Developing students' common sense


Do you teach your students ‘how’ to think? Karen Sullivan discusses some techniques for instilling common sense and critical-thinking skills


Parents and educators often shake their heads in frustration at the lack of common sense exhibited by today’s adolescents, but can its absence be at least partly blamed on the way in which we parent and educate?

Common sense is not an innate quality, and it is not acquired at any specific stage of development. It does not reflect intelligence in the traditional sense of the word (i.e. measured as IQ); however it can, according to American psychologist and psychometrician Robert J Sternberg, best known for his theory on intelligence and creativity, be considered “practical intelligence”.

This type of intelligence can be loosely described as the ability to apply knowledge to the “real world”, and involves reacting in an intelligent way to our environment, or even simply having a sound understanding of how life works. It is wisdom that is acquired through experience, through trial and error, and through using abilities and skills and applying them to everyday tasks and problems.

So what’s the problem? First and foremost, too many of us are guilty of teaching students “what” to think, rather than “how” to think. We give them formulae, theories, set texts, exam practice geared towards producing the “right” answer to get optimum results, and we fail to encourage truly independent thinking or ask them to rely upon their own resources to make judgements. 

In fact, the standard definition of common sense is the ability to make sound judgements, and on that basis we do this generation of youth a disservice. Without over-generalising, past generations were encouraged to take responsibility and given the freedom to think, to make their own decisions, and to react to the world around them. 

Today, we are prescriptive and we mollycoddle. We are fearful on behalf of (an increasingly frustrated) youth population, and provide so much guidance that any independent thinking is immediately quashed; any opportunity to think through a problem and come up with a solution curtailed by interventions, initiatives, protocol, set teaching methods and practices, and, ultimately, an over-focus on traditional “academic” intelligence. 

While this may keep them safe, similar and on course for acceptable levels of achievement, it sets them in poor stead for “real life”, where common sense, creative and critical-thinking, and an ability to adapt to our environment is crucial, not just to success but to happiness and wellbeing.

Without independent thinking and self-sufficiency, without a compass with which to navigate unfamiliar territories, without opportunities to experiment and succeed, confidence, self-belief and satisfaction cannot exist.

So what can we do to encourage common sense, or, rather, to encourage its development or allow it to flower? The first thing is to offer responsibility. Not watering the plants in the school room or feeding the class gerbil, but active responsibility for helping to establish school policy, govern, come up with solutions for budget shortfalls, set up extra-curricular events and clubs, cooperate and interact with people beyond the school environment, develop social skills and, of course, practical skills.

When the halls need repainting, put the students to work assessing the colour that may be most psychologically beneficial, the number of pots of paint and the type that will be required – the most cost-effective way of getting the job done, the brushes or rollers needed, and then task them with the painting itself. When the office furniture needs replacing, get out the screwdrivers and the flatpacks, and encourage students to use some common sense. Take away the instructions, if you need to. When the new computers arrive, put teams of students on the case.

Unless they are given an opportunity to learn, they won’t, and hands-on experience is the most beneficial of all. Get students out into the community; have them shadow the people who work in the office and on the grounds; bring people in to talk about what they do and stimulate an interest in looking beyond the school gates.

Another valuable way to foster the development of common sense is to encourage students to be better problem-solvers by fostering critical-thinking skills. 

While common sense ultimately involves problem-solving that stems from natural logic and our ability to observe and engage in situations and activities in order to absorb information and lessons from them, we can actively promote this ability by teaching students how to assess situations based on their own knowledge and skills. 

There have been a number of interesting studies pointing to the fact that few of today’s students acquire the knowledge or abilities necessary for the “real world” demands of work, higher education and everyday living, and many of the shortcomings are associated with an acquired passivity, an inability to evaluate, argue, distinguish between facts and opinions and, indeed, to make decisions and draw conclusions. 

Critical-thinking encourages all of this, while providing the experience that will ultimately lead to “common sense” or practical intelligence. 

We can teach life-skills, we can encourage problem-solving and employ project-based learning that involves cooperation, debate, logic, imagination, persistence, identifying obstacles and using prior knowledge/seeking out new information to reach a goal, and we can provide opportunities for thinking outside the box instead of ticking one. 

Learning comes more from experience and puzzling through problems than it does from books, and all educators (and parents) need to be aware that the collective unhappiness, uneasiness, unpreparedness and poor levels of common sense of our students are directly derived from the dearth of experiences offered. What can you do to create them?

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email

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Photo: iStock


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