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Teaching kids critical thinking
 
By Elson T. Elizaga
Published Dec. 2, 2017. Expanded Dec. 5, 2017.
 

I’m a caregiver to my kids, and I decided early on that it’s important for them to learn critical thinking, especially now that fake news is common, and people are spreading rumors that Santa Claus is coming to Barra, Opol. I like them reading fairy tales, but I also want them -- to quote from a film -- to learn "how to separate the facts from the fancy".

How do I teach them critical thinking?

First, I tell them that parents and teachers make mistakes, that nobody is perfect, and that books contain errors. I show them the errors in the textbooks, and tell them to inform the teacher of such errors, if the teacher has not yet seen them.


How do I convince my kids that the errors I identify are real and not just the result of my opinion?

Here’s where the internet is most useful. One day I found a photo of a rhinoceros beetle in a science textbook. It’s a relatively good picture but the thorax, the head, and the antenna are incorrectly identified. I told my kids the thorax is not part of the abdomen, but a separate section where the wings and legs are attached. To prove my point, I searched for “insect parts” in Google Images. Here, we saw numerous illustrations confirming my claim.

Errors in the identification of external body parts of rhinoceros beetle
A photo of a rhinoceros beetle found in a Philippine science textbook. The antennae, head, and thorax are wrongly identifed. Also, "legs" would have been accurate if several lines point to legs. Otherwise, "leg". See correct identification of the head, thorax, and abdomen in plantheroes.org.


I told my kids, however, that not everything in the internet is true. Some websites are not reliable, some YouTube videos are lies. So, it’s important to know those that are have built a good reputation, such as National Geographic and CNN.



Second, I teach my kids basic scientific method -- observation, theory, research, more research and conclusion. I tell them that conclusions can change if new facts emerge, but that they shouldn’t worry because -- to paraphrase Carl Sagan -- science is a method of thinking correctly, not a body of sacred knowledge.

I don’t expect my kids to understand the scientific method completely. They’re still 8 and 11. But they know what a theory is, and once in a while, one of them would say “theory” during a conversation. The word was used first one sunny morning after a crooked-tailed kitten appeared in front of our house.

Crooked-tail tabby cat eating

“What’s wrong with the tail?” I asked my kids.

“Maybe something fell on it,” the 8 said.

“Did you see the kitten when it happened?”

“No, daddy.”

“So, how do you KNOW that’s what happened?”

“I don’t know, daddy. It’s just my theory.”

“I have a theory, daddy”, said the 11, eager to compete.

“What is it?”

“Maybe the tail was already crooked when the kitten was born.”

The 8 raised his hand and expressed another theory, and the 11 another one. I also gave mine. In the end, we couldn’t claim to know the cause of the crooked tail because we didn’t have the facts. But at least, we knew we were not making things up.

In any case, on account of the crooked tail, we called the kitten, now grown-up, Geometri.



Third, last summer I let my kids watch “My Cousin Vinny” with subtitles. I was reluctant because the film is rated R for the generous use of the f-word. So, I thought of “12 Angry Men” instead but I was afraid it was too serious for the kids. They might end up avoiding legal films entirely. Finally, I chose “My Cousin Vinny” because it’s a comedy, like “The Three Stooges” that the kids were familiar with. As for the f-words, I decided the best way was not to leave the kids alone, but for me to watch the entire film with them, so that I could give them advice.

I think they call this procedure parental guidance.

I was afraid the kids would get bored. They love action films like “The Avengers”. I wasn’t sure they would appreciate a conversational movie about a bungling lawyer. To my surprise, the kids reviewed the film three times in a week, and watched it again a month later.

They had several questions: What is a judge? What is a jury? What is a lawyer? What is a youth? What are witnesses? What if the witnesses are paid to lie? What is evidence? What is “sustained” and “overruled”? What is a prosecutor and a defendant? What does it mean to plead guilty or not guilty?

The kids were surprised when they discovered that some things are not what they seem, that “bad people” might be innocent, and that those who claim to be telling the truth could be mistaken, and that accurate information has the power to save lives.

Later, they watched “12 Angry Men” completely captivated. It was also subtitled to make sure they understood the conversation.



Fourth, I show my kids several “Everything Wrong” YouTube videos. Published by CinemaSins, these short film reviews are sharp, fun, and unforgiving. Some of our favorites are “Everything Wrong With Gravity – with Neil deGrasse Tyson”, “Everything Wrong With Up”, “Everything Wrong with The Hobbit”, and “Everything Wrong with StarWars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens”.

Why are these reviews important? Because they teach us to think critically, and make us aware that the stories contain mistakes. Life is also full of stories -- some real, some dangerously fabricated. So, a child who knows how to distinguish the fake from the true is off on the right foot.

Today, the kids sometimes surprise my wife and me when they identify errors in a movie that they have seen for the first time. One of the kids has even “cross-examined” a neighbor who was making unusual claims.

About a month after watching "12 Angry Men" and "Everything Wrong" videos, I asked the 8 about the president (who is sometimes referred to by newspaper writers as "The Punisher"): "Is he good or bad?"

"He is good and bad," my kid replied.

"Why?"

"He cares for the people but he also kills some of them."

"Do you know the cops say the people killed were using shabu?"

"Yes, but they should not be killed. They should be brought to the law so that the lawyers will argue." (By "law" he meant "court of law". But he doesn't want to use "court" because it's like "basketball court".)

"And then what?"

"So they can tell if the defendant is really using shabu. They must bring witnesses to prove."

"Ok, what if there is a witness who can see objects 10 feet away but says he saw the defendant 50 feet away from him using shabu. Is the witness lying?"

"Not necessarily. Maybe the witness just doesn't know."

 
 
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© 2017 Elson T. Elizaga