Walking the walk

This term I’ll be teaching a first-year critical thinking course for the first time in years, indeed since I started this blog and developed the guide to critical thinking textbooks in philosophy that I call “Critical Thinking Squared.”  Now that I’ve been talking this talk for a while, I return to walking the walk.

This blog has not been very active lately, but I’m going to make use of it during this course to chronicle my successes and struggles. To start with, I’ve picked a main textbook based on argumentation scholarship, rather than simply the best intentions of someone with a philosophy graduate degree.  I’m using Sharon Bailin and Mark Battersby‘s Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking, 2nd edition (Hackett). I have not spent much time with this book yet, but I know that I share many of Bailin and Battersby’s philosophical commitments about reasoning, and I have great regard for their educational expertise.  I am already pleased to find vast resources in the book.  I’m also pleased to found extensive teaching resources available through Hackett, and Hackett texts are reasonably priced.bailin_reasoninbalance_webcover

The big question is how to select material that will work for a 12-week class at the first-year level.  I am skipping some of the deeper discussions of argumentation types and currently my plan is as follows:

  1. Chapters 1-3 on: inquiry; basic argument structure (premises and conclusions; subarguments); and induction and deduction.
  2. Michael Gilbert’s Arguing with People — more on that in another post.
  3. I have plotted a skip to the end of the book usings Chapter 7, 10 and 11 on issues, judgment, and dialogue
  4. We will then jump back to chapter 6 to address credibility and expertise. I’m excited to have our information literacy librarian Tamsin Bolton Bacon assisting with this.
  5. I will end with the chapter on philosophical (ethical) inquiry as this may be the only philosophy course most of the students take — and because I hope to encourage them to take more! Also on the final exam, students are required to reflect on one of the chapters 12, 13, and 14 that address inquiry in the natural sciences, social sciences, and arts relative to what they learned about philosophical inquiry. That should allow them to connect the course to whatever type of study constitutes their larger program (few if any will be philosophy majors).

RACT watch this space

IMG_1348-0 Tomorrow begins the conference on Reasoning, Argumentation and Critical Thinking Instruction at Lund University in Sweden. Dr. Frank Zenker, a researcher at Lund, has hosted several conferences in recent years on social epistemology that I would have loved to attend, but I’m especially happy to attend this one as it deals with an intersection of academic topics of special importance. It’s an open question whether argumentation fosters critical thinking and how it affects reasoning, and the recent decades of psychological research on reasoning suggest that people’s thought is much less critical than we might tend to otherwise recognize. All sorts of bias — from perceptual to social — colour our interaction with and reasoning about the world.

The picture at the top is of a lovely brass band playing in the pub this evening, and here are a few speakers who’ve convened so far.

IMG_1355 I will post summaries and commentary on the talks as we proceed over the next few days.

Critical Thinking and “Academically Adrift”

The central purpose of my CT2 guide is to advise philosophy instructors about their choices in developing critical thinking courses.  The responsibility for the development of critical thinking skills does not rest solely on instructors however, as one can see in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

Other important factors include student preparation, work habits, and social resources — both work and funding. For instance, educated parents, studying alone rather than in groups, and working on campus improve performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment  (chapter 2 and chapter 3).  All this, they suggest, indicates trouble for the desired goal of increasing “critical thinking,” complex reasoning, and clear written communication, though these terms are never defined. Part of the problem according to Arum and Roksa is the current culture of college education that presents studying as part-time, and school as a last fling before the sombre (and sober?) world of work (chapter 4).

Nevertheless, Arum and Roksa conclude with recommendations for instructors. They advise more reading and writing, with the caveat that it may not go over well with students and may look bad on student evaluations and other currently accepted measures of teaching.  How much?  40 pages of reading per week and 20 pages of writing per term. This seems a lot to me.  I assign about 30 pages of reading per week (10 per class hour), based on small books, and so often as little as 15 pages per week.  I maintain, and explain to students that philosophy must be read three times to be understood well, and that our reading demands thus will be less than in history and English.  The same goes for writing, I’d argue.  Few sources are needed, so the analysis is more spare and focussed and I could not expect it to be as long as in other disciplines.  But now, I’m just getting defensive … I imagine Arum and Roksa might accept this ammendment.

What they really want is for us to engage in what they consider a more direct ethic of education, to produce reasoners rather than credentials.  They turn explicitly to the tradition of John Dewey in stressing rigour and frequent assessment.  This would entail a turn away from the collaborative learning models that have become popular. Again, this might hurt teaching evaluations, and would demand deep structural change to support instructor-level practices.

I have a number of misgivings about the book, and many criticisms can be found on-line.  My biggest concern is that the results can seem to show simply that individual reasoning does not benefit from collaborative instruction.  That seems unsurprising.  The need for assessment to reflect instructional methods and techniques is known as “alignment” and — as I understand it — the canonical work in this regard is Teaching for Quality Learning at University by John Biggs.  Ignoring this element deeply undermines Arum and Roksa’s approach as the technique is central to the outcomes based model of education they criticize.  It’s akin to giving a US-based IQ test to an African student and remarking at how poor the results are.

