Teaching rationality to kids?

by chaosmage1 min read16th Oct 201323 comments

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Parenting
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I'm finally getting around to reading "Thinking, Fast and Slow". Much of it I had already learned on LW and elsewhere. Maybe that's why my strongest impression from the book is how accessible it is. Simple sentences, clear and vivid examples, easy-to-follow exercises, a remarkable lack of references to topics not explained right away.

I caught myself thinking "This is a book I should have read as a kid". In my first language, I think I could have managed it as early as 11 years old. Since measured IQ is strongly influenced by habits of thinking and cognitive returns can be reinvested, I'm sure I would be smarter now if I had.

So I have decided to buy a stack of these books and give them to kids on their, say, 12th birthdays. Then maybe Dan Dennett's "Intuition Pumps" a year later - and HPMOR a year after that? I would like to see more suggestions from you guys.

It should be obviously better to start even earlier. So how do you teach rationality to a nine-year-old? Or a seven-year-old? Has anybody done something like that? Please name books, videos or web sites.

If such media are not available, creating them should be low-hanging fruit in the quest to raise the global IQ and sanity waterline. ELI5 writing is very learnable, after all, and ELI5 type interpretations of, say, the sequences, might be helpful for adults too.

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Maybe I'm pessimistic, but I'm fairly sure that when I was a kid, if one of my relatives or parents' friends gave me a thick book for my birthday and told me it was educational, I'd probably never read it. Even if I was perfectly capable of doing so. "Ugh, just another one of those presents that aren't really presents."

I'm not sure how to overcome this problem.

I'm not sure how to overcome this problem.

Don't tell them it's educational?

I remember that one Christmas long ago my parents gave my brother and I the Children's Britannica. I only vaguely remember my age then, perhaps 7 or 8, and my brother two years older. I spent many hours over the years reading it avidly. It is only now, having googled it, that I discover that its contents were deliberately related to the school curriculum of the time.

I'd definitely avoid making a big deal out of it being educational or related to school. (Unless their educational experience is very unusual.) This is cool, interesting stuff you're giving them! Obviously, this relies on you being able to sell that idea to the child.

If the direct sales approach seems unlikely to work, you can make it available without much fanfare but give just enough of a hook for their curiosity. (If they're incurious, that's probably the place that'll yield most benefit,)

My parents - I now realise - did a lot of this, "happening" to leave well-written books on subjects they knew I was interested in around the place. So, for instance, leaving books about sex, reproduction and puberty lying around when I was about 11 or 12. We had an adult encyclopedia, which was kept with my parents' serious/valuable books, but they said if I really wanted to, I was allowed to have a look, as a special privilege. So long as I was careful with them and didn't damage them because they were special. So I sat there for hours and hours and days and days with my fingers stuck in the pages, in much the way I do now with browser tabs and Wikipedia.

Also helps greatly if the books are actually good and interesting. The better you know the kid and their interests, the better you'll be able to (a) pick things they will be interested in, and (b) convince them that it is interesting.

I'm not sure when education becomes an ugh subject, but I don't think it starts out that way.

The idea of teaching rationality to kids was behind my posts http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/iha/raising_numerate_children/ and http://lesswrong.com/lw/ihs/bed_time_stories_with_clear_concepts/ and I plan some more (see also my LW home).

You teach rationality by always answering inquisitive questions truthfully, at their zone of proximal development (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_proximal_development ) and no further than they are interested. By providing experiences that trigger such questions (experiments, trips) and by providing lots of books lying around everywhere (hey, even my two year old 'reads' more (picture) books than playing with bricks and he starts getting interested into letters asking for their sound).

Anecdata: A child (11 y.o.) who has read cannon HP happened to see me reading HPMOR and started reading the first few chapters.

Paraphrasing: "It's interesting but kind of complicated. There were a lot of parts I didn't really understand, like the science stuff."

Maybe there should be an abridged HPMOR for kids version.

Cut out the rape talk and reduce the depth of complicated explanations to make it easier to read. Should they enjoy it they probably will read the complete version later.

I'm currently reading Intuition Pumps, and while it is an admirably clear book, I have a hard time believing that any but the most exceptional 12 year olds will be able to follow it. Perhaps I'm underestimating the intellect of 12 year olds, since I don't know any, but the minimum level to which I would recommend Intuition Pumps is "bright high school student".

At the very least, I'd suggest HPMOR before Dennett. Also probably Raymond Smullyan, and Martin Gardner's "Aha!" books.

EDIT: Actually, I'd forgotten how adult some parts of HPMOR are, like the whole rape thing. So, yeah, I probably would not recommend that for kids either.

Ordered them. Thanks!

I should preface my comment with the fact that I do not have children of my own, but a lot of young cousins and nieces & nephews that I experiment teaching philosophies with.

Books can be a shaky premise in terms of getting kids interested in rationality. This next generation are filled with more stimuli than ever before and rationality, especially as a child, is a fairly dry subject matter. Of course, it depends on the child and their predisposition to reading, current reading habits and overall critical thinking skills.

Having said that, the best teaching method I find with children incorporate rational discussion on topics they enjoy or infusing it into a game they enjoy. For example, creating rules to an invented game that involve ideas dealing with honesty or other abstract ideas often gets some interesting rational discussion going on why a rule is a certain way. Then, using what you have learnt from these books such as "Thinking, Fast and Slow", throw in bits and pieces of information about rationality as a subject matter. That way, after they associate a positive relationship with learning about rationality and using it effectively in areas of life they enjoy, when you introduce books to them about the topic at a later age, the chances of them reading it and enjoying will greatly increase.

Neat! I'd be interested in more details about that, especially the invented games!

(I have a three-year-old.)

The Art of Thinking Clearly is a great book for children since it has 99 self-contained chapters. It's far more accessible than Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Ordered it. Thanks!

What about "The Magic of Reality" ?

It's the new book from Richard Dawkins, meant as an easy introduction to science. I have not read it myself yet, but it was recommended to me several times and I think it's aimed at a younger audience in the first place.

I will definitely read it. Maybe you should give it a shot.

"The Magic of Reality" is brilliant. I strongly recommend it. The rich illustrations make a huge difference.

I guess what I want is a kids version of "Intuition Pumps", in the style of "The Magic of Reality". I'd buy dozens of copies of that.

Would it be a good book for my 14 year old female cousin, who has attended an awful lot of religion classes?

This might be obvious, but the more leeway you have with the child's overall education, the more effectively you can teach them. There's an enormous difference between what you could teach a nine year old that you're homeschooling and a nine year old you're babysitting. The average child has already developed a lot of habits to unlearn, and it takes a lot of control over their environment to keep them from reinforcing them.

What I try to do is improve outcomes for the children of relatives and friends. I want to use readymade teaching materials and the authority of their authors precisely because I won't have much time with those kids and they have no reason to take me seriously.

If three out of ten actually read it and one out of those three starts to think more rationally at an age where such a shift has amplified impact, I estimate the cost of ten copies well worth that.

What I try to do is improve outcomes for the children of relatives and friends. I want to use readymade teaching materials and the authority of their authors precisely because I won't have much time with those kids and they have no reason to take me seriously.

Unfortunately, the kids don't have much reason to take the authors or their materials seriously either, unless you give them one. Schoolkids generally learn the contents of their study materials (to the extent that they do so at all) because the authority figures in their own lives make them, not because they acknowledge the materials as valuable sources of information.

The more intellectually curious will study materials that they personally find interesting, while the more conscientious will study materials which will impress people they think are worth impressing.

I have two kids (a 7yo boy and a 6yo girl) and I am facing this question as they are beginning to be able to read.

The Socratic method is a nice way to start helping kids answer questions themselves but it requires focus and practice (practice mostly on the teacher side to be able to ask the right questions), and 7-year-old children don't focus a lot of time.

The HPMOR approach suggested in other comments seems good to me but it can be generalized a little : little boys and girls enjoy fictional stories more than real stories, so you have to show them stories where the hero wins with the power of reason (as for the whole the power of reason and science, depends on age but I believe it has to wait a little more in my case). If anyone knows such stories that work for 7-year-olds, please throw them at me. (yes, some ancient and middle-age tales are somewhat in this category, but so little of them are)

There's certainly a lot of webcomics produced nowadays that explain concepts in an amusing and simple manner.

The sequences are already written in ELI5 style as maximally as possible. To reduce the language further would remove necessary parts of the content, defeating the purpose of the sequences as I have come to understand it. I think they're already fairly accessible, it's the content itself (behind the language) that can be difficult to grasp.