Getting started with Bailin & Battersby

I knew that Bailin and Battersby would provide good exercises and I anticipate (still only one class in) that their book will really engage students. The instructor manual turns out to pay a lot of attention to how to involve students, and the other resources are even better than I’d hoped: the slides provide opportunities for discussion and don’t simply repeat what’s in the textbook; plus Bailin and Battersby provide quizzes, which solves the huge problem of coming up with examples that mirror the style and difficulty of the textbook.

I really like the focus on inquiry in the first chapter too. It connects students’ own decision making with institutional research and epistemological norms.

I’m focussing on two skills today — the second class. The first is featured in a slide in the instructor materials but doesn’t get so much attention in the textbook, unfortunately. This is the question of identifying an issue (or controversy or question) and distinguishing it from a topic and a thesis. At the first-year level I think this is extremely valuable for students.  It will be obvious for some, but I have known students in later years who didn’t understand the difference between a topic and a thesis, so this discussion should assist with that obstacle to later learning.

Second, I’m focussing on identifying opportunities for inquiry. This is the subject of one of the exercises in the text, and it’s fairly straightforward to test.

I did notice that this book, as most good ones, demands students provide explanations for their identifications.  This is a basic academic skill, and it too deserves to be taught at the first-year level.  There is further discussion of explanation later in the book, but 51zbMkX0c+L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_students need an account of what they are supposed to do. In“>Biggs’s language, they need “alignment,” to be taught how to do what will be the basis for their evaluation.  So I’ve added a slide about the nature of explanation — using familiar language to make a case identifiable or applying a concept in detail to show how it characterizes an example. Of course, there is a large philosophical literature on explanation, but controversy hasn’t stopped critical thinking educators before. Nor do I think it should. I tend to think that bringing such debates into pedagogical context helps put such philosophy of science or philosophy of language controversies into a context that clarifies the scope and significance of those technical discussions.

I have another, more pointed criticism of this chapter.  The philosophical discussions of the nature and value of inquiry make a number of distinctions: nature, value, and features in particular.  These are all used to characterize inquiry without an explanation of what distinguishes and connects these different perspectives on the task. Partly as a result, I found the associated exercises useless. While I will do a little lecturing on the epistemological discussion that they parse in this vague way I do so only because I expect it to prime students for some of the lessons later in the book and because it connects their discussion with Gilbert’s book. I wish they had been clearer about these fundamental ideas and how they want students (and instructors) to apply them.


Getting there from here: Critical thinking and debiasing

A primary lesson from the first day was that biases pose different problems in different contexts and need specific techniques to be negotiated. Ways to engage the social and emotional variables occupied a central role on the second day. In that afternoon, and today, the third and final day, we get more specific, considering how reasoning operates in particular contexts and the difficulties faced by critical thinking pedagogy in addressing those contexts and improving people’s practice.

Scientific reasoning concerns Ulrike Hahn, who directs us toward the advantages of Bayesian approaches to fallacies and argumentation. Hahn’s point of departure comes from Douglas Walton‘s analysis of argumentation schemes, including taking the appeal to ignorance as a central case. Accounting for how we gain and incorporate information into belief is the key benefit of Bayesian probablistic analysis, and Hahn makes quite a convincing case, at least if we take arguments to be monological. She takes the dialogical approaches of Walton and pragma-dialectics to become unnecessary in the wake of the Bayesian appraoch. Burden of proof and its dialogical shifts are a messy business, to be sure, but I don’t think we can dispense with analyzing them so easily. We need tools to reason with others, and judging by the social approaches to debiasing that prevailed on the second day, the social dimensions may be key to debiasing argumentation.

Mariusz Urbanski presented research completed with Katarzyna Paluszkiewicz and Joanna Urbanska showing that while untutored skill has a lasting effect on performance in deductive reasoning, training can improve performance on difficult deductive problems.

Debiasing was studied in legal contexts by Frank Zenker, Christian Dahlmann and  Farhan Sarwar, because it’s an environment that demands judgements be made; judges can’t suspend their evaluation of a case. People, and so perhaps judges, who score high on agreeableness seem especially influenced by anchoring.

This day gave us little room for optimism about debiasing, or the future of critical thinking as an ideal and an educational practice. An account of frustration with facilitating critical thinking at an institutional level provided the final talk, from Chip Sheffield, recounting his experience as the inaugural Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking at Rochester Institute of Technology.IMG_1510 Sheffield described how institutional pressure to develop or adopt a new assessment instrument flew in the face of a lack of other institutional and faculty support, student resistance to the integration of critical thinking in courses, and only superficial resources in the larger critical thinking movement. Yet he found some progress in student panels and discussions, and community outreach.

The result of Sheffield’s experience is his recommendation of more critical thinking courses, and more at advanced levels. So it might seem that the problem is not how to teach critical thinking but how much to teach it. That could seem to be the only room for improvement given the disjunct between the experimental research on cognition and biases and the philosophical pedagogy of critical thinking. I was struck to hear the experimental psychologists express concern over the philosophers use of “bias” losely, just as the philosophers were discouraged by the inattention to the pressures to find practical strategie for students.

However, as much as this conference demonstrated an absence of the practical evidence we want to guide critical thinking education, it also paves the way for more engagements between the psychological evidence and the pedagogical and philosophical ideals. I take particular inspiration from the work of Kenyon & Beaulac, and Howes, as philosophers attempting to explore the implications of the psychological research, but also Weinstock, Schendel, Cooke, plus Urbanski, Paluszkiewicz & Urbanska, and Zenker, Dahlmann & Sarwar in assessing the impact of specific techniques on the development of critical thinking. We have barely begun to chart the possibilities and potentials for critical thinking education, and we need more research of the sort gathered at this conference to develop and explore options. Ideally, this should be like the work from Paglieri, Mercier & Boudry, directly engaging both the philosophical and the psychological. To start with, we should explore whether they or Goodwin are correct about the effects of classroom debate.

Reasoning together

Hugo Mercier visited the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric at the University of Windsor last Fall to discuss his recent work with Dan Sperber in which they  argue that reason is meant to function socially, in contexts of argumentation and hence as part of communication.  This welcome message for argumentation theorists and social epistemologists draws together an immense amount of research in cognitive psychology about the conditions in which reasoning is successful.  I found it very exciting.

Not only does this view suggest a fundamental epistemological significance for argumentation, it suggests that argumentation is basically cooperative, not adversarial.  Sure, opposition can be part of valuable argumentative practice, but the more general or at least original benefit is learning from each other — not winning, as the view has been misrepresented in The New York Times.

What was disappointing is the appearance that Sperber and Mercier’s appeal to evolution, and their employment of “evolutionary psychology” is weak.  Does evolution provide explanatory power, connecting theory with one of the most important scientific innovations of the past several centuries?  Yeah sure.  But explanatory power is not enough, especially when more rigorous empirical standards are available from and demanded by evolutionary biology.  At least, so the consensus seems to be — I need to learn more about this area; but Mercier appealed only to the explanatory power of natural selection, not to anything concrete.

Evolutionary psychology is notoriously problematic, and seems especially prey to the assumption that what has evolved must have been selected for, having an advantage itself. Some evolutionary features, like chins and male nipples are by-product of other features, like jaws and female nipples.  The automatic assumption that all evolved features are adaptations has been described by Elisabeth Lloyd as “adaptationism.”