Using Animals to Teach Critical Thinking

When you were younger, what were your thoughts about animals? Were you convinced that your pet fish loved you? Or thought that certain animals like snakes and black cats were evil?

As children and even as adults, we hold many assumptions about animals. Assumptions are beliefs we hold even though we have no proof that they are true. Some assumptions we hold about animals are harmless; for example, when I was five years old I thought that my pet turtle had a little house inside his shell with furniture and a television. Other assumptions, however, can cause animals to suffer, such as when I thought that cats were evil and would act cruelly towards them.

By teaching young people how to think critically, we give them the tools to question their assumptions as well as the assumptions of others, and in doing so, students are able to make better choices.

Animal protection issues provide excellent subject matter for teaching critical thinking because most young people are inherently curious about animals and hold many related assumptions that can be thoughtfully analyzed.

So how do we teach young people critical thinking?

According to Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield, in his book Teaching for Critical Thinking, there are three phases to critical thinking:

1. Discovering the assumptions that guide our decisions, actions, and choices.
2. Checking the accuracy of these assumptions by exploring as many different perspectives viewpoints, and sources as possible.
3. Making informed decisions that are based on research.

I’ll give an example of how I went through these three phases in regard to an assumption I held about fish. When I was younger, I used to go fishing with my dad and uncles, and I held the assumption that fish didn’t feel pain. I believed that fish didn’t feel pain well into high school until one day, I got into a discussion with a friend during a biology class who told me that this belief simply was not true (i.e. Phase #1). After school, I went home and read some articles online about fish and their ability to feel pain and learned that my friend was correct (i.e. Phase #2). After this realization, I decided to no longer go fishing for sport because I thought it was cruel to put a hook through an animal’s mouth for my own pleasure (Phase #3).

From my experience, it is most important to teach young people the first phase (i.e. “Discovering the assumptions that guide our decisions, actions, and choices”). The only problem is that this can be the most challenging of the phases to teach because no one likes admitting that something they believe isn’t true, and it can be difficult to determine whether a belief is true or an assumption.

To help students, of any age, think about and question assumptions, start by having them point out assumptions held by others. This is less difficult and usually does not cause people to feel as defensive. You can do this by explaining the definition of an assumption. Then have students read a story and discuss any assumptions about animals held by characters in the story. To find a good story about animals, visit HEART’s humane book list.

For high school students, you can have them discuss assumptions about animals using the Attitudes About Animals activity in HEART’s free Humane Education Resource Guide. In this exercise, students read famous quotes about animals and discuss possible assumptions held by the sources of these quotes.

Once students become proficient at pointing out assumptions held by others, you can challenge them to be more critical of their own beliefs and the information that supports those convictions. This is most effectively done through group discussion, and HEART’s What’s Your View lesson (also available in our free Humane Education Resource Guide) provides a great framework for facilitating this conversation with middle school students.

Critical thinking provides people with the tools they need to question assumptions, and even though there are many ways to teach critical thinking, animals provide a particularly engaging theme for students of all ages. Let us know in the comment section if you have any other ideas for how to teach this important topic!

3 thoughts on “Using Animals to Teach Critical Thinking”

  1. Thank you for the very helpful advice in this article. Questioning assumptions about fishes is an excellent example of promoting critical thinking skills about animals in general, since society has such a problematic view of fishes. Science (and sensibility) shows that fishes are sentient. When children (and adults) realize this it is easier for them to acknowledge that other animals are also sentient and deserve our respect and protection. Information about fish sentience and many other admirable qualities of fishes can be found at FishFeel.org.

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