That said, if we agree that the skills assessed by the CLA are important, we need to consider how those outcomes have been side-lined in favour of more concrete and specific, and — yes — social skills.  Do we want individual or collaborative thinkers? Collaboration is more popular with students but that is that what employers want?  I haven’t yet seen this general question posed to Arum and Roksa, though some concerns have been similar.  They admit that they do not account for the subject-specific strengths students may gain.  But I’m pointing to something a little different, an understanding of general reasoning as collaborative or cooperative, which conflicts with the enlightenment notion of reasoning implicit in the CLA.  That type of reasoning is important, but there are alternatives.


I’m a philosopher and so untrained in methodology although my work in feminist epistemology intersects extensively with feminist methodology. A method of only a very rough sort thus can be found in how I choose textbooks for analysis in my the database.

  1. Textbooks are suitable for the database if intended for introductory philosophy courses. I exclude other disciplines to keep things manageable. What counts as critical thinking varies greatly from discipline to discipline, and often connects with the disciplinary methodology.
  2. I include introductory argumentation textbooks because that has become the standard way to teach critical thinking in philosophy, and only a few textbooks (Pinto, Blair and Parr and Kenyon, that I know of) do not focus on argumentation.
  3. However, books with 50% or more on formal logic do not make the table since that material tends to be covered in separate courses.  Likewise, textbook publishers tend to include argumentation skills under critical thinking and distinguish that from formal logic.
  4. I try to prioritize books by scholars in the field and academic publishers over commercial publishers.  My larger goal is to encourage adoption of the more scholarly textbooks, and I try to provide the resources to allow instructors to find their own way to those books.

Suggestions and advice are welcome!

Finding the topics you want

To help instructors make informed decisions about their critical thinking courses, my research assistant and I (see below) are developing a database of the current textbooks that analyzes their contents by topic.  At the moment you will find that we have covered 16 textbooks, and we still have a lot to go, even though we aim to cover only those in the discipline of philosophy in the English language.

The database should assist with Step Two of the CT² steps for choosing a text.  Once instructors have decided what sorts of things they’d like to teach, it will help them locate texts that cover those topics.

The analysis proceeds, left to right:

  1. The usual bibiographic details, plus the relevant expertise of the author, and our estimate of the country/culture to which the book is addressed
  2. General contexts for critical thinking
  3. The types of argument analysis provided
  4. Whether and how fallacies are covered
  5. Whether and how deductive and then inductive logic are covered
  6. Whether and how science is covered
  7. Whether and how language is covered
  8. Specialized forms of reasoning
  9. Developing one’s own thinking
  10. Special features distinguishing an individual text
  11. On-line resources

An “X” is used to fill the box, and where a topic receives only brief treatment only a single hash, “/,” is used. Any other keys can be found in the column header. We aim to limit the evaluative component of this analysis, and keep it descriptive. I confess that I hope the availability of information will help instructors find the textbooks written by scholars in the field.  Providing better understanding of the range of textbooks available may discourage new instructors from simply reproducing outdated views of critical thinking and argumentation.

Brigham Bartol is a smiling young man with curly hair and glasses in a shirt and tie
Brigham Bartol

We began with Oxford University Press because they offered to provide review copies. (I don’t want to pretend I plan to teach with all these texts.) However, we aim to feature books by scholarly and liberatory authors. I will also continue with scholarly presses before going to more commercial publishers.

I am not doing all this by myself and am very ably assisted by Brigham Bartol, courtesy of the University of Windsor Outstanding Scholars Program.  If you wish to be sure that your textbook is in our queue, please write to Brigham.  If you wish to send us a copy of your text, it should come to Hundleby’s address.

What’s wrong?

The main motivation for the Critical Thinking Squared website and this blog is to raise consciousness about critical thinking pedagogy in the discipline of philosophy.  There are a few ways in which scholarship has advanced in recent decades that textbooks continue to ignore.  Many of these advances come from argumentation theory, and here are the basic advancements in that field that I find textbooks tend to neglect:

  1. Arguments take place in dialogues.  Some theorists view the dialogue as a secondary aspect; but the consensus is that among the range of forms that argumentation can take, arguments take place between people.  They are not free-standing but audience-relative, an insight going back to Chaim Perelman and Stephen Toulmin.
  2. Fallacies are forms of argumentation. Without this assumption there is little hope of providing any coherent account of fallacies. While fallacy labels provide a longstanding method for teaching reasoning, the errors we count as fallacies take many different forms and until the development of the informal logic movement there was little method behind the lists of error names.  The depth of this problem has been set forth by Charles Hamblin in his book Fallacies (1970).  Since then, fallacies have been systematized in three different ways:
    1. The three aspects of an argument that may go wrong (acceptable premises, relevance of premises to conclusion, and sufficiency of premises in supporting the conclusion).  This analysis structures  the classic books by Johnson & Blair and Govier.
    2. Presumptive argumentation schemes that may work well or go awry.  Identification of the proper working of a presumptive scheme of argumentation, such as an appeal to authority or a generalization, one considers critical questions characteristic of the particular scheme.
    3. The pragma-dialectic approach treats fallacies as rule violations but that provides no systematic account of how they arise.

