by Oliver DeMille
“As Father had taught him, he did not believe the first explanation his mind leapt to. ‘It will often be right, and as you get more experience of life is will usually be right. But it will never be reliably right, and you must always think of other possible explanations or, if you can’t, then at least keep your mind open so you will recognize a better explanation if one emerges.’”
—Orson Scott Card, Ruins
How to Think
There are several things I like about his little passage. First, the fact that the father is doing the teaching is important. If you’ve read the book that this quote came from you’ll know that there is a further twist on this. But one important thing fathers can teach young people is how to think.
How to think! That’s really the main purpose of schooling, anyway. Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten.
The best way to teach someone how to think is naturally, while reading a book together aloud as a family, or while working on a project in the yard, garage, or kitchen. There are so many opportunities for something like this to come up—if you’re thinking in terms of teaching and mentoring.
Show, Then Tell
This level of lesson (to analyze your own thoughts, and learn how to think) is best taught to youth over 12 years old, during Scholar Phase, especially after you have been discussing books with the child for several years. After showing them how to think about what they read, not just accepting their first thoughts but really considering various options, it’s easy for them to grasp the same idea when you tell them.
Show, then tell. This is a most powerful pattern for mentoring.
Here’s how it works. You’re reading a book aloud together as a family, say Little Britches by Ralph Moody. You come to a part where Mother wants young Ralph to be punished for getting into a fight, but his Dad is actually proud of him for standing up for the right.
You stop reading, and ask the family, “Why does Ralph’s Mother think he did something wrong?” You let each person share his or her thoughts. Then you ask, “But why is Father proud of Ralph?”
Again, everyone gets to share. Then you continue your gentle questions, not truly “Socratic” in the modern definition, because Socrates actually had a hidden agenda and asked the specific questions that took his listeners in the direction he wanted.
Instead, you ask questions more like Mr. Stanton in Laddie or Charles Ingalls in The Little House in the Big Woods: because you are genuinely interested in the answers, because you really want to know what your youth is thinking, and because you really want to help the youngster you are teaching.
You continue your questioning: “Who do you agree with more, Mother or Father?” Let everyone discuss. Then, “Is it possible that both of them are right, in some way?” Discuss. “Okay, those who think Father is right and Mother is wrong, switch sides. How might Mother be right?” Discuss.
“How might Father be right, for those of you who said he was wrong?” Discuss. “Different topic: what might be different if Mother and Father had talked about this in front of the kids, or in private together before announcing their decision to the kids?” Discuss.
And on it goes. Just make sure it stays fun. If it stops being fun, you have an easy solution. Simply turn back to the book and start reading again. This kind of questioning creates conversation. It creates connections. It creates bonding in your family. Above all, it creates thinking.
Guide, not Boss
This process teaches young people, and old people for that matter, how to think. Frankly, this can be a very hard thing to teach—but this method makes it simple. Using this kind of reading aloud and discussion, it’s easy. And fun.
One more thing: Don’t share your personal opinion on each question until everyone else has had a chance to fully share. Nor do you need to share your opinion on every question. Let them discuss. Be the guide, not the boss.
But do share your opinion, sometimes. This makes you a leader. Once in a while during the discussion, say what you think, and explain why you think it. Then, and this is the most important thing of all, tell the family that this is just your current understanding, that you hope to develop it and possibly change it – in some ways, or even completely – as you keep thinking about it and hearing different views and learning more. Communicate in word and attitude that they are welcome to have different perspectives—because that helps us all learn how to think.
“We’re all trying to learn,” you say. “The key is to really think things through and feel things out, not just automatically accept everything a book or person says.”
Repeat this kind of conversation over and over—each time you come upon something interesting in the reading.
Practice this, and you’ll get better. So will everyone in your family. Just don’t turn discussions into arguments or power struggles—that isn’t fun for most people. Again, if it ever stops being fun, you have an easy solution—say, “Okay, let’s keep reading. I can’t wait to find out what’s happening next…” Then read in the book. Never end the session with an argument. Instead, read more aloud.
This kind of leadership, what we might call the Kinda-Socratic-Method, or the Caring-Socratic-Method (actually, Socrates does care, he just seems to care a lot more about the ideas than the people—and that’s not our goal), is incredibly helpful in family learning—especially during Scholar Phase. And it’s far more effective for Scholar Phase students if they’ve been doing it for years in Core and Love of Learning phases.
Remember: While you read aloud with the family, stop and discuss. Question, talk, share different views, and then keep reading…
Teach them how to think, not what to think. This is great education.
This week, as you read with your family, ask a few open-ended questions about topics that are relevant to relationships, current events, personal challenges, or the like. Show restraint in really listening, and allowing them to discuss, without taking charge too much. Share your feelings in a humble and supportive way. Repeat.
Oliver DeMille is the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd. He is the NY Times Bestselling co-author of LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through Leadership Education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.