Is “Critical Thinking” Just Another Buzzword?

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Do workbooks and critical thinking classes teach children to think critically?
Or is the term, at least as it’s used in the elementary years, nothing more than jargon that sounds good?

When you consider the question from the context of a liberal arts education, the critical thinking programs that target the elementary years don’t make much sense.

The truth of the matter is that young minds are too immature for learning the skills that critical thinking requires.

Let me take a step back and say that critical thinking is not a subject to be taught, but the outcome of a subject that should be taught but seldom is today: the traditional logic of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

If you learn traditional logic, you will think critically.

It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?
— C. S. Lewis (excerpted from The Last Battle)

Under the liberal arts model, there is the understanding that a child’s mind needs to be made ready for the study of logic, and it typically isn’t ready before adolescence begins to set in, which is another reason the critical thinking workbooks don’t make sense.

How then is a child’s mind prepared for the study of logic and when is a child ready to learn logic? Part of the readiness comes from the natural maturation process, and part of it comes from formal instruction in grammar.

As for the maturation process, around a child’s twelfth year his mind is ripe for thinking at more complex levels.

Ad populum: the fallacy of believing or doing something only because it is popular, or getting someone else to believe or do something only because other people do.
— Peter Kreeft

That’s why logic is introduced at this age. The children are beginning to ask questions that require good reasoning skills, and logic is the study of right thinking.

Asking how the rain falls from the sky is a very different question from asking why the Russians defeated Napoleon in 1812. The child sees the rain and he wants to know where it comes from.

But with the latter he’s beginning to think at a more complex level. He wants to know what the circumstances were that led to Napoleon’s defeat, and he wants to understand how much of the circumstances derived from the human element and how much from chance. What were all the factors at play and how did they come together to bring about his defeat?

Before the logic stage, the child thinks in more concrete terms of what he can experience through his senses. It’s not that a child isn’t thinking and trying to figure things out; it’s just a more simple kind of thinking.

The kind we are being reduced to by technology and illiteracy.

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In elementary education, therefore, what a child needs is not critical thinking workbooks but a thorough knowledge of how his language works. Grammar is the prerequisite subject for logic.

A good grammar program will include the diagramming of sentences. In the concrete phase of learning, a child needs to be able to see how things work.  

Grammar studies usually finish around the time the logic stage kicks in. You can see how the liberal arts tradition is timed perfectly, so the child receives what he needs when he needs it.

What you want for your younger children (but not too young) is not critical thinking workbooks (though some children may enjoy them and that’s fine)  but a firm foundation in the study of grammar. You want them to understand the rules and structure of their language.

This will give them a solid foundation for studying logic.

Language is the house of thoughts, and homelessness is as life-threatening for thoughts as it is for people.
— Peter Kreeft

It’s also crucial to protect a child’s love of learning when he’s younger.

Children naturally ask lots of questions. It’s an insatiable curiosity that’s behind their questions; this is what you want to guard. You want them to question things. You want them to think about things. And they’ll do this naturally if you allow them the time and space they need and keep them away from technology.

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Protect their curiosity, nurture their love of learning; teach them grammar (preferably Latin too); and when they’re older, you can introduce the study of logic.

And you can learn it too! It is never too late. I struggled to teach my children logic because its a difficult subject to approach on your own. We had a study group around Peter Kreeft's book, but even that was difficult.

And then I was fortunate to take a material logic class with a brilliant logician and an exemplary human being, Dr. Mark Delp. He opened the door to logic for me.

Logic is one of those subjects where you will need to find a good teacher. Try your local university or college or look for a retired logic teacher who would be happy to tutor you.

In the meantime, you are welcome to a free download:

12 Reasons Why Knowing Traditional Logic is Vital to a Life Well-Lived.

I’ve also included a couple of reference books in the download for you. One is Peter Kreeft's book, and the other is a book of informal fallacies you could begin to teach your older children and study yourself.

To learn to think critically, argue critically, write critically, and listen critically; we all need to study the traditional logic of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Download 12 Reasons Why Knowing Traditional Logic is Vital to a Life Well-Lived.

Elizabeth Y. Hanson teaches parents how to give their children a private-school education at home.