Thursday, May 1, 2014

Three books for critical thinking

I have many reasons for thinking my children are better off learning at home than at school. One of these is that schools are notoriously poor at fostering critical thinking. Critical thinking is hard to assess with multiple-choice tests, and finding time to nurture it may seem impossible to those charged with teaching kindergarten students to identify pronouns, or with keeping kids from walking on the wrong color square in the hallway.

As Chris Liebig at A Blog About School has written, "Real critical thinking always involves challenging someone's authority--not an easy skill to teach when you're otherwise busy sending the constant message of 'do as we say and don't talk back.'"

Adults who agree that critical thinking is important might be interested in three books, appropriate for older children, that embody the spirit of critical thinking. These books also make useful resources for those trying to figure out how to expose children to religion without indoctrinating them.
Mapping a Changing World by Yvette La Pierre
Essentially a history of maps, Mapping a Changing World is packed with facts about cartography across time and cultures. Some of its finest passages, however, are more philosophical in nature, raising important questions about how we know what we know, why we tend to mythologize to fill in gaps in our knowledge, and what happens when we make decisions based on incorrect maps.
Describing the oldest known map of the world, a fragment of a Babylonian clay tablet dating to 500 B.C., La Pierre says, "You'll notice when you look at the tablet that Babylon is in the center of the world. Early mapmakers commonly put themselves in the center of the universe, just as we can be self-centered in our view of place today." Even children are capable of heeding this warning. 
You Can't Read This: Forbidden Books, Lost Writing, Mistranslations & Codes by Val Ross
Any of these eighteen stories about reading is fascinating on its own, and collectively they illustrate the complex relationship between literacy and power. Recurring themes include censorship, legal prohibitions against reading, reading as tool of and threat to religious authority, and the struggle to decode unknown languages. The chapter on girls in Afghanistan is dated (because of the Taliban's resurgence) but still likely to help children understand the precarious nature of rights.
This is another book whose strength lies in the questions it poses. Ross asks, "[A] language that expresses the thoughts of one culture may lack words that are vital to another. In that case, how can the translation ever be accurate?" and "Sooner or later, we come across a book that we decide we should not read because we think it is false or dangerous. But do we have the right to make that decision for other people?"
The Brick Bible: The Complete Set by Brendan Scott Powell
It may surprise some to learn that Powell's The Brick Bible has both a strong atheist and a strong fundamentalist Christian following. Powell brings the books of the Bible to life in an easy-to-read translation of his own, illustrated with some of the most imaginative Lego builds ever seen. The book of Revelation is just . . . well, really something. 
From a critical thinking standpoint, Powell's book is better than the typical children's Bible because it doesn't edit out the stuff that makes Yahweh and Jesus seem a little nuts--thus the atheist appeal. And some fundamentalists don't see a problem with this (presumably because they are okay with God's vengeful side), and flood Powell's inbox with requests to reproduce pages from The Brick Bible for use in Sunday School classes. Also, Jesus isn't the implausibly light-skinned, blue-eyed guy from the typical children's Bible. He's a bright yellow Lego mini-figure.
While some of the most graphic passages have been cut from the print version of The Brick Bible (they are available at Powell's website, with a warning about mature content), there is still plenty here to give children a broader exposure to the Christian text than they are likely to get in most Sunday School classes. And while parents will need to take into consideration the age, temperaments, and existing knowledge of their children, they are likely to find that the crucifixion of Jesus on a plastic Lego cross isn't likely to inspire Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ-style nightmares.
Because I believe that children should be able to choose their own reading material (with parents available to provide assistance when it's wanted), I don't recommend assigning or even pressing kids to read these books. What I have done with the first two is to read them myself, then refer to passages or illustrations from the books when it seemed appropriate. For example, my daughter recently became interested in Helen Keller and sign language, and when she asked for help locating some more sign language videos I casually mentioned that the Ross book has a chapter about how Braille was developed. She replied that of course she was interested! Similarly, she has been learning about the Holocaust, so I referred her to several maps in La Pierre's book that trace the changing national boundaries in Europe from just before World War I to the present.

These are the kinds of books that don't have to be read in one sitting. And I know from past experience that once my children are exposed to books in our house, they tend to search them out later when seeking information.

When it came to The Brick Bible, I engaged in what Sandra Dodd calls "strewing." In other words, I left the books on the coffee table, where they were eventually discovered.