him? 

The gift of making good decisions

My husband and I decided some time ago to dispense with the just let little Johnny be happy and find his own passion rhetoric because, honestly, we didn’t know how to help him do this, apart from letting him try his hand at everything – until something resonated with him or we ran out of money, time, patience or all three. We decided instead that we wanted our child to be a good thinker. 

Bonaparte knew what he was talking about when he said, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” We wanted our son to be the best decision maker he could be and nothing more. 

We knew that the decisions we had made in the past had created our current reality, and the decisions that we make today create our future. His life would also be guided and determined by the choices he made along the way. Not his final algebra score, but what he chose to do with it. Would that make him happy? We hoped that being able to make good decisions about how to spend his time, what to study, what to read, what not to eat or drink and how to respond to challenging situations in the playground, the campus or the office would make his life a little easier, a little more successful and maybe, a little happier. The rest would be up to him. 

How were we going to do this? Surely his school would teach him this? We soon found out that, even though school subjects were now considerably cooler and more relevant than in our day, teaching students what to think is still their primary goal. Facts and data are easier to teach and test for. Are school teachers even familiar with decision science and critical thinking? Should they be? But were we in a position to teach him how to make good decisions ourselves? We’d racked up a fair amount of lousy decisions between us in the past. 

Lecturing our son in the art of decision science would likely backfire before he hit puberty. But we could learn as much as possible about making good decisions, thinking about thinking and processing information soundly. Then, and only then, could we coach him. In fact, this is how I came to do what I do as a coach and lecturer in critical thinking. I realised that I couldn’t raise a critical thinker if I wasn’t one myself. 

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

Her latest book, Raising Thinkers - Preparing your Child for the Journey of a Lifetime will be out soon.

Are you the parent you want to be?

Tremaine du Preez

Mentor, lecturer or coach?  

Executive coaching is solving some of the toughest corporate people challenges, can it do the same for parenting?

Parent Coaching.JPG

Are you an enabler; someone who helps others shine? Or a mentor; someone who gives great advice when asked? Or maybe a lecturer who tells colleagues how to doing things. Do you hog the limelight or step aside for your team at the awards dinner? Whatever you are, I’m betting it reflects your parenting style too. Of course, you probably love your kids more than you love your co-workers and your motives to succeed at work and at parenting will vary. But how you get things done and get big and little people to do things for you, is just that, your way.  Go on, join the dots, you’ll see what I mean.

Are you expected to coach your colleagues? 

Almost everywhere I work team leaders are expected to make the shift from lecturer to coach, or at the very least, to mentor subordinates. Companies are training leaders as coaches because it’s proving to be a lucrative strategy. It works, engages staff and helps them solve their own problems, faster. What if we could parent like coaches? Would we get the same results? 

Isn’t parenting coaching anyway?

No. A leader, executive coach or a sports coach will train in the art of coaching. Just as a teacher must learn how to teach effectively because being a subject matter expert doesn’t guarantee that you can impart knowledge. A good coach will get you thinking in new and interesting ways about your behaviour, your thinking and your potential. You won’t learn anything from an executive coach but will have to answer uncomfortable, probing questions and face some hard truths. Coaching will teach you more about yourself than you knew before.  

As a parent you can decide to act as a lecturer, a mentor or a coach. There will be plenty of lecturers in your child’s life, lots of mentors too but there will be very few true coaches. Of course, at times your knowledge is invaluable and mentoring is the right thing to do. But mentoring does not need to define the relationship you have with your child. It can be a beautiful fluid mix between supporting your child as a coach and leading them as a mentor.

Verbal bullying and putting parent coaching to the test

How do we coach a child? My son is physically small when compared to most boys his age. He’s not particularly sporty or physical on the playground either. So when he wants to join in the rougher games he sometimes gets pushed around. Bullying is not tolerated at his school so it takes different forms that are far more subtle than a shove or a punch. Verbal bullying, exclusion from games and other pursuits of emotional cruelty are dished out by children who don’t yet understand the impact of their behaviour. From about 6 years old, there would be days when my son came home in tears. Crying about the hurtful things some boys (and sometimes girls) had said to him. 

I couldn’t complain to the teacher every time a nasty name was flung at him. I also had no doubt that he was doing some name calling himself. Reacting to this and trying to solve it for him every single time was not going to help him. I also couldn’t mentor him because I had no experience with this. But I did know that I needed to build up my little boy’s internal resilience. Lecturing him not to react to the name calling was silly. What he needed was a system for dealing with this. Both during and afterwards. A way of making him feel OK about it that also didn’t deplete his ego. So the coach in me got to work.

A coaching conversation 

As he sat on the rocking chair in my study on a day that he was in a reasonable mood, I brought up the last incident of verbal bullying on the school bus. No lecturing, no mentoring just questioning to helping him find his own solution.

Me:   How did you feel about what the boy said to you? 

Him: Very angry.

Me:   So he called you a baby (insert any other here)? Is it true, are you a baby? 

Him:  No.

Me:   Why did it make you angry then, if you know it’s not true? 

Him:  Because everyone else heard him say it.

Me:   Could you have stopped him from saying it?

Him:  No.

Me:   Do you think you reacted in the right way?

(He had sworn at the kid and got into trouble too.)

Him:  No, but I didn’t know what else to say. I was so cross.

Me:   What would you have liked to do differently?

Him: To say something that makes me sound cool instead. And that won’t get me into trouble.

Me:  OK, would you like to have something that you can say again and again that sounds really cool?

Him: Yes. Oh yes. What can I say?

Me:   Well, you tell me! What can you say every time someone calls you a name? A few words that sound smart and don’t get you into trouble?

I asked him to go away and think about what he can say next time he is in this position. He wanted to come up with something that sounds calm but will also let the ‘bully’ know that he can’t hurt him with words. So he came up with a brilliant suggestion that he still uses today. He says: “You may think that I’m a …(nerd/baby) etc., but that doesn’t make me one.” And if he’s really angry or doesn’t have time to think or centre himself, he simply takes a deep breath and says; “Well, it’s a good thing that I don’t care what you think about me.” It takes real courage for a small boy to say this to anyone who is overpowering them with words. So we practiced this, out loud, several times at home.  Now he can say it without thinking about it. When he feels himself getting angry, this phrase comes to mind. 

As he gets older our tactics will have to evolve to meet more mature challenges. But he knows I will always look to him to think about how he wants to handle situations, before I mentor him in how I would do it. I’m proud to be a parent coach. I coach my little boy with the exact same skills that I use with CEO’s of multinational companies wrestling with multimillion dollar problems. It works. Mostly because my son is learning that through our dialogue, he can think of ways to solve his own problems. Soon he’ll be able to self coach on the simpler issues. He is already encouraging his friends to stop and think before they get angry!

Next week: Dealing with difficult school reports the critical thinking way.

Follow Tremaine on Facebook for weekly thoughts on thinking and raising your children as critical thinkers.


Note on coaching vs mentoring

A mentor is someone who knows more about what you do than you do. Someone with experience in your job. A good mentor is invaluable when one needs advice, opinions or insights into specific subjects. A coach generally knows very little about what you do and should not be in a position to tell you what to do or give you advice but rather guide you to discover your own strategy. 




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Tremaine du Preez

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