Cognition, Intelligence and Language Critical Thinking Teaching Tools

Ep 187: I’d Like to Have an Argument Please (critical thinking part 3)

How would you like to have an argument? Turns out that learning how to have a good argument might just be the best way to learn to think critically. In this episode I discuss a neat piece of research in which 7 and 8 year olds are taught how to effectively argue. And they do a darn good job of it as it turns out. Perhaps this is the way to teach our young people critical thinking: give them some great books to read – like The Giving Tree – and have them discuss what they think about it. The key ingredient: making sure that they fully understand the point of view of the other person. This’ll be fun. I promise. Especially since I’ve got a couple funny clips from Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch to help move things along.


Resources on Critical Thinking

    • Walker, C. M., Wartenberg T. E., & Winner E. (2012). Engagement in Philosophical Dialogue Facilitates Children’s Reasoning About Subjectivity. Developmental Psychology. Online First Publication (doi: 10.1037/a0029870).
    • “Mondokio is an innovative educational tool that enables students to consider multiple perspectives on the same news topic and have real-time communication with students all over the world. Mondokio (meaning “world eye” in Italian) takes a topic, identifies news articles from major media outlets all over the world, and translates them from 12 languages into English. To view these articles, click on a topic’s image.”
    • This video by Dan Cohen suggests a new way that we might approach the argumentation process.
  • The program used by the researchers to encourage dialogic inquiry is called “Teaching Children Philosophy” (Wartenberg, 2009) – “…one of several Philosophy for Children (P4C) programs designed to teach elementary school children to engage in philosophical discussion about children’s literature.”

…children not only improved in their ability to provide evidence for their own perspective but also improved in their ability to generate compelling arguments for the opposing view…children who received the philosophy training demonstrated a striking shift from a general unwillingness to entertain multiple perspectives to accepting that people could in fact hold opposing perspectives. – Walker et al. (2012)

The children’s books used in the Walker et. al study were: I Know the Moon, The Giving Tree 40th Anniversary Edition, Let’s Make Rabbits and Emily’s Art

    • Pen Pal News is the site I mentioned in this episode where children from very different backgrounds learn to argue constructively. Really worth checking out if you’re into critical thinking and children’s education.
    • Kuhn, D., & Crowell, A. (2011). Dialogic argumentation as a vehicle for developing young adolescents’ thinking. Psychological Science, 22, 545–552. doi:10.1177/0956797611402512
    • Kuhn, D., Iordanou, K., Pease, M., & Wirkala, C. (2008). Beyond control of variables: What needs to develop to achieve skilled scientific think- ing? Cognitive Development, 23, 435– 451. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2008 .09.006
    • Wartenberg, T. (2009). Big ideas for little kids: Teaching philosophy through children’s literature. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
  • Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511571350



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  1. Avatar

    AJ Jack

    January 22, 2013

    Last time they came to my place I was reading a psychology book (I think it was Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect) and a lot of the evidence they gave pointing to the end of days was just a manifestation of normal psychological principles (crowd effect, confirmation bias, availability heuristic etc) all of which were covered in the book. Since they had left me a book to read on their previous visit (using wildly outdated science to ‘prove’ creation), I said I would be happy for them to come again as long as they read my book (the psych book) before they came back. Unfortunately I never saw them again.

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    January 22, 2013

    Yes, it is lively, but respectful exchange of ideas. They will only spend 30 minutes with an non-believer when they sense diminishing returns and leave. I always offer them food, water, coffee, etc.

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    AJ Jack

    January 22, 2013

    Hey Nick, I’d love to be a fly on the wall at your place when the JWs come knocking. 🙂

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    January 22, 2013

    To start, I must say two things: 1, this was fun for me even if you never even read this. 2, I am sorry that I implied that being a critical thinker is all-or-none. I don’t believe that. I am sure I have beliefs that I have not examined critically–I try to have as few as possible, but we are human.

    To answer your question: One is free to believe as they wish. I was not intending to deny anybody that right. But, let’s frame this conversation away from religion just for four sentences to look at the issue another way:

    People are free to believe that homeopathic preparations will help them with their cancer when traditional medicine does not work. They may simply appeal to “well, you never know, we don’t know everything.” However, that does not make the homeopathic pills anymore likely to work (well outside of placebo of course). Wanting something to be true–does not make it true.

