Teaching Logic & Critical Thinking to Your Kids


Cover of

Cover of Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking

It’s pleasing to know that parents are taking a more proactive role in the education of their children, whether or not they are homeschooling. I’ve been asked if I can recommend tools that could be used to teach children the elements of logic and critical thinking.

  1. My first suggestion is that the best way to teach children how to think critically is to be a visible model of critical thinking. Children have a far greater aptitude for critical thinking than adults credit them for. They tend to be good at inferential reasoning. Their powers are limited in part by their limited storehouse of information from which to make inferences.
  2. Modeling excellence in critical thinking presupposes skill in critical thinking. So parents need to be students of logic and critical thinking themselves. Unfortunately, most have not had the opportunity for formal education in these skills. But there are accessible books to consider. I’ll add a list of recommendations at the end of this post.
  3. If your children see you making the attempt to sharpen your skills in reasoning, this will itself be a good example to them. You can tell them what you’re learning.
  4. Learn the names of basic inferential moves (for example modus ponens, modus tollens) and use these labels with your children when they demonstrate their own ability to make such moves. This should reinforce their awareness of the significance of their mental powers, and affirm them in the use of their powers.
  5. Encourage your children to think about the implications of something they have said or heard. You’ll have to be alert to opportunities for this. But once you’ve been at it for awhile, you’ll get into a natural groove. It will eventually become a part of your routine interaction with your kids. How to do this? I’ll save that for another post sometime.
  6. Get your children reading at their grade level (or above!) books that exemplify and encourage critical thinking. Mystery and suspense novels, carefully selected for their sophistication and interest, can be useful. I read the Hardy Boys as a kid. I also liked the stories of the Sugar Creek Gang.
  7. If you’re home schooling (or not), you can include in the curriculum some materials that teach critical thinking. The Fallacy Detective is a good source for this. (See below.)

Recommendations:

So, here are a few of the many resources available. I’m recommending those that provide a good place to start. Each title is linked to its Amazon page.

Books that inspire parents and other educators to teach children these skills:

Books for self-education in logic and critical thinking:

With adequate preparation in the early years, children in junior high and high school may be ready to work through these books themselves. They don’t provide a complete education in logic, but they are satisfactory for pre-college preparation. For more rigorous study in high school, I recommend using one of two textbooks:

Like most textbooks, Copi and Hurley are pricey. So you may want to settle for a second-hand copy. The illustrations and exposition of old editions will be dated, but the logic will be the same! I shop for second-hand books at AbeBooks.com.

For grade school and up:

Fiction classics for youth:

This post is cross-referenced in an interesting post here.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Best Reason for Homeschooling


“Homeschooling” is a noun; “homeschool” is sometimes a noun, sometimes a verb. “We homeschooled our daughters”—verb, past tense. Also, a true sentence.

This week we move our second daughter to university. She, like her older sister did, begins one year sooner than she would have if she had not been homeschooled. But this is not why she was homeschooled.

We began homeschooling in 1998, in part as a convenience for our family while I enjoyed a sabbatical at the University of Oxford. Homeschooling was portable. It was a reasonable experiment. Also a successful experiment.

At that point, our older daughter had been to public school for kindergarten and first and second grades. These were not bad experiences. But there was something missing. Later, she experimented with a return to public school in high school and changed her mind after one semester.

Our younger daughter was homeschooled from the beginning, but attended junior high for two years at an excellent private school. Then it was back to homeschooling.

Each year, and for each of our daughters, we made the best decision we could about their education. This is a parent’s responsibility. Thankfully, it is a freedom we still enjoy.

With each decision we considered several things:

  1. Where could they be taught what they needed to know?
  2. How would they be taught what they needed to know?
  3. Would the things they would be taught be true?
  4. Would they be taught how to think intelligently for themselves?
  5. Would they eventually be able to teach themselves the truth about things yet to be learned?
  6. Would they be treated fairly and respectfully by their teaching authorities?
  7. Would they be learning in a physically safe environment?
  8. Would they be learning in an emotionally healthy environment?

These were our major questions. Athletic programs, music programs, theater programs, and the like, were important but secondary. Whatever talent they had for any of these things deserved development, but not at the risk of shrinking—or, God forbid, losing—their souls.

Now I think of it, much of our concern reduced to three basic things, revolving round one major concept: (1) proper respect for truth; (2) effectual methods of obtaining truth; and, (3) behavior in accordance with truth.

