Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

Puzzle Piece, by Wikimedia Commons user Crazy-phunk

Puzzle piece, via Wikimedia Commons

Don Lazere’s short but punchy piece in the Chronicle on the beleaguered state of critical thinking education in the American academy is well worth a read.

While I find myself agreeing with much of what he says, I think he misses one of the principal actors in the play: the increasing role of corporate influence in and on the structure and culture of American higher education.  Increasingly, administrators and board members are not professional academics but professional bureaucrats and managers who see their primary task as generating revenue.  This leads to a mentality that sees terms like ‘critical thinking’ as buzzwords, bogus assessment exercises, fodder for mission statements or worse, “branding” campaigns.  The perils therein are familiar enough and rants plentiful enough that I’ll leave it there.

What interests me the most about Lazere’s short piece is how it fits with what has really been an explosion of formal methods in the last thirty or so years.  Indeed, formal logic has changed so much that it is now virtually unrecognizable to those of us who remember the time when advances in modal logic were considered “cutting edge” to most in philosophy. From today’s perspective, the basic course in predicate calculus looks a lot like “baby logic”. ‘Critical thinking’, as Lazere points out, doesn’t seem to have much real purchase at all anymore:


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Here’s a lovely graphical representation of the family of fallacies via The Fallacy Files. (Note: I found out about this infographic first via the Philosorapters blog, which gives advice on job hunting mostly but also occasionally on teaching philosophy.) I think many readers of RAIL will find this way of cutting the cake rather interesting, as the classification of some fallacies is…let’s say novel.  Others represented here are altogether new to me (e.g. the “Texas Sharpshooter”).

Whatever one makes of it, you have to tip your cap to the work that no doubt went into putting this concept map together. I’d love to see some alternatives.  Anyone out there up for it?

I'm a sucker for a nice infographic!

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“Thinking isn’t agreeing or disagreeing.  That’s voting.” — Robert Frost

In this article from the blog of the Walrus magazine, writer David Rusak nicely sums up the case that social media is increasingly taking over the way in which we communicate.

He writes:

Even in the unstructured, verbal medium of the comments field, with no built-in retweet button and no formal system logging the repetitions, we see a number of people avoiding using their own words in order to instead “cast a vote” for someone else’s. They deliberately represent themselves as part of a countable mass (in this case, of devoted fans), rather than as an individuated person with a novel point of view. I have no idea how widespread this particular trend is, but I think it exemplifies an ongoing shift in the way online communication is done…What’s more, Facebook’s Like button has now allowed us to do away with much commenting, allowing one-click responses that require the least engagement possible.


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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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I’ve recently begun experimenting with diagramming arguments in my classes–and not my Critical Thinking/Informal Logic classes, but the other more traditional philosophy classes that I teach.   I’ve tried using a few different programs to set my diagrams up (Araucaria, Carneades) but so far what works best are color-coded, free-hand “VanGelder-style” diagrams done on a transparency and projected via a document camera. (I’d love to have ReasonAble, but so far I can’t seem to talk anyone into getting it into the budget for me.)

What I’ve found is that diagramming arguments actually seems to work better than setting the arguments out in classical standard form (i.e. premises numbered sequentially with a line under the last premise as in an arithmetic problem, followed by the conclusion, etc.).  When I diagram the argument students seem to get a clearer idea of the argumentation in the text, and a better appreciation for the overall structure of the article or chapter. I haven’t been doing it long enough to back it up with trends in test scores or anything like that, but the students tell me it really helps them get a grip on what’s going on in the text. I’ve yet to hear anyone tell me that it confuses them even more.

Is anyone else using argument diagramming/mapping in this way outside of classes where a primary aim is to teach argumentation?  If so, how are you doing it and how is it working for you?

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Thinking about the last post got me wondering if anyone besides myself regularly covers forms of irrationality that are studied in the social sciences in their Critical Thinking or Informal Logic classes.  It seems to me to be important for students to know about things like the endowment effect, the bandwagon effect, confirmation bias, framing problems, and groupthink (among others).  These irrational tendencies in persons and others like them certainly present obstacles to critical thinking that (we hope) can be mitigated to at least some degree by the concepts and techniques we teach.  And yet there’s not exactly a huge volume of literature bringing together critical thinking and the empirical study of phenomena like these.

What place, if any, does teaching about the empirical study of irrationality have in your overall pedagogy? Do you think it should have a place in the study of critical thinking, or should we be content to let the scientists work on it? Is it even reasonable to think that training in critical thinking help prevent these kinds of irrationality? If you do include presentations about the forms of irrationality studied by psychology, economics, &c., how do you do it?

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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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