How to get kids to think critically

By Phil Plait | March 3, 2012 7:00 am

Via io9 I saw a wonderfully-done and highly engaging series of short videos teaching kids the basics of critical thinking. Each one is great, with good pacing and solid info that teenagers can use to sort fact from fiction.

Here’s part 1:

And here are the others: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

These were writtern by Mike McRae and James Hutson, who’ve both been around the skeptical community for a while now. Congrats to them for putting these together!

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Comments (22)

Links to this Post

  1. Critical thinking for kids | The Thinker | March 6, 2012
  1. Carol

    It is pretty condescending and of course incorrect (the brain is relatively simple/thinking is hard, honestly!) However s does make good points

  2. Chris

    Actually in some ways the universe is simpler than the human brain. You can completely describe a black hole by mass, charge and angular momentum. Even a star is simple in its function. Solar systems and atoms can be described by a few simple equations. Meanwhile with the brain we are only beginning to scratch the surface what each part does and how it interacts. As I’ve heard from many people, “Rocket science is easy, biology is hard!”

  3. Diversity is admission for reason of disqualification. Equal Opportunity is jobs given to people who cannot do them. CULTURE WILL NEVER BOW TO SOCIETY!

    Science 335(6068) 544 (2012) “Ready, Steady, Compete”

    The facile way to end competence is to reward incompetence. Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression. 45 years of non-discrimination are in their third recursion: those who cannot do, those who cannot teach, those who cannot administer. Paradise is within reach.

  4. Susan B.

    I must say I object to the claim that logic is “like maths, only it can deal with more than numbers.” Just what do they think mathematicians do all day?

    Apart from that, nice video! Off to watch the others…

  5. Chris

    Other Chris:

    “Rocket science is easy, biology is hard!”

    This is why I have stopped commenting here. There is this other “Chris” who says the exact same stuff I would. Why make it confusing?

    I need to show these videos to my youngest who used the Skeptic’s dictionary as a starting source to write an anthology essay on “magical thinking.” When she came out of the den she was raging mad about psychic detectives.

    Chris, who used to be an aerospace engineer (yes, I did some rocket science!), now a stay at home mom dealing with a medically complicated child, plus two others. Which is why you usually see me at Respectful Insolence.

  6. Harry of Auxtraylya

    teach kids to be literate. it encourages science and art 😀

  7. I just Stumbled on these like 2 days ago. I thought they were pretty well done for as short as they are. I know a few adults who could use the learning watching these might cause.

  8. Peter Eldergill


    What on earth are you on about?

    Cool videos. Nicely done


  9. Jelle

    These videos are good for basically everyone, not just kids

  10. Daniel J. Andrews

    They do seem a bit advanced for many kids (12 and under). However, probably at the right level for many teens and adults.

  11. frankenstein monster

    @3 Uncle Al, can you tell us the meaning of your chants ?
    or are they supposed to be not chants, but factual statements ?
    But if that is the case, we are talking about science right now,so, can you support your claims with at least minimal evidence ?

  12. Al Cibiades

    Mandatory licensing for public commenting. Serious tests for knowledge, ability to deal with crises, and ability to think outside the box for anyone in administrative capacity, ie school teachers, principals, politicians, et alia.
    The internet has given far too ‘free rein’ to anyone with an opinion and a posting to become a pundit.
    The Colt ‘Peacemaker’ did not bring peace and it was not an equalizer – it was a weapon of intimidation and control, much as the internet is becoming.

  13. Wzrd1

    @12 Al Cibiades, so you would require a license for freedom of expression, regardless of the veracity, sanity, truth, falsehood, insanity or inanity of it? Thereby starting at the root of our rights and our amendments for the undermining of all? You’d wish to turn the “Bill of Rights” into a “Bill of Optionals”?
    I far prefer the wise words: “I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say so.”

    @Chris 1 and 2 (would the plural be Chrisis?) 😉
    Rocket science is easy, rocket engineering is hard, which explains why so may STILL blow up on the way to orbit. Biology is simply imponderable, for, as any good engineer will tell you: “Too many moving parts, it’ll NEVER work.” 😉
    Of course, if you ever computed a complex, interacting orbit, you’d regret doing so and demand a good program to be made to do so (good thing there are now)! 😀

    As for the videos, not bad. Rather a lot like the curriculum that the Teaching Tolerance espouses, critical thinking applied to dispersal of prejudicial notions in students.

  14. Nigel Epworth Plumeridge II

    @ Chris “Actually in some ways the universe is simpler than the human brain.

    What about the ninety something percent of the universe that scientists don’t understand? The combination of all things in the universe are probably more complicated than our brains, it would be a little self-centered to think otherwise.

    I wish the animation was a little smoother, but the series altogether was an excellent thing to do. I’ll be showing my little brother this as soon as I can.

