Teach kids how (not what) to think.

Fallacies as an introduction to critical reasoning

After Election Day in ninth grade, my social studies teacher refused to tell the class who she voted for, stating that she was a private citizen. To me at the time, it felt like a cop-out, like she just didn’t want to have a conversation. Teachers may worry about repercussions from “indoctrinating” students—as well they should—but there’s quite a distance between indoctrination and teaching students how to discuss difficult topics. I would have liked to hear the reasoning behind my teacher’s views, so long as she made the room a safe space for all to express and question their own ideas.

Decades later, I’m convinced that one of school’s most important functions in a democratic society is developing kids’ capacity to participate in discussions where there is not one right answer. After facilitating hundreds of conversations on controversial topics with high school students, I know that it requires patience, practice, and coaching for teachers—but it’s a surefire means for school to feel relevant, bridging the artificial chasm to “the real world.” 

How to begin? Sometimes it’s easiest (and most fun) to start with how reasoning can go wrong. As a high school teacher, I liked to use logical fallacies—common patterns in reasoning that are liable to lead to error—to invite students to consider more critically the reason-giving behavior that they encounter (and use) every day. Students quickly realize, for example, that almost everybody began attempting the appeal to popularity (a.k.a. bandwagon) at a very early age: “Mom, all the other kids __________. Why can’t I?” Students would soon begin reporting examples of fallacies they identified in advertising, on the news, and in conversations with friends and family. We would consider what made the reasoning problematic, and whether a stronger case could be made.  

In 2012, Australian strategist Jesse Richardson decided to apply his advertising and design skills to this problem, developing an elegant website that presents two dozen common logical fallacies. Each fallacy includes a concise definition and example, and all 24 are available in poster format for free download (or $20 print version). His TEDx talk provides how he came to value this project, and where it’s headed.

Imagine what would be possible if every school provided teachers and students common language to approach critical reasoning …

[Article copyright 2016 by Peter Horn, Ed.D. Image from Bellator Christi WordPress.]

Peter Horn