The magic of thinking critically with picture books


How could the magic of picture books be used to enable the development of critical thinking skills?

In this episode, we spoke to Irish academic Mary Roche, who makes the case for using children's picture books to teach critical thinking skills to younger learners. Mary is a highly experienced primary school teacher and a lecturer in initial teacher education in Ireland. She is the renowned author of the award-winning book: Developing Children's Critical Thinking through Picturebooks (2015).

This episode was recorded in 2019. The views expressed in Edspressos are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education.


Picture of Mary Roche Picture of Mary Roche
Image: Mary Roche
Episode 11: the magic of thinking critically with picture books, with Mary Roche

Welcome to the New South Wales Department of Education's Edspresso Series. These short podcasts are part of the work of the Education for a Changing World initiative and explore the thinking and ethical literacy skills students need in an AI future. Join us as we speak to a range of experts about how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are likely to change the world around us and what this might mean for education.

The magic of picture books has been used throughout history to support student learning. But can these timeless gems facilitate the development of critical thinking skills? In this episode, we hear from Mary Roche, an experienced primary school teacher and renowned author of the award-winning book, Developing Children's Critical Thinking Through Picturebooks. Mary makes a case for why critical thinking skills can be effectively taught through the text and illustrations in picture books. Mary, how would you define critical thinking, and why might it be important to develop for an AI-augmented future?

In my book, I describe critical thinking as thinking for yourself. Not just receiving other people's ideas but looking at all the evidence possible and making up your own mind. And, it does demand effort, it does demand active engagement with ideas. So it's not a passive activity and it's about looking at something from all sides and weighing up the evidence. And then in relation to texts, which is more my work, it's helping children to become agents of the texts rather than victims of the texts, if you like.

Ultimately, I think critical thinking leads to critical literacy and it's all about, well, what kind of a world do we want to live in, which leads to the second part of your question. I think it's essential for democracy, for active citizenry. Because we need to empower people as early as possible to sort through arguments and to understand different perspectives and where people are coming from, what agendas, what ideology they have. And then to assess the logic of things.

So, in a world where artificial intelligence, algorithms, robotic thinking processes are going to come to the fore, it's essential that we have a critically literate populous, really. So that we can discern what's true, whose ideology is at play here, who's dominant, who's powerful and who's powerless. And that means equipping children, really, with the skills as early as possible to, I suppose tell fact from fiction.

Mary, thanks for that, it's really interesting. It's often said that content knowledge is required to think critically. Can younger students who may not have deep content knowledge still think critically? And, what does critical thinking in the early years look like?

If we go right back to the earlier, very simplistic idea of thinking for yourself. So if you have a tiny tot at home and you ask them, do they want a yellow lollipop or a red lollipop and they say, "I want the yellow one." And you say, "Why do you want the yellow one?" "It's because it's the same colour as my wellies or it's my favourite colour". They're giving you a reason for a choice that they have made. Which is a very basic beginning of critical thinking. And I've worked quite a lot during my career as a primary teacher with very young children. And so, I used to start with asking open-ended questions. And it gets children, very, very early, thinking for themselves about why things are happening in a picture or in a nursery rhyme or in a story.

So, moving along into traditional stories, I'm sure you've got the 'Little Red Hen' story where the other animals wouldn't help to cut the corn, but they all wanted to help to eat the bread. So asking questions like, why is that hen, why do you think her friends aren't helping her? What's going on in their lives? What's happening here? And it's beginning that process of children saying, Oh, there's another layer of meaning here. They may not articulate that but they begin to see that there are things that go beneath the surface, deeper than the surface. And we have to start looking between the lines.

So yeah, they may not have huge experience and content knowledge and prior knowledge, but they have language, they have thought processes, they have curiosity, they are engaged in the story. It has got meaning for them, it's relevant for them. And they begin to look beneath the surface here. So, to go back to your question, yes, content knowledge is important but, at the very early stages children are very capable of doing critical thinking.

Mmm. What led you to develop the critical thinking and book talk approach? Could you take us through what it looks like in practice?

What led me to it was, I trained as a primary teacher way back in the 1970s, and my first experiences in the classroom were not great. I had a very large number of children, over 50 children in a class of mixed junior and senior infants, which would be age four to age six. And I can remember thinking, you know, that was unfair on the children, unfair on me, and looking back afterwards when I got the language of critical reflection, I understood that my teaching was all about control and domination. It was very didactic, it was very monologic. And I questioned that for quite a while, but I couldn't figure out a way of how to create a more dialogic classroom.