    My wife is a liberal Christian (she is also a Ph.D in Psychology–so am I–neither of us are in Clinical Psychology). My wife is a very intelligent and is a critical thinker of the highest order–except when it comes to Christianity. AGAIN, I am NOT saying that one cannot critically think about a god or gods and be a theist. I believe the arguments for theism do not hold water, but I believe critical thought can lead to incorrect decisions at times (errors in the process, confirmation bias, etc). That is, critical thought can lead to erroneous conclusions just as scientific reasoning can. However, overall, from my understanding, critical thought gets people to the true state of nature (or closer) over the long haul–like science (there can be a long debate about the nature of scientific progress–I bet we have both read Thomas Kuhn). So, my position is that while some theists try to create rational arguments for the existence of god, my wife–for instance–suspends her critical thinking about the issue of Christianity. This is not interpretation–those are her words. She will state, “critical thought is important, but I just feel God.” When people are aware that they believe things for non-rational (the word irrational makes people uncomfortable), we can no longer have a conversation about that truth claim because only on rational grounds can you provide a framework to come to an intellectual consensus. For example, you may feel the presence of God, I do not–only through critical thought, rational argument, and evidence can we establish the truth of the claim without collapsing into an intellectual relativism.

    Personally, when people tell me they believe something because they want to or because they “feel it.” I have two choices: accept the conversation is not going to be a fruitful one (for the reasons mentioned above), or attempt to get into a epistemological debate about the merits of a belief based on feeling. Largely, I try to have these conversations unless I feel welcomed (and preferably) when someone else brings them up. I love to think and argue about these things, but it can really bother people. Hope my comments here are not upsetting. Religion and faith are really tangental to the greater discussion here of epistemology, feeling, and critical thought. Finally, thanks for giving me something to do while I take a break between my Cognitive and Experimental Psych class–I probably should have done some work but this was more fun. Best, Nick

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    January 22, 2013

    Why can’t I be a critical thinker most of the time and then at certain particularly difficult times also believe that there might – just might – exist forces in the world that I don’t understand?

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    January 22, 2013

    You defined faith as believing in something you cannot see, hear, or have evidence for. By the definition you provided, faith is the polar opposite to critical thinking. You defined faith as believing something without evidence; thus, to believe something on faith, one must not apply critical thinking–a process that demands a rational basis for belief. Faith, as you defined it, is not a different way of knowing the world, but is literally the failure to apply critical thinking. It really is just believing something because you want to or feel you need to. You are correct in stating that just because a brillant scientist might call out to the unknown and appeal to superstition in his or her hour of need does NOT invalidate the process of critical thinking, but also (not mentioned in the episode) such an event does NOT provide “faith” any intellectual legitimacy. Finally, this is not an attack on theism per se. That is, some apologists try to argue, or use evidence, to support their theistic claims. Although, personally, I find such arguments wanting, an apologists that tries to argue for the existence of gods, does NOT have the same type of belief that you labeled “faith.” Thus, a theist can be a critical thinker, but it is not possible to “just believe” things and call yourself a critical thinker.

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    January 22, 2013

    Dr. Vernon McGee always says faith (belief) is not a leap in the dark.
    I definitely think the two are not mutually exclusive (perhaps not exclusive at all?)

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    January 22, 2013

    Thanks AJ. Definitely pick up Thank You For Arguing – great book. And thanks for the note about my links not opening in a separate window. I keep forgetting to add the target=”_blank” to my URLs. I’ll go back and do that for this and other episodes. Appreciate the feedback on that. And yes, we are a strange country. If only we could have more reasonable discussions….

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    January 22, 2013

    Hi Michael,
    Another great episode. Coming from a country that is nowhere near as religious as the US I am always puzzled by the importance/respect (not the right words) given to the ability to fervently believe in something in the absence of evidence or proof. Particularly when one such argument (the existence of God) is given more credence than an argument with the same level of proof (the existence of the Flying Spagetti Monster).
    Jay Heinrichs book looks interesting. I may have to add it to my growing reading list.
    One suggestion for the site. For links to other pages, you might consider having them open in a separate tab or window. Today I was listening on line and clicked on one of the links. It immediately took me to the other page, closing the main page and therefore shutting down the podcast. I them had to go back and find my place in the podcast. (I subsequently downloaded it and listened off line while still browsing). There is probably a case for doing it either way, but thought I’d give you some feedback.

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