The second of these depends on growth in reasoning powers and skill in assessing evidence. It’s here where many educational options in the United States prove so terribly inadequate.

I was reminded of this today when I came across a nice little article by Susan Wise Bauer, called “Dodging the Homeschool Stereotype.” She explains why she opted for homeschooling in the style of classical education:

Classical education leans heavily on the evaluation of evidence: The educated child learns to avoid logical fallacies, to decide whether arguments are trustworthy or flawed.

I believe she’s right when she adds:

And both secular and religious classrooms are prone to simplistic thinking.

The reasons why traditional classrooms, whether secular or religious, are prone to simplistic thinking deserves development in other posts. But I stress the point that simplistic thinking is the blight of current cultural discourse, infecting all of our institutions—political, educational, ecclesiastical—and methods of knowledge management—schools, media, church, and home.

It happens that homeschooling is susceptible to the same infection. But it need not be. And parents have more direct control over this dimension of childhood education if they do not rely on traditional classrooms.

Homeschooling is a choice. Parents must be free to exercise the option. The future of our culture, the outlook for the common good, may depend on the success of homeschooling.

Teach Yourself Epistemology


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.

Postscript

While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.

Be a Good Student—Best Book in This Category


armstrongstudy-is-hard-workIt’s brief, it’s well-organized, and it’s full of sane advice. It’s a book called Study Is Hard Work. The author, William H. Armstrong, explains all the fundamental skills needed to be a successful lifelong learner. Here are the chapter titles:

  1. Learning to Listen
  2. The Desire to Learn
  3. Using the Tools
  4. Getting More From What You Read
  5. Developing a Vocabulary
  6. Putting Ideas in Order
  7. Books and the Library
  8. Written Work
  9. Acquiring Skill in Methods
  10. How to Study Languages
  11. Letting Mathematics Serve You
  12. How to Study Science
  13. Getting the Most Out of History
  14. Tests and Examinations

All of this in 143 pages. Each chapter begins with an Interest Measurement Test and ends with five Review Questions. Each “Interest Measurement Test” is a set of five questions that get readers to think about their current experiences and skill level in some category of study. Here are a few samples:

  • “Have you ever stopped to think what your life would be like if there were no books?”
  • “Do you believe that you really have a desire to learn, or would you, had you been left alone from birth, be totally primitive and beastlike in your thoughts and feelings?”
  • “Do you believe that, other than your parents, the people who will most influence your life for good are your teachers?”
  • “When you have read a book do you feel that you have talked with, and come to know, the author?”
  • “Do you know certain traits of your own mind that lend themselves to some methods of study more effectively than others?”
  • “Would you agree that there is much of the poet in all great mathematicians?”
  • “Do you believe that your life will be influenced by your interpretation of history?”
  • “Are you afraid of tests, or do you consider them a challenge?”

Chapters are loaded with numbered tips, steps, strategies, for doing all the things a college or university student must do to succeed, all showing students how to achieve real success by learning with pleasure and good work management. My students are exceptional graduate students, and every one of them could benefit from practicing the methods set forth here.

bookstoreport-book-newsI came across this book at a charming little bookshop we visit when we’re in Port Angeles, Washington. One tip for studying foreign languages struck me right away as eminently sensible and yet generally unknown.

“Make your own vocabulary cards, writing the word to be learned on one side and the English meaning on the other. If you are lucky enough to be studying two languages, write the meaning in the second language on the back also.”

The second sentence is simply brilliant. It makes a truly powerful suggestion, and it strikes a positive chord about foreign language study. My first thought was, “If you’re going to learn a foreign language, why not make it two?”

If you aren’t officially a student and you read this book out of curiosity, you may feel a strong desire to sign on for a class at your local college or university. I say, go for it! But if for some reason you aren’t able to take a class, Armstrong is still an excellent guide through the steps to independent learning. It all begins with a desire to learn (chapter 2).

Note: There are two other groups who would be helped by this book. First, high school students, especially those who plan to go on to higher education. Why not learn how to learn before learning gets even harder? Second, home school parents. These heroic people know what lifelong learning means, and welcome suggestions for organizing the learning process into manageable steps. I believe that practicing the principles presented in this handy book will shave hours of labor from the task of home schooling, make the whole experience more enjoyable, and result in much less stress.

From Amazon:

armstrongstudy-is-hard-work1

From “That Bookstore in Portland”:

armstrongstudy-is-hard-work1

Leave your comments about this book in the reply box below!

%d bloggers like this: