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Book Review: Critical Thinking Series by Sandra Park and Howard Black

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With the resurgence of classical education methodology amongst homeschoolers and private schools over the past two or three decades, interest in teaching logic — both formal and informal — is on the rise. Yet even before the pursuit of higher level thinking skills hit the radar of most of us, The Critical Thinking Company was working to assist parents and teachers in the development of crucial thinking skills for children. Celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2008, The Critical Thinking Company is still going strong, with it’s flagship, internationally best-selling program Building Thinking Skills at the helm.

The series is presented in six levels that span PreK-Grade 12. I’ve been able to work through and review three levels: Building Thinking Skills Primary (K-1), Building Thinking Skills Level 1 (2-3) and Building Thinking Skills Level 2 (4-6). Due to the somewhat abstract and difficult to quantify nature of thinking skills, I’ll be quoting from the Critical Thinking website in order to describe these large, thick workbooks. On the whole, the series aims to build a foundation for success in academics and all areas of life by providing:

…highly effective verbal and nonverbal reasoning activities to improve your children’s vocabulary, reading, writing, math, logic, and figural-spatial skills, as well as their visual and auditory processing.

The activities are sequenced developmentally. Each skill (for example, classifying) is presented first in the semi-concrete figural-spatial form and then in the abstract verbal form. Children learn to analyze relationships between objects, between words, and between objects and words as they:

Observe, recognize, and describe characteristics.
Distinguish similarities and differences.
Identify and complete sequences, classifications, and analogies.

These processes help children develop superior thinking and communication skills that lead to deeper content learning in all subjects.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. In addition to moving from the semi-concrete to the abstract, the various thinking skills taught in each level are also applied variously through the familiar subjects of geometry, social studies, and science.
Each of the thick, large format workbooks stands on its own as a core curriculum text for thinking skills.

Supplementary teacher’s manuals are available for purchase, but with the inclusion of answer keys in the higher levels (Level 1 and up), I don’t see a need for them in most situations. The problems are simple enough that most adults will be able to present examples to their own children and teach the correct method for completing the worksheets without any special training.

Building Thinking Skills Primary (K-1) is the only text of the three which is non-reproducible within the classroom or family. The workbook is printed in colour and includes 435 activities over 235 pages that develop reading, writing, and math readiness along with analysis skills. The descriptive question and answer strategies employed throughout include work in the areas of similarities and differences, writing skills, vocabulary, classifying, describing, analogies, occupations/vehicles/buildings, plants and animals, family members, number sense, geometry, and more.

At this level an answer guide is not provided and additional manipulatives are required to complete many of the activities – mainly attribute blocks and interlocking cubes. These manipulatives are vital to the successful completion of the program, and my six-year-old daughter skipped many activities that we’ll return to following the purchase of these blocks. Some of the manipulative-dependent activities she completed mentally, and she greatly enjoyed the mental exercise that thinking in these new, pattern-building ways provided.

I found myself in the awkward position of skipping many other activities that were tracing dependent. During the transitional period between pre-writer and writer, so many programs ‘help-out’ by providing dotted letter forms to trace. Unfortunately current neurological research has shown that tracing is indeed an ineffective way of teaching writing skills and can be detrimental.

With these limitations in mind, we’ll be substituting Hands-On Thinking Skills for K-1 (which is reproducible, manipulative dependent, and avoids writing activities) along with lower level MindBenders and several other resources we’ve fallen for while perusing the online samples Critical Thinking offers for printing on their website.

Building Thinking Skills Level 1 (2-3) includes 1,072 activities on 363 black and white, reproducible worksheet pages (a full answer key is included). The higher order thinking activities this level develops include logical thinking, similarities and differences, sequences, classifications, analogies, antonyms and synonyms, spatial awareness, vocabulary development, following and writing directions, descriptive writing, geometry concepts, map reading, graphic organizers, and more.

This is where it really gets fun! We’ve moved beyond the learning to print stage, so tracing is no longer an issue. Problems begin leaning further toward the abstract as vocabulary, reading, mathematical reasoning, and analytical skills are developed. Manipulatives are no longer required as graphic representations take the place of hands-on learning.

Of the plethora of activities offered I was impressed by the extensive integration with geometry and had great fun working through the introductory Mind Benders (a word problem that is solved by deductive reasoning and the aid of a graphic organizer) and verbal analogy problems (eye is to light as ear is to sound). I still remember an all too brief introduction to logic in elementary school in which we studied analogies; it was by far my favourite part of the year.

Building Thinking Skills Level 2 (4-6) is truly a massive workbook, with 1,374 activities on 408 reproducible, black and white worksheets with all answer keys included. Nearly identical to Level 1 in structure and organization, the problems presented have again shifted up a notch in difficulty. All of the same skills and methods employed as listed for Level 1 are built upon in Level 2. After reading through each problem and working through many myself, I can attest to the vigorous mental workout young readers will receive while moving through this level.

While my daughter tends to sit down with workbooks and work full-time until she’s done, a more effective use of these titles would be to ration them out over the course of their recommended grade ranges. Copying even one page per school day will provide a mental boost and requires no more than approximately five minutes to complete.

Our educational philosophy largely excludes workbooks, and thinking skills were on my radar only for higher grades in the shape of formal logic lessons. However, my daughter had so much fun and felt so clever and accomplished as she completed her work, I’m confident we’ll be purchasing many more Critical Thinking titles in the near future – in fact, she’s been nagging me. I simply can’t refuse to provide her with mind strengthening, educational products that are so simple to use, yet provide such delight.

The series is also incredibly cost effective. With none of these titles costing more than $30, this is an exceptionally affordable program – particularly the reproducible books that include several years of worksheets. Each can be re-used for years to come with all of your students.

It feels so good to stretch mentally and build new thinking skills. Drop by The Critical Thinking Company online, try some printable samples for you and your children and see what you think. Technical sounding skill names aside, this is fun when approached light-heartedly and with a puzzle-solving mindset.

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About Jennifer Bogart

  • Upset buyer

    Critical Thinking Co’s softwares (CDs/DVDs) don’t work and technical support is extremely bad.

  • Jennifer Bogart

    We have one of their Mind Bender software cds and it has worked very well for us.