Is Children’s Literature Developing Thinking Skills?

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I’ve heard pastors begin a sermon saying they followed this formula: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; then, tell them; then, tell them what you told them.” Knowing human tendencies to forget, this can be good advice, especially when doctrinal truth is the subject.

However, I frequently find myself marking off for redundancies in student papers, and I wonder if our sound-byte/computer meme/tweet-length-conditioned attention spans encourage oversimplification and reiteration rather than deep exploration of words and ideas. The nuances and varied contexts of language seem harder for even adults to discern today; we see a characteristic quickness to take offense at a statement’s literal or surface meaning without necessarily even considering that it might be at least partially valid. Even when a statement contains offensive content, it is not necessarily untrue – unkind, maybe, but not wholly without value, if we take the time to reflect thoughtfully about it before reacting.

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Photo credit: Janis Aston

A current buzzword in education is “close reading,” focused on students’ need to recognize underlying meanings in a text as well as the most obvious reference or apparent meaning. This sophisticated complex of skills used to be more “caught” than “taught,” in my experience, through reading quality literature and discussion of ideas (not restricted to simple “reading comprehension” questions).  These skills produce the higher-level thinking skills described in Bloom’s Taxonomy (see Basic cognitive skills are remembering, understanding, and applying. Essential to making good choices as productive adults, however, are the higher-level thinking skills of analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Numerous biblical references address these concepts. The Israelites were repeatedly instructed to “remember” the many ways that God had delivered them from Egypt and from other enemies, had provided for them in the wilderness, and had judged disobedience. The book of Proverbs, among others, is filled with admonitions to “get wisdom” and “pursue understanding.”  Applications of God’s law (Ps. 119  illustrates this focus) emerge throughout biblical narratives, whether in examples of godly or ungodly judges or kings (Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles), decisions of people called to leadership such as Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and the prophets, or New Testament sermons and parables.

The Scriptures clearly admonish believers, however, to move beyond the basics – the “milk” of the Word – to the “meat,” which requires developing those essential higher-level thinking skills of analysis, evaluation, and creation. Skipping, or ignoring, the lower-level skills and information [whether in faith-based or educational contexts) leads to faulty logic (analysis), faulty judgments (evaluation), and creativity without sound foundational values – practices we see all too often in school and cultural settings today. But ignoring the higher-level skills can be equally destructive to faith and Christian walk.

Let me illustrate. I know of students who have been raised with limited exposure to ideas and culture, so that they have little concept of the world’s competing claims. While adults seek to exercise appropriate control, all too frequently, students who have been sheltered from unbiblical ideologies feel betrayed when, as adults, they recognize their ignorance. In the worst cases (the internet is filled with examples), these young adults abandon Christian faith and values once they have the freedom to explore belief systems and practices they never knew existed (or perhaps were warned about in straw-man arguments they recognize as inadequate).

Youth who have been taught sound thinking and, gradually, provided freedom to learn about the world as its secular apologists present it, are better equipped to appreciate beauty, kindness, creativity, and truth when they see these expressed in secular culture (often by all-too-appealing, talented individuals or groups). By analyzing logic and evidence for unsound claims and evaluating their mixture of truth and falsehood, they can filter out through the lens of God’s Word the dross of ungodly values (no matter how attractively packaged).

What does all of this have to do with writing Christian-worldview-themed literature for children? I applaud the desire to present kids with moral role models in stories, poems, and nonfiction books or articles. Sometimes missing, however, is the real world. Our children and grandchildren need, more than ever, training to develop the kinds of perception and sound thinking required to recognize the false appeals they will constantly face in the world (and, honestly, sometimes in the Church), and to address them with valid counterarguments: not just “That’s wrong,” or even “That’s wrong because God says it’s wrong,” but “God’s Word shows us that’s wrong because it cheapens human relationships, leads people to consider immediate gratification rather than long-term gain, and elevates human ideas about what is most pragmatic above core values of human life and the call to put others before oneself.”

These ideas can begin to be taught at the preschool level (“not now, but after we do ____;” “let’s take turns”), but they must be developed consciously and explicitly to address the increasingly sophisticated challenges kids face as they get older. If children never learn to puzzle through argument claims without having to apply values and criteria to arrive at a conclusion, they may be ripe for the wrong claims, values, and criteria someone else will be sure to offer.

Literature needs to show children in authentic situations, not to add gratuitous, marketable content, but to allow them (and us) to discern the superiority of God’s values, the ultimate truth of Christian teaching, and the dangers inherent in ignoring biblical principles for reasons that seem right in the moment. We all face those kinds of decisions every day as adults. If we aren’t giving kids books and articles that help them make these choices rather than books that simply preach sermons to them, we’ll be ignoring the biblical model of communication. God’s Word does not hide the scandals of sin; rather, it shows the sorrows and real-world consequences the world tries to sugarcoat. It shows flawed human beings who sometimes fail despite moments of great victory. And it shows restoration (not without discipline) by a loving Savior who knows our weakness.

Whatever the age of your target audience, take another look at Bloom’s Taxonomy. Ask yourself whether your project incorporates, on the age-appropriate level, the kinds of thinking skills a child or young person should be encouraged to develop, such as analyzing problems, making mistakes, and learning with consequences. Kids want the stories with real conflict, not artificial goodness (which usually focuses more on external behavior rather than internal motivation, a recipe for hypocrisy).  I recommend Saki’s (H.H. Munro) short story “The Story Teller” [ ] for a secular illustration of the challenges we face in writing for children. You may not appreciate Saki’s ending– but it reveals kids’ radar for detecting an adult’s efforts to encourage external compliance without really involving kids’ needs and perceptions in the process. Let’s avoid that pitfall!


What Do You Think?