And serendipitously, a bit later on, I met with Philomena Donnelly in Dublin who had taken the work of Matthew Lipman, the Philosophy for Children, she had taken his work and with the professor of philosophy in her college, Professor Joe Dunne, she had adapted it to an Irish context and called it 'Philosophy with Children' or 'Thinking Time'. And I saw this as a possible way of introducing more dialogue into my classroom. So she would take a picture or a line from a poem or a story or anything, and just begin to ask questions about it. And the children would all be given an opportunity to reply.

And I thought this was fantastic, because there is a danger in a classroom even when a teacher tries to do what she thinks is authentic discussion. There is a danger that the dominant children will take over and that some children's voices will never be heard. So, I gradually took that thinking time idea and, I suppose, refined it a bit in order to just discuss picture books. And that came about because in 2011 in Ireland, we got a new literacy numeracy policy, which was, I suppose, a reaction or a fallout from our PISA results, which showed a drop in standards. And the literacy numeracy was to the fore. And I felt, well, if I'm trying to introduce a new approach to teaching for our teachers, it needs to be linked to something that they have to do already.

So I devised in 2010, I had designed my critical thinking and book talk approach and I linked it with literacy specifically around picture books. Thinking, in my innocence, that they're short and they're sweet and we'll get through a book fairly quickly. I had no idea of the complexity and the magic of picture books at that point.

So, what it looks like in practice is that a particular time is set aside, at least 45 minutes. The children are seated in a circle. So, the pedagogical framing of this is that you will try and time it when there won't be any interruptions, when maybe the children have had a break and the story is read either at that point or it could be read in advance. What I do is, I photograph the story or scan it and beam it up onto the whiteboard so that every child can see the images and I take my time reading it.

When the story is finished, I give the children time to think, process silently, and then I say, who would like to start? And whoever starts, I tell them, has huge power because they will decide what kind of knowledge we're going to create today. Because the person who starts, when they're finished speaking, will tap on the shoulder of the person to their left or to their right, and that will determine the direction around the circle.

And I always say to children, you know, if it goes that way, we will think different thoughts than if it went that way. Because what we say will influence what other people think and give them new ideas, and it's just amazing that we're going to create knowledge. So, the idea that knowledge is not a fixed box of tricks that a teacher can transmit to an empty vessel. All of that Freirean idea of the banking metaphor of education. That knowledge is fluid, dynamic, ongoing, being created, never finished, it's always evolving. And that children can construct knowledge and co-construct knowledge. Listening to each other, arguing, building up ideas, building on each other's ideas, processing what others are saying, getting new ideas.

All of that, those values underpin my work. And so to kind of go back to your question, why, what led me to do this. It was to do with these ideas of justice and fairness and care about the other. That children needed to have more voice in their classroom, needed to have their voices heard, rather than just responding in kind of a recitation way or an initiation response evaluation type interaction. Their actual ideas and thoughts needed to be heard. And I tried to find a way of doing that, and critical thinking and book talk is the way that I have found.

Thanks for that. Why is it important to give space for critical thinking when developing young children's literacy? And will encouraging critical thinking also make students better readers?

I will take the second bit first. I think it makes them better readers, but better in the sense of more discerning, more active, more engaged. It teaches them to be curious and to be sceptical. One child said to me at one point, we were doing a religious education because I was in a Catholic school, and we were doing religion and it was the 1st of February, which is the feast day of Saint Brigid. Nearly as big as Saint Patrick in our world. And it said in the little lesson, now this was aimed at seven, eight-year-olds, that Brigid loved the poor. And one chap interjected and said, "That's such woolly thinking, what does it mean she loved the poor? Did she only love people who were poor, if there were good rich people, did she not love them?" And he just tore it apart. And so, yeah.

Better readers in the sense that they begin to challenge and they begin to question their assumptions that are built into what they're reading. And given this complex world, we cannot afford for children not to engage in some tough conversations if they are to learn to become critical analysts of the world who are able to make informed decisions. As they engage with the world around them.

So, that's the aspect of literacy and it goes back to Allan Luke's work of being a critical literate person. Not just decoding, encoding, reading for information, which are all hugely important, they're all absolutely necessary. But that last step of becoming critical is the part, I think, that will prepare them to take their place in the world and make a difference perhaps.

Mary that's really interesting. You also encourage teachers to ensure that children spend time studying the illustrations in picture books. Why is this important, and how does this help to develop their thinking skills?

