“No matter how well I do in class, I’m still stupid.”
“She was laughing when she looked at me. She must think I’m an idiot.”
“My mom doesn’t hit me that much.”
A crucial part of successful living is the ability to form correct beliefs about the world around you. The above statements represent ways in which a child might form inaccurate beliefs because their thinking is just a little off. The Kids Thinking Critically program was designed as a contextual strategy to bring critical thinking skills to at-risk and underprivileged youth. The context is cognitive behavioral therapy and, more specifically, a list of “Thinking Errors” in common therapeutic use that show how statements like the three above can be formulated and believed.
What is critical thinking?
A precise formulation of “critical thinking” can be hard to pin down. A good working definition is perhaps something like “Critical thinking is a set of rational, empirical methods and heuristics for formulating accurate beliefs about the world and making sound decisions based on those beliefs.” The corollary, of course, is also true: critical thinking allows one to avoid inaccurate beliefs and unsound decisions.
Critical thinking involves rational evaluation of good evidence in order to formulate beliefs and decisions. By “rational” I mean that one utilizes basic reasoning skills and avoids fallacies, logical lapses, and other pitfalls to which thinking often falls prey. By “good evidence,” I mean, broadly speaking, the kind of evidence that comes out of scientific inquiry: broad, controlled, and as bias-free as possible. Not everybody is a scientist, but the same basic principles can be applied to everyday thought and decision making: take a broad view of the available evidence, be as objective as possible, and avoid cherry-picking or focusing on evidence that confirms a bias or preconceived notion.
Critical thinking is an invaluable tool. By being able to properly evaluate claims and evidence, one is able to come to accurate beliefs and make good decisions based on those beliefs. Critically evaluating advertising, for example, leads to more informed purchases.
What critical thinking is not
Critical thinking is not, as some might assume, a cold, emotionless logical process. Critical thinkers are not Mr. Spock, urging lesser humans to “be logical” and ignore their natural emotional inclinations. By contrast, a person’s emotions are often crucial data in decision making. For example, one’s emotions and values come into play when making a major purchase: if a black car costs slightly more than a green car, but you prefer and are willing to pay for the black car, a purely “logical” analysis of cost vs. benefit is silly. Black has a value to you above the cost differential, and so ignoring that emotional inclination would be silly.
Of course, if you can’t afford either car, that’s a different story entirely. I’ll leave that there, though.
Critical thinking is also not a dogmatic set of conclusions about the world. It is rather a method of reaching conclusions in all areas of life, from esoteric scientific pursuits to whether or not it is worth spending time with certain people. Critical thinking, rather than entailing a certain set of facts, actually requires that one is able to change his mind as new information is made available. Admitting past error is a major facet of critical thinking; without constant self-correction, one is stuck in an intellectual rut.
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
–Economist John Maynard Keynes
What are Thinking Errors?
“Thinking Errors” are a tool used in cognitive therapy to show kids how thought can go wrong and lead to persistent negative thinking. They comprise a list of common ways in which thoughts and attitudes can go astray and lead to negative interpersonal interactions or a negative self-image or worldview. At their cores, each Thinking Errors are simply manifestations of common logical fallacies and cognitive biases that cause people to come to erroneous conclusions about the world. Avoiding these fallacies and biases is one of the core concerns of a critical thinker.
Using the Thinking Errors as a context, the Kids Thinking Critically program builds cognitive skills on a foundation with which the at-risk children it was originally designed to target are already familiar. A lesson in evidence-based thought and basic reasoning is couched in an interactive session that simply builds on concepts they already understand; the kids understand why Thinking Errors can lead to negative thoughts and self-image, and by exposing the fallacies responsible for the Errors, kids are brought to understand how the same Thinking Errors, applied to the external world, can lead them to false beliefs, erroneous conclusions, and even harm to self or others.
The simple message for children is “If you understand Thinking Errors, you already understand critical thinking.”
This site exists to make the Kids Thinking Critically program available to therapists, educators, and parents who want a simple, engaging way to introduce the ideas and methods of critical thinking to their clients, students, or children. The program can be easily adapted to situations other than juvenile care or detention facilities, and, in addition to necessary background, sample lesson plans will be provided. It is free to use, change, adapt, and share under the conditions of the author’s Creative Commons license.
At present, only the core program (for at-risk adolescents) is available. I am hard at work, however, on other contextualizations of the material, including standard classroom and home use, as well as more in-depth individual lessons on each of the Thinking Errors and a specific module on critical thinking about advertising, marketing, and consumer scams. All of these will be added to the site as they are completed.