The ability to think clearly and well is one of the most important elements of a good education, if not the most important. If you've read many reviews on our site you'll know we say that a lot, but we emphasize it because it's true. Critical thinking isn't just a nice extra, it's the foundation of learning: without it, students just acquire facts, and facts without the ability to use them properly are useless.
Fortunately, there are plenty of educators and curriculum authors who agree with us. One of the best critical thinking programs we've seen is Anita Harnadek's Critical Thinking series. In two books, she presents the basics of sound logic, fallacy-spotting, problem solving, when to argue and when to be quiet, how to identify propaganda, etc. These aren't meant to be used as workbooks, but as guides toward sound reasoning skills.
How Do These Work?
There are two textbooks each supported by a slim Instruction/Answer Guide. The course is designed for grades 7-12, though many adults will also find the content helpful. Harnadek discourages users from having kids read the content and then answering questions on their own, instead using the end-of-section questions as forums for classroom discussion; home school students can discuss with mom and dad rather than classmates.
Whereas a lot of logic programs focus on the formal elements of logic as an academic discipline, this one exists to give students the practical equipment needed to dismantle bad arguments and formulate good ones. Each section includes text to read (or to be read aloud), followed by discussion problems and occasional exercises. Text portions are short, leaving most of the time open to discussion and problem solving.
This isn't a Christian course, and there is some mild politically-correct language. Still, there's nothing offensive or inappropriate, and Harnadek's approach to critical thinking is both sound and intuitive. In the first book she spends most of the time debunking fallacies and propaganda, as well as introducing logic and the proper construction of arguments. Book Two covers much of the same ground more in-depth, and includes a section on the use and misuse of words.
Harnadek seems to approach the ability to think clearly and rationally as the cultivation of a Classical virtue: she (rightly) identifies sound logic as a cultivated, rather than an innate, ability, and talks about the lack of good reason and argumentation as at least partly responsible for the "mess" the world is in. These statements help lend credibility to her authorship: she clearly doesn't believe everything is fine the way it is, and she has some framework for judging between good and bad.
The two textbooks are the core of this course, but the Instruction/Answer Guides shouldn't be seen as optional. The meat of the content is contained in the textbooks; important teaching guidelines, answer guidelines for discussion problems, and indexed links to standardized logic tests are included in the guides. This is definitely a teacher-intensive course, though you don't need to spend much if any time preparing lessons beforehand.
While there are formal logical constructions found in these books, all the examples and discussion problems center around real-world situations. Critical thinking skills without context are worthless, and Harnadek wants to make sure students are able to put their new reasoning abilities to work. Logic is an eminently practical discipline, and your kids will understand that thoroughly after working through these texts.
Our Honest Opinion
While there is certainly something to be said for the study of formal logic, without a clear sense of how to apply its principles students will be left floundering in jargon and abstract principles. The Critical Thinking series ensures that kids will know how to reason well in a practical setting, without burdening them with terminology and mathematical equations (which a lot of modern logic has been reduced to).
We recommend these two books very highly. Our only concern would be that they do come from a secular perspective and include some politically correct examples, but since they never lapse into inappropriate language or content, it's a very minor one. If you want something you can hand your kids and not have to worry about, this isn't it; but don't you want to be involved in the shaping of your children's intellect, anyway? If you want to have your kids learn the more technical elements of logic after finishing this course, we recommend Introductory and Intermediate Logic by James B. Nance. If you use that course first, follow it up with the Critical Thinking series.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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