  15. Gary Ansorge

    13. Wzrd1

    “critical thinking applied to dispersal of prejudicial notions in students”

    Oh, oh. Better hide that comment or the righties will get on your case,,,

    Don’t worry about Uncle Al,,,he’s really into Heinlein,,,(genetic superman syndrome)

    Gary 7

    PS to Uncle Al,,,you really ought to read this,,,about Neanderthal predation and it’s affect upon our evolution,,,and near extinction,,,

  16. Chris2


    Of course, if you ever computed a complex, interacting orbit, you’d regret doing so and demand a good program to be made to do so (good thing there are now)!

    Nah, only did the single orbit stuff in one beginning astro class. What was nasty was doing the power required/powered available curves for a Beech D-18 using various hand created tables and graphs, something that when I came back for grad school just a year later was computerized. Mostly did structural dynamics, noise analysis, plus some magnetic signature studies for a missile program. Then escaped to an airplane program (much better boss).

    Though, at least the mathematics to that can approximate much of the systems I worked with Because I could reduce the desired degrees of freedom to the pertinent structures to get the needed eigenvectors and eigenvalues, with the appropriate mechanical systems interactions for the multiple nonlinear second order differential equations.

    That was all much simpler than learning what happens in the brain as my new baby had seizures, the ins and outs of speech and language disorders, and now the problems with a genetic disorder that has caused abnormal heart muscle growth that needs surgery. I’ve learned much in many doctor’s offices, therapy waiting rooms and the like.

    Trust me, engineering was much simpler than having a kid with multiple medical issues. I can’t pick choose which degrees of freedom to simplify the biology.

  17. Crud, like any good engineer my use of English is hampered… I meant: I cannot pick and choose which degrees of freedom I can just use in biology. It is a metaphor that the realities of biology are now taking over our lives. Our next “vacation” is going to another state to get surgery for our son. But we want it to happen after the genetic tests are in to see if our other two kids have the same disorder, but that is not certain. Because it is complicated.

    Trust me, rocket science is much less complicated than biology.

    I just wish the Mayo Clinic would call with the dates so I can see if I can get to TAM2012. Rats! I really want to bring my daughter.

    (A bit more at detail at )

  18. Chris2

    Oh, sorry, I included a link so my comment went into moderation.

    Just to let you know that I used to be intelligent, but then I had kids. And a hint on what airplane I actually ended up at after dealing with a horrible boss on the missile basing group:
    I had model of a quetzalcoatl northropi hanging over my desk. Only one person in five years asked me if it was a security risk. That is all you are going to get, because I will neither confirm nor deny.

    Needless to say, looking at the cardiac surgery paper I have found from Google is scary. Though I did find resources though the university medical school library to help me, and that there are actually folks in the hospital to help me find information (retired medical librarians actually spend time helping families in the hospital’s resource center about four hours per day).

    As a parent with a child who has scary medical issues, it is easy to see how scalawags can take advantage of vulnerable people. Le sigh.

  19. Caleb Jones

    Some ideas to help kids think critically:

    1) Hone your own critical thinking skills.
    You can’t teach what you don’t know.

    2) Don’t squelch their natural curiosity.
    Kids are naturally curious and will positively respond when you support what they are curious about. Note, different kids will be passionate/curious about different things.

    3) If you don’t know the answer to their question don’t make something up, use it as an opportunity to learn something together.
    Don’t be afraid to answer, “I don’t know.” Some of my fondest memories are from when my father took time to explain my why’s even the deep philosophical ones.

    4) Teach them the difference between critical thinking and cynical thinking.
    Critical thinking should lead you to hope or to an idea of what positive action you can take. It is an enabling process. Cynical thinking removes hope or leads to negativity. Cynical thinking is a disabling process. Often people confuse the two since they start off similar, but they lead you in opposite directions. The world needs more critical thinkers, NOT cynical thinkers.

  20. CR

    A decent series of videos that I shall show to all of my family members (kids AND spouse).

    When I was my childrens’ age, critical thinking was taught as a course at my elementary school, and there were ‘gifted and talented’ programs for advanced students to do extra work when the standard curriculum didn’t challenge such students enough. Granted, at that age, we viewed the extra work as, well, extra work, and disliked it. On the other hand, the teachers attempted to make it interesting/creative (not just ‘busy’ work) so that we would actually DO the work. Overall, we had fun and learned a thing or two, not only about what we were studying, but about how to study. (Imagine that!)

    Caleb Jones (@19)
    I agree completely with what you’ve said here! In today’s modern society of absolutes like ‘yes or no,’ ‘black or white,’ ‘an up or down vote’ and so on, too many people forget that in reality, there aren’t always absolutes and that it’s OK to not know everything… that learning is part of how we grow as individuals and as groups. I especially like your distinction in point #4, something we should all take care to heed.

  21. Matt B.

    Neat. I also liked the video that came up afterward titled “Is America This Stupid?” in which Rachel Maddow points out that the S.Dak. legislature thinks there might be astrological reasons why global warming isn’t real.


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