There are books that are illustrated books and they're beautiful. For example, there is a new illustrated version of 'Harry Potter'. The pictures are great, they add to it. But, the story will stand alone without the pictures. But in a normal, ordinary picture book where you have texts and images and we'll take 'Rosie's Walk' as an example. There is another narrative going on in the images that is not in the text.

So, if you just read the words and didn't show the children the pictures, they're going to miss the whole point of that story. The whole fun of being that story. And Margaret Meek talked about the child being the teller and the told. So, by being able to read the pictures, they're able to read a whole other narrative that marries with the narrative they're being told, and it's quite tongue in cheek and can often be quite subversive. And children, pre-literate children, children who haven't yet learned to maybe decode the texts, are extremely conscious of the tiniest things in the images.

And so giving them time to look at those images and then giving them some of the skills around examining the images, like where is the artist positioned? Who's dominant in the picture? Are they facing forward, is their back turned? Why is that? So, all of these parts of the picture can be analysed.

So, what I do with 'Once Upon an Ordinary School Day' is I scan in, or I take my red whiteboard marker when the image is on the whiteboard, and draw a smile on the child's face and say, now what do you feel? Is he happy now? And they say, oh, that changes how I feel about him. That makes me think he's happy to go to school. Now I've got a different feeling about the story. And for the first time, small children can realise that artists manipulate our feelings. This need not be a pejorative term. But that this is an aesthetic and we are made to feel, and this can be the very first time that they realise that everything in this image is carefully placed, it's there for a reason.

Thanks for that, Mary. How then does critically studying picture books support students' understanding of their own thought processes, and why might that be important to making them better thinkers, do you think?

I encourage teachers when they're doing this critical thinking and book talk approach to have a notebook and pencil in their hands. They sit into the circle as a participant. I encourage them to sit there with a notebook and pencil and to jot down what the children are saying. It has several effects.

First of all, you're looking down at what you're writing, you as the teacher are looking down. Therefore, the children, there's no point in them talking just to you, because, initially, when you do this work, the children tend to just answer the teacher because that's what they've been trained to do since they were in pre-school. So they begin to talk to each other and make eye contact with each other because you're not available to make eye contact with them while you're writing. So, that's one benefit.

The second benefit is they say, "Hm, she's actually writing down what I'm saying, it must be worth something." And the third benefit, and there are more than three, is that you've got a record of what was said. Now, I used to type those out, and then after three or four discussions I would give the transcripts to the children and we would go back over, this is assuming now they can read, so they were at that point, eight-year-old children.

And I would give them the transcripts and say, "Would you still agree with what you said or have you changed your mind?" And they begin to question why they said what they said and re-evaluate it in the light of seeing the old discussion and say, "Hm, I don't know why I said that. I think it was because Robbie said that and Mary said that and I was just thinking about what they were saying. I wasn't really thinking for myself. I actually disagree with what I said." Or they might say, "I partially agree and partially disagree with what I said."

But what it leads to is the children beginning to examining why they're thinking what they're thinking, what's prompting that thought and how is their thinking improving. So, from that point of view, after doing this work for a year, maybe, in a classroom, or more than a year if it's policy in a school, they get very, very good at analysing their own thinking.

I'm sure they do get very good at analysing their own thinking. If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself as a school student, what would you tell yourself to focus on? To help you prepare for what was to come. And would you give different advice to students today?

When I think back on myself as a reader, I was like a vacuum cleaner, I just hoovered up everything. I just read everything I could lay my hands on, that was at the start. But then I began to just read one kind, the things I liked. So, I liked Enid Blyton, I liked the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew and I kind of just kept on reading what I liked. Now, you might say, what's wrong with that?

If I were to give myself a little bit of advice, I'd say, challenge yourself a little bit more. Read something outside your comfort zone, and if you don't like it, analyse why. So, I would maybe go back and say, keep a reading diary, note down the books you like and your responses to them. Just briefly, it's not going to be a big chore. And that's the advice I would give to teachers, how can we inject enthusiasm and passion for reading if we're not enthusiastic, passionate readers ourselves? How can we inject these feelings into children and encourage them to become passionate?

So, my advice to teachers would be, at least once a week to read something current from the world of children's literature and maybe not just the populist books that are being flagged up wall to wall in the bookshops. But to go on websites and go into Twitter, even, there's a huge community in Twitter who are involved in promoting and discussing children's literature and read a good quality children's book. Let children see you reading and be able to discuss the book. There's nothing more empowering for a child than to know that the teacher has read and enjoyed a book that they have read and enjoyed. Because now they can discuss that as equals.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edspresso Series. You can find out more about the Education for a Changing World initiative via the New South Wales Department of Education's website.


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