Thursday, February 08, 2007

Joel Achenbach: Learning How to Think
Critical Thinking in (at Least Part of) America

At the WaPo.

I could go on and on.

As you know, I have an inclination to believe that, for most reasoning tasks, being honest is more important than being smart. Jumping to a favored conclusion and sticking to it come hell or high water is a common--perhaps even the most common--modus operandi. As for Mr. Bush...well, what remains to be said on that front?

As for the country as a whole...

Well, I'm particularly concerned about this right now.

Let me give you a brief and honest history of the teaching of "critical thinking" at my university--a way-far-above-average but non-"elite" state institution in Virgina.

1. The school decided to reform its general education curriculum, and recognized that it would be good for students to get some explicit instruction in reasoning (i.e. "critical thinking"). (Please to excuse the "scare quotes", but I can't resist in this case.)

2. Now, in general and by far the people at a university who are best equipped to teach CT are philosophers. This fact is born out by standardized test results of many different kinds.

2'. Note: this is not to say that philosophers are the smartest people at the university, i.e. not to say that we are the best reasoners. Mathematicians and physicists are probably significantly better reasoners than philosophers. But the reasonings in which they excell are fairly specialized. Furthermore, they have better things to do than teach introductory reasoning classes. Philosophers, on the other hand, have been doing this for a long time, and their reasoning skills are more generalizable. Note also that other rigorous disciplines like bio, econ, art history, chemistry, literature, polysci and so on at any campus all typically contain more than a handful of people who are smarter than the average person in the average philosophy department. The point: this isn't some kind of chest-thumping about our intellectual firepower; it is, rather, a claim about who's best at teaching this stuff.

3. Our university included CT courses in the new curriculum. They would have had to hire at least 15-20 more philosophers to teach them. They were unwilling to do this.

4. They went to other departments and asked "hey, can you guys teach CT?" Many of these departments said "yes." Some because they falsely believe that they can teach CT (e.g. "communications" (Simpsonesque motto: Ees phoney major! Luchenko learn nothing!)), others because they wanted to get expand their turf by getting new positions (e.g. "media arts and design" and business). (Yes, we actually have a whole department called "media arts and design.") (Yes, I know it is absurd for either of these programs to claim any expertise whatsoever in teaching reasoning.)

5. We all had to get together to hash out details about what the courses would be like. It rapidly became clear that these folks from other departments had absolutely no idea whatsoever what they were doing. Hence the curriculum was put together, basically, but me and five professors from other departments who wouldn't even be able to pass one of my CT courses.

6. After this sham process was over, the "department of assessment" stuck its oar in. They immediately chose an "assessment test" in which 45 of the 80 questions contained some kind of logical error. (Incidentally, it was the Watson-Glaser test. Cripes that thing is a joke.)

6'. It took over a year for us to get them to admit that this was a problem. But none of the folks in the "assessment office" can reason their way out of a wet paper bag. Hence they chose another test full of mistakes. We had to write and publish 2 papers in peer-reviewed journals before they would take our opinion seriously. They never did understand the reasoning in question. We picked out the nationally-recognized exam containing the fewest errors, but they didn't want to use it because females got one of the questions on that exam right, like, 1 in a thousand times less often than males. The question made an irrelevant reference to stock cars.

7. After a non-horrible assessment test was finally chosen, it turned out that, according to pre- and post-test data, only courses taught by philosophers consistently showed significant improvement in students' reasoning abilities. (Note: this was actually true on every assessment test they ever tried, even the crappy ones.)

8. So, what do you think the solution to this problem would be? Hire more philosophers? Allow us to teach people in other departments what they need to know and try again? Admit that the classes weren't working?

Of course not. First they fiddled with the test again, but could never get the other departments' courses to show any improvement. Then they announced that each department would get to make up their own exam, the idea being that they will be allowed to keep making up new tests until they can finally show improvement.

8'. One rationale for this is that the "communications" department already uses an exam they made up to pre- and post-test their "Introduction to Communications" course. This test is--every time it is mentioned by anyone in "communications" or "assessment"--described as "award-winning," because it apparently did win some kind of award.

8'' "Introduction to Communications" is widely acknowledged by students here (as elsewhere) as being one of the easiest classes on campus. Students do have to give a speech in the class, and this causes some some anxiety. But the content of the course is recognized by all students to be a joke. Most students rarely attend the class (unless there is an attendance policy). How can they pass? Well, because the course is such a joke, and because the final is this "award-winning" test, which is composed almost entirely of multiple-choice questions about "communications" terminology. Memorize a list of abut fifty moronic and useless terms, and you can do well in the class. Word on campus is that many people just get the list, memorize it, and show up for the final.

8''' Take a look some time at how people do on tests that genuinely do test your reasoning skills--e.g. the LSAT. At the top? Math, physics, philosophy, econ. At the bottom? Business, communications, social work.

9. So let's review:

The history of CT at my institution: first, recognize that it would be good if students learned to reason better. Second, decide not to hire enough people qualified to achieve this goal. Third, allow unqualified people to teach the course. Fourth, use assessment tests, but ignore the evidence when it shows that they can't do the job. Fifth, keep making new tests until you can gerrymander one that gives the illusion of success.

10. Somewhere Peirce says that the only thing you really, really, really need to learn in college is how to reason. It'd be good to learn as many facts as possible, of course, but without training in reasoning your time at college is basically a waste. But in my experience, reasoning is more-or-less the last thing colleges are teaching their students. Most professors are not terribly good reasoners. Even those who are good reasoners don't know anything about the theory of reasoning, and have never even given any thought to it, so they don't know how to teach it. Furthermore, it's hard to teach. And it requires written work and lots of feedback in an age of computer-graded multiple-choice exams. And teaching it is like pulling teeth--many, many of the students just can't stand it. They've gotten into a good school by memorizing lists in textbooks and copying things down off of power point slides. Difficult courses interfere with their drinking schedules, and they can't understand why you would ask them to do this weird, new thing when they've gotten so far without doing it. And in the opinion of at least a large minority of them, they're already super, like, great reasoners anyway, so, like, it's, ya' know, an affront to suggest that they have anything to learn on that score.

The long and the short of it is this:
Our experience here trying to actually, explicitly focus on teaching students to reason has been not merely a failure but a joke. It could be done, but it isn't being and it won't be. A few lucky students get into the philosophy department's CT classes, and in the best of those classes they actually learn something...though not, sadly, in all of them. Most students try to avoid the philosophy versions of CT because the classes are said to be difficult and dry. (In the age of grade inflation and edutainment, the worst thing a class can be is difficult and dry.) Since the students are so unmotivated, the best teachers burn out quickly and ask to be reassigned back to PHIL 101.

All that would be bad enough on its own. Ideally, the university would either do what it takes to do this all successfully, or at least admit defeat. Instead, it simply puts up enough smoke an mirrors to make it seem like they're teaching CT, when, in fact, they basically aren't.

Of all the bullshit I've ever seen in academia, this CT bullshit has come the closest to making me get out and get a real job.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm hoping I can teach my kids critical thinking before they reach college age.

Any tips for teaching your course to a 10 and 8 year old?

9:40 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Perhaps the best result will be that in reviewing the course materials for classes they're unqualified to teach, the faculty might learn something about critical thinking.

Small victories, achievable goals.

To keep the politics to a minimum, I do object to Achenbach's driveby on Bush. I never believed that Bush actually meant it when he said he could look in Putin's eyes and see a good soul, or whatever the riff was. I thought that was an attempt to inspire. Neither do I think Dubya's reluctance to admit error is a function of his personality or ideology (altho that's partly true), but more of a recognition of the reality of 24/7 international news, where every admission of error is taken not as a sign of reasonableness, but of weakness.

Politics nodded at, I also object to Achenbach's baseline assumption that human events can be resolved by science and formal logic, as if one could feed data into a computer and come up with the proper political course.

I would think acknowledging our fallibility forces us toward gut instinct, or more properly, induction, as Malcolm Gladwell's Blink seems to argue. (No, I haven't read it, but am interested in your thoughts if you have.)

All I know is that when I and the wife meet someone, and I say he's OK and she says he/she's a weasel, the wife-unit is invariably correct.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

And to Mr. Montag---I can only offer that a pal who raised in the shadow of Yeshiva University and the rabbinic tradition told me that while he was growing up, his dad never quizzed him on the faith, but posed ethical puzzles for him to sort out himself.

Developing the pathways, the habituation, towards ethical thought seems to be an honored method. The ancient Greeks too would argue that proper questions are far more important than even the best answers.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Sorry, I know nothing about teaching little kids. Though one of my colleagues is in the process of figuring out how to foster reasoning skills in his 5-year-old daughter, apparently with some success.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

winston, in these CT classes do you pose contemporary political dilemmas and ethical problems or do you tend to focus on symbolic logic?

i can personally side with the students who are made to learn truth tables, how to ven diagram, and DeMorgan's theorem without anything concrete to attach this logic to. what's the use of learning these symbols in a detached way and then not applying them to real situations that call for critical analysis?

i would think that the average, slightly hung-over college student would be more excited to attend and participate in a class that addresses real matters of debate. why not practice mapping out arguments that you (and i)(and everyone) complain that people dont think about?

