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Posts Tagged ‘classroom’

Many of us teach service courses called “Critical Thinking” in our colleges and universities.  Exactly what ‘critical thinking’ means, however, is and has been the source of much vexation.  Reading this blog post by neuroscience researcher and popularizer Jonah Lehrer put me in mind of a discussion I’ve sometimes heard bits and pieces of in this context: on whether and how critical thinking bears any relation to creative thinking.

Broadly speaking I’d suppose that most people understand critical thinking as a br0adly analytical enterprise.  Whether one is extracting an argument for evaluation, analyzing a discussion according to pragma-dialectic rules or critiquing a speech according to rhetorical canons of interpretation, the effort seems to be one in which the task is to “look underneath” the surface phenomenon of the linguistic artifact (the argument or dialogue as it is found “naturally”, in its own discursive “habitat”, say) to structural, prescriptive, and other such properties.   Creative thinking seems less to be about analyzing images or bits of text, and more about the realization of hitherto un-thought-of possibilities that arise from them, or perhaps about the ability to associate freely between different sorts of families of word or image.

It would be easy to pigeonhole critical thinking and creative thinking into wholly different mindsets by saying that critical thinking is about analysis and creative thinking is about expression, but I think this would be misleading.  Critical thinkers learn to prize clarity of expression and to be clear when the occasion requires it.  Creative thinkers also engage in analysis, for example, in the visual analysis of whether a composition or a choice of color is apt given what the artist is trying to express.  Despite the apparent differences, I’m inclined to think that creative and critical thinking aren’t wholly disparate.  Important to both, for example, is the ability to resist framing problems and other dynamics that artificially close off avenues of interpretation or understanding.  Both, I think, also require the development of character traits like intellectual independence. Certainly neither is possible without a good deal of open-mindedness. Freedom of thought and expression seems essential for developing both sets of skills too.

This is not to say that we can collapse the two.  I don’t think we can or should.  I do think, however, that it might be interesting from a pedagogical point of view to consider what critical thinking would look like if taught from a creative perspective, and vice versa.  What kind of classroom environment would best combine both?  What skills, ideally, would the student leave such a class with that he or she doesn’t leave a critical thinking class with now?

Though I am here thinking mostly of pedagogical concerns, I can’t help but wonder if thinking along these lines might not be helpful in sorting out the relationship between rhetoric and argumentation too.

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Most of the readers of this blog are likely also to be teachers of  argumentation theory in some or other way.  If this is true of you, I’m wondering: what are your favorite argumentation theory textbooks?  With which ones have you had the best experiences in the classroom? Relatedly, what makes an argumentation theory text a good one for classroom use?

In the interest of full disclosure, I tend to vary my choices quite a bit, so I can’t say that I have a definite overall favorite.   That said, there are bits of some books that I really like, and that have influenced the way that present certain topics.  My short list includes the first three chapters of the latest edition of Logical Self Defense on identifying and interpreting arguments.  On evaluative criteria for arguments I really like Trudy Govier’s treatment of what she calls the “ARG” conditions in chapter 3 of A Practical Study of Argument.   Chapters 1 and 5 of Douglas Walton’s Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation I’ve found to work really well for issues concerning dialogues and the relationship between dialogue and argument.  The treatment of speech acts and conversational implicature given in chapter 1 of Understanding Arguments, by Fogelin & Sinnott-Armstrong is also one that I’ve found very helpful for students.

That’s my short list, anyway.  As is easy to see from those choices my approach largely comes from within the informal logic tradition. I’d be especially interested to learn what readers who teach in the rhetorical tradition or from a pragma-dialectical orientation use.

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