The proof is in the pudding

Choosing a CT textbook is something of a leap of faith. An instructor can of course skim the book, examine the nature and number of exercises, and consider the goals of the course. In CT, however, given how many different ways it can be taught it is easy to focus too much on the nature of the content and not enough on the quality of the exercises, and exercises are key. Also, a book must almost always be tailored to the particular course schedule and cut down.

In both these dimensions I regret having chosen to use Bailin and Battersby’s Reason in the Balance. The strength of the book lies in its epistemological agenda, and I really liked that.  I still do, but the book falters both in the exercises provided and the ease of tailoring the book to a course that cannot cover the whole thing.

The first thing to say is that the book’s strength is also its weakness. It builds the inquiry model gradually and then applies it to different fields.  It is a laudably integrated approach which means that it cannot be effectively condensed. While many of the (sometimes vague) concepts were not necessary to the progress of the book, each chapter had something that was critical to the progression.  Leaving out chapters made the later concepts hard to follow. On the other hand, stopping short of the final chapters would have failed to exhibit the larger purposes and application of the approach. While there are certain courses (including an accelerated reasoning course — 34-162 — that Windsor offers for our interdisciplinary students) that this book could serve well in its current form, its broad ambition makes it awkward for a general CT course.

The central difficulty is that the book leans too much toward describing how to think and falters in providing students with adequate practice to develop their own thinking. When I was able to use the Bailin and Battersby exercises, the students wanted more questions to practice on than were provided. Giving students adequate practice is crucial. Plus, the exercises provided are the sort that demand a lot of instructor labour in evaluation. They would be great for a small class, but nothing with more than 30 students. I had to produce some of my own exercises of the sort that I would normally find in a CT textbook. And this was quite doable with their content, so this seems an unnecessary weakness. Designing exercises on the spot is a great deal of work and stressful.

Neither of these problems is insurmountable.  A strong third edition could be more modular, have a greater number of exercises, and include more exercises of the sort that can be given to a large class.

So, how will I proceed differently next time?  I’ll look first to the ready availability of exercises. One book that does this in spades is Peg Tittle’s (it has a huge instructor manual), and that’s probably what I’ll use next time.

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