....if you do that, i sure hope you dont land yourself in an anthology of dangerous professors in america.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

When contemporary political dilemmas come in, CT goes out, is my experience, because certain baseline assumptions are not shared.

For instance, if one thinks Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is sincere, and if one thinks he might have the power to enact it [like me, for instance], he goes round and round with someone who doesn't share that baseline assumption.

The same is true (though not as much) with ethical dilemmas when baseline values aren't shared. For instance, is the problem that the poor don't have enough or is it that the rich have too much? Are they necessarily coeval?

What I'd like to see in CT, or in discussion of the issues of the day, is the acknowledgement that dilemmas might exist at all. If we can do that, and learn to identify the dilemmas, at least we can come to the understanding that each person's mileage may vary, and why. Clarity being more important than agreement, and all...

8:59 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Anonymous and Tom--

You're both right.

1. Many CT classes fail because they focus too much on formal logic.

1'. Interestingly, our own administration pressures us to keep most of the formal logic out of our CT courses...but they do so for a bad reason. It took us a long time to figure out what the reason WAS, but we eventually did: the administrators in question are bad at math, and are intimidated by formal logic. Funny.

2. The good reason for minimizing the formal logic is that formal logic isn't very good at helping out with ordinary, low-level reasoning tasks. Formal logic was developed for purely theoretical reasons--to help us analyze mathematical reasoning. It has some other uses, too, but one thing it *doesn't* do very well is help people, say, analyze news reports or editorials. Formal logic tends to break inferences down into such small steps that even the most methodical mathematicians skip over them. Not a good tool for doing rough-and-ready reasoning on the fly.

2''. Unfortunately, even most philosophers don't know any philosophy of logic. Even almost all the ones who know logic don't know what it is they know about. They learn some formal systems, are led to believe that,well, that's logic!...then they commence to misinforming their students about it.

3. That having been said, some students *do* have to be taught that, e.g., *modus ponens* is deductively valid and affirming the consequent is not.

4. So, yeah, my classes focus on other stuff, mostly. First topic: how to read. Most of them can't do it. That is, can't read anything even moderately difficult with any comprehension. And this is a good school.

5. Tom's right that it gets harder to reason clearly when controversial topics arise. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. I spend a lot of time teaching them to be more objective about controversial subjects.

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three quick things from the default (i.e. junior) CT instructor at my institution:

1. The pre-law students are definitely onto the fact that taking the CT course taught by the phil department is the best thing to do in terms of prepping for the LSAT.
2. One of the reasons that CT is so hard to teach in a way that won't be dry and tough is that many of the textbooks out there suck. There is a sort of elitist refusal to integrate symbolic logic into the real world in any reasonable way. To me, knowing how to analyze arguments in a systematic way is only useful if you actually get some practice in analyzing real arguments. These are, after all the future citizens in a failing democracy. So after doing the tough but necessary two-thirds of the semster learning the rules, putting together some proofs and derivations, talking about the basic argument forms and fallacies, etc. the rest of the semester in my course is spent in translating arguments into symbolic form and then analyzing them. These arguments come from philosophers as well as from editorials, political speeches, advertisements (articulate the implied message and its assumptions ...) etc. The most fun part of the semester of course is the competition to identify the most fallacies in bumperstickers and t-shirts. The student who "collects" the most wins extra credit.
3. I used to tutor math and reading at Sylvan Learning Center, and they had some really good CT material interlaced in their acadmic reading program (K-8th grade). The students would read a segment that was appropriately difficult for their reading level and then answer comprehension and vocab questions along with a few CT questions for each exercise. Some of these were basic cause-effect reasoning, analogies, questions about hidden assumptions and/or implications, etc. I was actually quite impressed with it and surprised by the ease with which they had integrated CT into a reading program (which is, after all, where it should be). So you might find some good CT material for kids in their stuff.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sounds like an opportunity for a publication! id be interested to hear an insider's rant on the publish/perish environment at universities (of course, you may have already done that but i haven't been frequenting the blogosphere for very long)

10:11 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I used to tutor math and reading at Sylvan Learning Center, and they had some really good CT material interlaced in their academic reading program...

Bold, beautiful, daring. Doomed.

Freedom always costs extra, of deed, of thought.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

thanks for the interesting info.

Dunno what to say about the role of publication, actually... I ought to think about it.

12:06 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home