Unschooling Critical ThinkingPosted by Jim Newman on June 13th, 2012 – Comments Off – Posted in Uncategorized
Post by Jim Newman
My spouse and I lived on a boat for several years and then we rotated (migrated) between a bridge less barrier island and a farm for several more years. We quit our traditional jobs to do this and home schooled. Or should I say I tended to unschool and my spouse tended to school. I preferred to teach as part of living life and she preferred a more structured approach. We tried to eliminate the division of labor but that really didn’t work as when efficiency became prime, and with the vicissitudes of child rearing, we inevitably fell back on specialties. However, boat repair, construction, and farming all have large, diverse work needs, and we could all live and work together.
Phil has well put a number of activities and things that can be used for teaching critical thinking in another post. We did almost all of them and it made me feel better about how we raised our children as we got a lot of flak from hard core educators about home schooling, and we had no desire for approval from religious home schoolers. We needed our children to succeed in mainstream academics and life and not be either hippie or religious separatists–no offense to hippies.
I never could teach them philosophy though everything we do when we are thinking about things using argument, reason, and observation is really philosophy. I am not religious, I philosophize. If you are not doing theology then you are doing some sort of philosophy. It should’t be a dirty word. But it is. Critical thinking sounds critical, negative. I wish it were called Supportive Thinking or something that can’t be so easily felt as negative. It used to be called Analytical Thinking but when Analytical Philosophy fell in popularity there was apparently some need to distance itself from itself. I suppose there is some use to separating it from Intuitive Philosophy or Seat of the Pants Philosophy?
At any rate. I did not even call it teaching critical thinking until recently but rather just “thinking” as conversation. “I think… Let’s just think about this. Let me think about this. I haven’t thought much about it yet. Have you thought more on this? What do you think?” In this sense critical thinking meant more time in the saddle and like any kind of skill you get better at it with time. It’s true you need some instruction and some help along the way but like most skills the most important thing is the doing. Some people do better learning languages with some vocab and grammar first and some people do better with using the language and then getting some support in vocab and grammar. As a parent and as an educator it is useful to have a variety of rhetorical tools available to deal with these issues.
In other words, with one kid I could say “what do you think?” and let them work up to a conclusion. Another kid just wanted to know what I thought first and then provide a support. Another time they just might want an answer and to hell with any explanation. But later they would come back to it like a bone buried in the yard.
Part of this process was also politeness. Learning to listen and respond specifically and allowing people to speak. I am an inveterate interrupter. It is my utter social downfall so this is my most difficult task. It also meant introducing the idea of an opinion, and that individuals can disagree, period. Yup, one kid can go ahead and think the other person is flat out crazy and they still gotta decide, come to a conclusion and no brute force. Note, you can substitute adult whenever I use the term kid.
Relevance was always an issue. We often used the phrase but “that’s not relevant” or “that’s not the point” or even “you’re not getting it”. It sounds harsh but we often get derailed in discussions with issues of ego, distraction, and lack of pertinence. “I know it is unfair but we have to do it this time because…”
Contextualizing and explaining why often helps but more often a kid does’t care. They just seek an immediate unfairness. Yesterday or tomorrow doesn’t matter–what are you doing for me now. Good luck with this one. But keep trying. As delaying gratification and considerations of kindness count. “Be kind” is always appropriate in conversation.
Often I would try to get the kids to see a different view, “how would you feel if…” Over and over again I play the empathy and converse cards. “What if they were right?”
What is really important is the general attitude of talking about things. That it is not just OK but important to think, talk, and question things. That it is also important to get an idea of how you feel about something and how that relates to the conversation, including affective situations. “I’m just tired so I think this sucks” is a legitimate argument but better to append “so let’s talk about it later.”
Give them time to get the data. Let them find evidence. Encourage delaying conclusions until you know more. Admit when you’re wrong. Emphasize that the answer is more important than being right.
One kid once had tantrum during a long car ride where we had to keep going. We just could not stop. Finally, she threatened to get out of the car and indeed unlocked the door (locks I could’t control), told us she hated us, and wanted to be adopted and leave us. Indeed the door clicked open. I stopped. Took her out of the car and walked to the back with her and said if she wanted to adopt other parents, I would respect that but right now I couldn’t do anything about the situation. I didn’t like it either but I needed her to get in the car and stay there, and if she really wanted it I would help her find new parents when we got back.
