Raising Critical Thinkers | Julie Bogart

Raising Critical Thinkers

The following is an excerpt from Raising Critical Thinkers by Julie Bogart. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

I knelt next to boxes of opened letters addressed to my grandparents scattered on the carpet in the living room. My two aunts and I paged through each one to determine which to keep and which to toss. My beloved Bapa had died. His wife survived him, but she suffered from dementia.

I popped open the top of a more recent box of letters. These had been written within the last year. No stamps. I stripped the vanilla pages from their unsealed envelopes to discover love letters penned by my grandfather to his wife of sixty plus years. Eva had lost the ability to speak coherently and had forgotten her own name. My heart squeezed, imagining my grandfather writing to the woman he had loved for decades, willing her to understand, knowing she couldn’t read a word. My Bapa’s beautiful penmanship curled into paragraphs of memory.

He wrote, “Eva, remember when we climbed the little hilltop together, where I first made love to you?”

My jaw dropped. My Catholic grandfather—talking about his 1930s love affair with my grandmother before they were married. I stopped my two aunts from their estate duties. “June, Shevawn, listen to this!”

I read the paragraph aloud, and the much younger of my two aunts, Shevawn, whooped, declaring, “And they lectured me about the sanctity of my virginity before marriage! What’s up with that?”

My other, more serious and older aunt, a professor of ethics and religion and a former nun, immediately capped our howling laughter. “That can’t mean what you think it means!” She avoided saying the words. I did not: “You mean sex? Come on, June! Imagine Eva, Phil? Taking a roll in the hay on the hill where they first declared their love for each other? It’s romantic! Incredible!” I teased her to lighten the mood.

She wasn’t amused, but Shevawn laughed louder. After a moment, June leaked a small smile, considering the torrid possibility of her parents having sex before marriage, and gently told us to calm down, that we had work to do. She had allowed herself the possibility of my interpretation— a moment of amusement—but she would not be swayed from her task.

I enjoyed this impromptu sitcom moment. I knew the complexity of the ideas in conflict. In the 1930s, to “make love” to someone meant to put the moves on the woman of your dreams. It didn’t mean to have sex, the way it does today. But this letter had landed us in trickier territory. My Bapa hadn’t written this note in 1937. He’d written it in 1997. He referenced an experience from the 1930s, yet recorded it in the full light of the late- twentieth century. Certainly, he knew the changing times and the way sexual innuendo had altered the meaning of those two words. Yet perhaps he was calling back to a previous meaning deliberately. Did he use that old-time language to jar his wife’s confused mind into recalling a sweeter period of her life? Or was he expressing nostalgia for his own memories using the idiom of that day? Or had we stumbled on a deathbed revelation—a confession—a scandal and secret he had kept until his dying day—that he and Eva, the lifelong Catholics, had been lovers before they were married?

My aunt June wanted her parents to be good Catholics for their entire lives. My younger aunt Shevawn wanted them to be rebels, revealing a long-hidden willingness to put their own values ahead of church doctrine. Each of these interpretations matched the sisters’ personalities and had less to do with my grandparents than the story my aunts wanted to tell themselves about their parents. Later that weekend, I ribbed my mother that her Catholic parents may have had sex before marriage after all. She chuckled and dismissed the notion as ridiculous. Her memory of growing up Catholic with these parents shaped her beliefs—no late- in- life letter could alter what she knew about her parents.

You’re probably wondering: Who was right? That’s the essence of critical thought right there. We take data, experiences, language, memories, and beliefs and mix them together to form opinions. In this case, my family never agreed on the correct connotation of the “making love” idiom as written in the letter. My Bapa had passed on. Whatever the meaning, it had died with him. For me, the love letter remains a delicious enigma—one of those delightful paradoxes of textual interpretation that reminds me that critical thinking doesn’t always lead to airtight conclusions.

The ability to evaluate evidence, to notice bias as it kicks into gear, to consider a variety of perspectives (even if they make you uncomfortable), and then to render a possible verdict—what you believe to be true, for now—is the heart of the critical thinking task. It’s a tall order and really tough to do with your own family because your childhood beliefs are often the most familiar and undetected.

