Everyone knows children need to develop critical thinking skills. But what do we mean when we use that phrase? I think most of us mean problem solving, decision making, comparing, sorting, or analyzing.
How do we go about honing these skills? What makes a good thinker? There are companies, curriculum, and workbooks that promise to create problem solvers. Do they work? Is there a way to guarantee a kid learns to think?
At the FPEA Homeschool Convention I attended a series of seminars by Martin Cothran. For those of you who do not devour his articles as editor of The Classical Teacher each month (sign up for it – it is free!), Mr. Cothran is a teacher and writer of Logic and Rhetoric textbooks. His lectures were the most compelling and inspiring of any at the convention this year. Some things that he said both challenged the audience as well as resonated with it. Specifically Mr. Cothran stated that “Skills are content specific”. You cannot learn a skill divorced from its subject matter. That is backwards. You learn a discipline and develop critical thinking as a part of that discipline.
Suppose I want to advance my cooking skills. I will learn to crack an egg without shells in my omelette; then I can learn to flip the omlette; I can begin to judge amount of ingredients by eye. These are skills and they are specific to cooking. They do not cross over to my kung fu class or to piano playing.
Critical thinking is actually analysis and synthesis. It is making distinctions and seeing resemblances. Critical thinking is comparing and contrasting. The amount of decisions involved in the procedure is what develops critical thinking.
If the complexity of thought process creates the ability to evaluate and integrate information, then critical thinking is developed within the study of math and grammar, and later in Latin (or some other inflected language) and logic.
Professor of Education E.D. Hirsch has long maintained that critical thinking is embedded in math, grammar, and Latin. Math may be the more obvious subject. We know it involves problem solving by its very nature. The dissection of language through parsing and diagramming also creates mental endurance. When you add the additional translation step in learning Latin, you have created a multi-step process that also has a concrete answer to reach after a mental wrestling match. And slowly but surely, each problem builds critical (evaluating or analyzing) thinking (using reason or rational judgment) skills (capability).
Latin, being a dead language, does not change, making it perfect for long term study. It is deeply inflected, unlike English, meaning that the endings change with case, number, gender, etc. Latin does so predictably and consistently, unlike some other inflected languages. There are very few exceptions, making it simpler to learn. And it forms the basis of most other Western languages, making those languages easier to acquire.
While we are introducing math and grammar concepts in the grammar stage, real “critical thinking” work begins in the dialectic stage where we begin algebra and Latin, master English grammar, and introduce logic. Formal logic is more of a rhetorical stage discipline, There are different schools of thought, but for practical purposes, I introduce informal logic at the end of the dialectic stage, when kids begin to morph into consumers and are being heavily advertised to.
Charlotte Mason told us to give children something noble to think about. Einstein told us to read them fairy tales. Andrew Pudewa tells us to how to make good writers by warning us that we have to put good stuff in their heads for good stuff to come out. I would say that the disciplines of Latin, grammar, math, and logic train the higher order thinking that allows us to critically analyze not only classic literature and complex essays, but movies, music, and pop culture. It develops the capacity to understand and prepares us to internalize wisdom.
I am considering all of this as I plan my school year and decide what to prioritize. “That man is wise who orders things rightly.” – St. Thomas Aquinas
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