There was a useful aspect to living on a boat. Seemingly arbitrary parental choices had real world consequences. I ddin’t have to pretend or hypothesize that something would go wrong. If they stood up in the dinghy in rough water when I told them to sit they would fall out of the boat. Occasionally, I did have to set up some safety simulations where I let them fail because they were so insistent they were right and arguing was pointless when demonstrations worked. Same with animals on a farm. The horse will kick you. The plants will wilt without water. The chicks will die if you overheat them, keep them cold, or don’t give them water–in fact they may die anyway, even with what seems like good care. The other side of this is I didn’t make them follow trivial rules–a practical lifestyle makes social esthetics less relevant.
What this meant was that the world was open to them. I didn’t prohibit them much but spent considerable time watching them live, ready to be there. You have to give kids the space to experiment, explore, experience, and screw up. Then you have to be there for support and you have to give them a way of success that would work in that situation. Kids need to learn they can succeed by thinking more about the situation. They need to learn that reactive experiencing has limitations.
Taking the time to explain what you are experiencing is essential. What are clouds? Hmm, water evaporates and then it collects and forms these cool shapes. You can go as far as you like but watch your kid. When their eyes glaze over, quit the speech, or summarize quickly and get on with it. Sometimes I would sort of talk to myself as I did a task. My spouse would ask me why the motor wasn’t a starting and I would actually summarize the mechanics knowing full well that they wouldn’t get it but just hearing words like fuel pump, diaphragm, diesel, connection, and so on would make the words familiar and that there was mechanical causality.
We talked about what we read and watched and why we thought what we did. We talked about why we liked or disliked things rather than just making judgements as if the were de facto true. “I don’t like sugar anymore because I can’t eat carbohydrates so much because I have prediabetes but I used to love sugar, 3 teaspoons in my tea…” Even just random tastes can be discussed. “I don’t know why I hate Okra, it just seems slimy to me.” Read labels!
Look it up. Or “let’s look it up.” With a computer or smartphone it is easy to look things up. It prevents tons of arguments. It encourages research. Be ready to compare sources. Talk about why they might differ. But be obnoxious in research. Yes, be obnoxious in research. I find too often kids don’t want to know the answer really, they just want to to be right. Take the time to find out. Make it like a routine to check for support.
When one kid was curious about religion and asked me what I thought of god, I said that I thought the Greek Gods were more interesting as they had more personality and the stories seemed more compelling. I was tempted to just squish belief but in American society I needed to provide interest and choice rather than blanket statements. Besides there is room for diversity and it is very likely that one of my children might choose religion regardless of what I say. Later when the subject came up again I might say I have difficulty believing in an all powerful god that lets there be so much misery in the world. Later when it comes up again the argument gets more sophisticated.
Of course they quickly knew I didn’t approve of religion but because of the agreements between my spouse and myself I didn’t openly castigate Easter or Santa Claus but we celebrated secular aspects of it as I had to, or divorce, essentially. But I was always an asshole, whether I wanted to be or not, when they went to church and I stayed home. I guess that was its own aversion but it would have been worse had I gone and indeed I was banned from church attendance when I commented, rolled my eyes, through a funeral. One of our kids took all of this in stride and told me she didn’t get the words but enjoyed pulling the rope that rang the church bells, as the pastor on the island let them do once. Later she would claim that Christmas was about family and not Jesus–I still don’t know what to say about that.
On the island, when family came, church was a social event with a lot of attention paid to having a good time. Fearing they would catch a bad meme I did argue and have to reveal my distaste. But that is it also. We were not afraid to argue in front of the kids. The kids knew we did not agree on many things. They knew we were sometimes on the edge of staying together. But they also knew when we cared for each other, forgave each other, and healed each other. The transparency of the relationship allowed them both the diversity and the rhetoric.
As the kids got older we talked more about informal logic. “That’s a straw man argument.” “That’s an ad hominem argument.” “Just because it is a valid argument doesn’t make it true; a syllogism is…” “Science means making observations and then checking your results with others.” We would do experiments. Cooking experiments are always fun and who cares if the goop fails?
Many things I don’t win but then critical thinking isn’t about arriving at the same conclusion. We might all agree that global warming is happening and man made but one kid is a vegetarian and the others aren’t. One kid thinks that saving woman and children first in a Titanic situation is right while another says save the adults. What this is all about is living a lifestyle of investigation, support, and corroboration, and not making obvious mistakes.
When the kids began real school as had to happen when our lifestyle changed they quickly excelled in this new environment with different opinions of it. But they were all able to succeed. They also can support their opinions, reasonably. Whatever they will do I am confident that it will be as bias free and as rational as one can hope for humans.
This style of thinking or philosophy holds true at all levels. When I argued with a Catholic about whether the pope was anti-education I worked hard to not let the argument wander to issues of evidence which usually get lost to vapor or to faith which is another dead end. I didn’t win her over but I did hopefully convince her that I wasn’t just making a random, stupid, and malicious statement.
Jim Newman, bright and well