Critical thinking is more than critiquing someone else’s ideas. It’s the ability to question your own, too. In publishing, we have an expression: “Content is king.” In academics, I like another motto: “Context is everything.” What you know, how you know it, why you know it, what you don’t know, why you don’t know—these invisible factors shape how we understand every subject under the sun. In this book we’re going to explore how your kids make meaning for themselves and how to improve the quality of those assessments. Each day, whether they’re aware of it or not, kids evaluate evidence and form beliefs. They’ll think again and discard some of those same beliefs years later. How they think will be responsible for their well-cultivated religious or nonreligious viewpoints. They’ll arrive at political positions one year and overturn outdated ones years later for reasons they value. In truth, we all use various critical thinking tools to make all kinds of decisions. We even use critical thinking to order off a menu! We decide which items will hit the spot using personal criteria. How hungry am I? What’s in season? Will this meal make me use my hands (on a first date, no thank you!)?

Naturally, some contexts for critical thinking are low stakes. You can order a meal, dislike the taste, and regret your choice without any other negative consequence. Other judgments we make have lasting implications that impact other people, not just ourselves. For example, the decision to go to war has vast consequences for all people involved and for years to come. To make a quality judgment, the thinking must be deep, rich, sober, and purposeful. That’s why raising skillful critical thinkers is essential—how our children think will create the world they share.

Have you ever wondered what’s going on in your children’s minds after you read, study, watch a movie, teach a math process, or play a video game with them? Maybe you wonder why a sister taunts her brother, unable to imagine the distress she’s causing. Perhaps your student declares a solution to a problem that seems monstrous to you. You may notice that a teenager appears “obsessed” with a video game, and you draw the worrying conclusion that that teen loves violence—but can you be sure? How do we understand the meaning kids make for themselves? How do we help them reason more effectively and compassionately?

This book is about raising critical thinkers—in today’s global, digital environment. Today’s kids are swimming in a sea of declarations. Ranting online has the appearance of confident truth. Most parents want to protect their kids from misinformation. What happens when an unsupervised child stumbles on a logical presentation of facts for a perspective that contradicts the family beliefs? You might be wondering, as I did while raising my kids: Is it more dangerous to read the opposing view or to be protected from it?

In my first book, The Brave Learner, I looked at the power of environmental and emotional context to aid learning—real-life contexts, like adding the surprise of cookies and tea to the study of poetry, providing kind collaboration to a struggling learner. In this book, I want to move the furniture around in our minds—how do we set the table to generate fresh insight rather than recycle what’s been taught? Is it possible to sustain “childlike wonder” into adulthood, or does it get lost in that journey to maturity? How do we help kids discover more about the subjects they study, not just what standardized tests require our children to demonstrate? How do we activate our children’s imaginations for subjects like history or the social sciences, and even math and science? What do we do about the endless sea of information on the internet? Can kids be critical thinkers about films, novels, and video games they love, too? In other words, how can we lead our learners to think more deeply, thoughtfully, and imaginatively about everything in their world?

If we give students the tools of inquiry, however, we have to be prepared for the results. They’ll ask hard- to- hear, provocative questions. They’ll jump in and use technology and social media apps without having considered their purpose or source. They’ll adopt viewpoints that challenge your well-settled ones. It can be jarring to allow kids the leeway to be forthright about how they generate meaning. Hang tough, however. The electric truth is that critical thinkers become versatile readers, skilled writers, and consequential adults. They’re engaged students in and out of the classroom. They innovate, they challenge the status quo, they vote and volunteer, and they make thoughtful contributions to the places where they work. They find powerful new ways to acquire the skills they need to thrive; they grow healthy families; and they become delightful, responsible adults. To be a critical thinker is to be a person with insight, empathy, humility, self-awareness, mental acuity, and intellectual aliveness. Truly, raising critical thinkers is the most exciting and important work we can do as parents and educators.

I’ve spent the last three decades working with all kinds of young thinkers. I home-educated my five children for seventeen years, I built a company with a team of skilled professionals that has coached thousands of students of all ages to think and write well, and I’ve taught incoming freshmen at Xavier University. In all those years of teaching, what shines most brightly is the incredible high students get when they experience an epiphany of insight. They’re startled by their own brilliance when they generate fresh perspectives.

I’ve distilled my favorite lessons from those years of investment into this book—both philosophy and practice. In part 1, “What Is a Critical Thinker?” I lay the groundwork for how any of us forms a worldview. How can we teach our kids to differentiate bias from belief or facts from interpretations? Where do well-formed opinions come from, and on what basis do we hold them? How do school experiences and internet searches influence how our kids think? What role does their identity play in how they learn? In most chapters, I include activities to try with the whole family.

In part 2, “Read, Experience, Encounter: A Real Education,” I explore the three key ways any of us learns. I challenge the idea that reading is enough—that a well-read person is automatically a well-educated one. We take a look at how digital life is altering our brains and our kids’ ability to read closely and deeply. I provide strategies for how to recapture that depth, too. Then I take a look at the kinds of practical experiences and encounters with people that lead to breakthrough insights and a more thoughtful relationship to any subject they study or any interest they pursue.

