Teach Children How to Think for Themselves

This is the second time recently I have seen a call to teach children how to think, rather than what to think. Bill Harper’s book “The Atheist’s Guide to Religion” discussed teaching ethics and philosophy in schools and the Moral Maze article in The Sun-Herald ( 27/7/08 ) discusses teaching children how to think for themselves. copy available here

The Moral Maze article by Leslie Cannold discusses Intelligent Design / Creationism’s latest method to de-rail real science. A law passed recently in Louisiana requires

the education bureaucracy to assist schools that wish to help students “understand, analyse, critique, and review” scientific theories such as evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.

Whilst on the surface this sounds like a fairly noble concept – teaching students how to think – things are not quite what they seem. As Leslie says this is just another way to introduce “biblical principles into the classroom”. Similar to Expelled, which amongst other things claimed that some IDers had been persecuted for their views, they are trying to dress up academic freedom as a way to teach creationism.

Leslie continues on to explain how this new law could actually be turned to our (non theists) advantage. She argues that “Currently, primary and secondary school children are taught scientific content:” They are taught the conclusions (to all sorts of facts), but not how to reach those conclusions. It is not till university that “the methods used to reach conclusions [are] properly explained and used to critique answers to key questions”; and not everyone attends university.

Leslie quite rightly states:

No matter how widely accepted it is today, no theory – including evolution – is beyond question. The accumulation of enough counter-evidence, or the successful questioning of the method or logic used to develop the theory in the first place, will topple it in the sort of paradigm shift that makes academic careers and defines human progress. This is how reason and evidence-based systems, of which science is one, work.

So the creationists can try as hard as they like to topple any scientific theory, but they have to use proper reasoning and scientific methods. To date, no counter-evidence to evolution has passed any scientific scrutiny; saying god-did-it or god-might-have-done-it is not good enough.

Leslie concludes that by teaching children how to think, and how to decide what is right or wrong, “we won’t have to tell them that creationism, … , is not science, but religion.”

A Conflict

However, no matter how much critical thinking skills people are taught, someone will always lie to them. At least well educated people, taught how to think, are more likely to detect the lie.

But what happens when the questioner is told that it isn’t a lie, or told just to believe, or told to stop questioning the “authority” or else there will be dire consequences? What if that authority is a loved one, friend or family, (like parents lying to children about god, Santa or the tooth fairy)? As much as the questioner can use the skills they have been taught to critique the answers, there may still be doubts. After all this person (their parents) wouldn’t lie to them, would they? Perhaps they have got it wrong, perhaps they should just believe what the ‘authority’ is telling them.

This can cause all sorts of conflicts within the mind of the questioner; and some question Richard Dawkins’ quote about religious indoctrination being child abuse. I see this is as one of the biggest problems faced with reducing the affect of religious indoctrination of children by their parents and religious authority figures. The conflict between what you know is wrong and what your friends/family/authority figure/parents are telling you is true can be quite traumatic and difficult, especially for young children.

So, how do we teach people to cope with this conflict?

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One Comment to “On Critical Thinking”

  1. Meee says:

    “So, how do we teach people to cope with this conflict?”

    We don’t.

    Seriously, all of the discussion around the teaching creationism in schools thing has annoyed me based on one fairly important fact…

    The IDers try to push that ID/creationism needs to be taught as a counter point to evolution in order to encourage critical thinking and allow children to criticise evolution. But that’s where it stops making sense to me.

    Since when do school children learn to criticise anything? You don’t *learn* how to criticise scientific theories in school. You don’t learn how to scientifically question or criticise *anything* in school. School isn’t that advanced. In school, you get taught basic facts. You don’t get taught anything advanced enough to require criticism. You get taught advanced stuff as you move on from school.

    You’re not taught, for example, that gravity can bend light so that light isn’t always “straight”. You’re taught that light always travels in straight lines. Because it’s a simple explanation that works for every day life. Hell, when I took Biology at college, one of the first things the lecturer told us was to forget everything we were taught at school because most of it was wrong (and most of it was, or at least, it was overly-simple).

    I think schools just need to teach facts. That’s all. There’s no need to teach critical thinking skills, they’ll develop naturally as long as they aren’t bogged down with faith (which is literally the antithesis of critical thought).

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