Part 3, “The Rhetorical Imagination,” is the big kahuna! Once your students understand how they build their worldviews and know how to investigate a topic deeply, they’re ready to expand how many points of view they can examine at once. They will have entered the stage of development I call the “rhetorical imagination”—the capacity to think critically and imaginatively. In this section, I offer you tools to help your students interpret texts and to compare and contrast more than one viewpoint. Then I show you how to help your emerging young adults cope with the destabilization of their habits of thought. I also provide guidance to you, the parent, for how to navigate those turbulent waters, particularly when you have teens who are dead set on challenging your cherished ideals. Believe it or not, this is an essential stage of development for them. Let’s embrace it and learn to do it well.

Each chapter builds on the previous one, so reading in order is advised. That said, you’ll come back to this book. The practices can be used again and again, and you may notice that you need different chapters during different seasons of your child’s life.

In short, this book is for you if you’ve asked What’s the point of all this education? There’s got to be more than passing tests and getting into college. It’s especially for you if you want your children to have a big, juicy, insightful educational experience in all the subjects and beyond. You have the chance to raise good people who contribute to the well- being of one another and bring a vibrant creativity to their thinking processes. It’s an exciting journey, and you get to be a part of it! Let’s get started.

Praise for Raising Critical Thinkers

“In a world where too many people think they know what isn’t so, there are few skills more vital than critical thinking and rethinking. This is the guide parents need to teach their kids to become thoughtful consumers of information.”
Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again

“Julie Bogart is a brilliant educator who’s written a wonderful book that shows us how to nurture children’s ability to think critically and carefully. Each chapter offers dozens of questions, lessons, and exercises for helping learners understand their biases, evaluate the sources from which they get information, and consider other perspectives. These tools can enable students from kindergarten through high school to experience the joys of discovery and insight, and they can help young people grow into compassionate adults who want to make a positive contribution to their world. Read this book and use it. Your children and students will thank you, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself, too!”
William Stixrud, PhD, bestselling coauthor of The Self-Driven Child

“There is no one I know whose wise counsel I would trust more than Julie Bogart when it comes to teaching our children (and ourselves!) how to think. Critical thinking has never been more important, and Julie arrived just when we needed her. This book is a must for anyone who wants to raise children to be thoughtful, kind, and independent.”
Sharon McMahon, creator of the award-winning podcast Here’s Where It Gets Interesting

Raising Critical Thinkers is a must-read for parents and teachers. It speaks to the deep need for raising and educating children (both at home and in the classroom) to do much more than accept, memorize, and restate. Julie masterfully provides the tools to guide children in growing the ability to think–while also challenging readers to reflect on their own critical-thinking skills in the process. It is a gold mine of learning for all.”
Susie Allison, creator of Busy Toddler and author of Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting

Raising Critical Thinkers encourages us to grow courageous children who respect evolving beliefs, value intellectual honesty, and consider context as they read and experience the world. The journey I took with this book was thought-provoking, and every chapter expanded my parenting priorities in a glorious way.”
Amber O’Neal Johnston, author of A Place to Belong

“Critical thinking is not merely a test of fact vs. fiction. In this timely and actionable primer, Julie Bogart teaches us how imagination, self-awareness, empathy, and introspection make true critical thinking possible. These are crucial lessons for children and parents alike.”
Ximena Vengoechea, author of Listen Like You Mean It

“We live in an era when critical thinking is more important than ever–a world inundated with bewildering information, contradictory misinformation, and a zillion hot takes. In Raising Critical Thinkers, Julie Bogart provides a passionate, compassionate exploration of what critical thinking is and how to hone this vital skill set in our children–and ourselves. This is a brainy, practical, encouraging guidebook, written with Julie’s signature clarity and common sense. I can’t wait to share it with my kids.”
Melissa Wiley, author of The Nerviest Girl in the World

About the Author

Julie BogartJulie Bogart is the creator of the award-winning, innovative Brave Writer program, teaching writing and language arts to thousands of families for over twenty years. She is the founder of Brave Learner Home, which supports homeschooling parents through coaching and teaching, and the host of the popular Brave Writer podcast. Bogart holds a BA from UCLA and an MA from Xavier University, where she’s worked as an adjunct professor. Her five adult kids were homeschooled for seventeen years. Bogart is also the author of The Brave Learner.

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