Many textbooks employ the first analysis, but many still lean on ad hoc lists of names and view most types as categorical problems despite the flourishing of epistemologies showing the relevance to reasoning of emotion, testimony, generalization, etc., all of which challenge such categorical dismissals.

Who am I to say?

Having styled myself as an expert in critical thinking is somewhat problematic because I am a novice in the field, however enthusiastic and dedicated I may be.  There are many greater experts whom you can find by looking at the ““Teaching the dog’s breakfast”” or consulting the AILACT website.  There you can find people who know the ins and outs of three decades of research on the topic.

What I offer may help those also new to the field in large part because I have the benefit of living among the informal logicians at Windsor for long enough that I’ve “gone native.”  So I can offer some advice about the general shape of the field, and comment on what I’m learning.

Developing a critical thinking course is a highly personal project dependent on one’s own skills and objectives as well as program and course objectives.  Vast options are available, and as I continue to develop my guide I expect it will become more comprehensive.  However, choosing a textbook (and deciding whether one should be used at all) is a highly individual matter, and I’m not match-maker though I do know a good yenta if you need one!

A sample syllabus

One of the things I hope to add to this page over the long run is a series of best practices and models: syllabi, exercises, etc.  I don’t expect these all to come from me and if you have something you’d like to share please send it along.

I am teaching a course (module) on fallacies this term, and in case you are interested, here is my syllabus.  It is based on the way the textbook author, Chris Tindale, designs his own course, but has my own spin.  In particular, I plan this time to have some discussion and assignments addressing constructive failure, a notion popular in business and creative thinking and that has many adherents in pedagogy too. I have also developed a youtube playlist to play at the beginning of class to pick up on the particular themes as we progress through the syllabus.

My technique for using the book is to leave all the case studies/exercises in the book for student practice, and to bring my own examples for in-class analysis.  This book adopts the “critical questions” approach associated especially with Doug Walton, according to which fallacies are deviations from argumentation or inference schemes that may often (or in certain cases) be acceptable.  The questions are used to devise the strength or weakness of a particular employment of an inference scheme, such as appeal to the person.

The critical questions/inference schemes approach gets past the problem that many putative cases of fallacy can be given positive interpretation.  Thus interpretation plays a central role in the course/module, which might seem to open a messy can of worms but I find it a useful way to teach students how to justify their analysis.  And to teach the value of changing their interpretations as they reflect more deeply on the reasoning they encounter, and recognize they can improve on their initial impressions.  Pressing students to be accountable for their interpretations (along with their evaluations) is one reason that I think fallacies can be a valuable way to teach argumentation.

The first month and the next year

The CT² site has now been up a month and received over 1100 unique visitors (the counter was added a little late) from all over the globe.  While the traffic has waned since the first few days, I’ve received excellent feedback and extremely helpful suggestions from all sorts of people, all of which I have already implemented or will get to next summer.  (I am a social epistemologist and try to make good use of the resources other people provide me!)

This week I met with some folks from the University of Windsor’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.  A good deal of the ideas behind the CT² guide come out of the many workshops I’ve taken with them, and some others specifically from John Biggs’ Teaching for Quality Learning at University.  This week Chris Smith and Erika Kustra gave me some pointers on developing the site, so that I can more effectively encourage better pedagogy in philosophical instruction about critical thinking.

CT² won’t change much between now and next summer, while my time is heavily occupied with my own teaching.  However, I have been invited to give related talks: on the status quo fallacy at “Thinking and Speaking a Better World” in Qatar early January; on the relationship between feminist logic of argumentation and feminist philosophy of science at the Pacific APA in San Francisco late February; on adversarial argumentation in philosophy at the Central APA in New Orleans late March.

Then of course there’s OSSA here at Windsor in May, where I will not be presenting so I can be readily available as an organizer.  There’s still time to submit your abstract.

If you find yourself at these places and have any comments on CT², please let me know!


Fallacies and failure

Why teach fallacies?  There is no universal way to get an argument wrong, many argue.  It’s derivative on some positive theory of argumentation.  We have positive theories to support fallacy theory (the three aspects of argument strength from Blair and Johnson, and Govier; argumentation schemes from Walton; or pragma-dialectical errors) so why concentrate on an archaic theory of failure?  Doesn’t that encourage an unhealthy emphasis on nay-saying?  knee-jerk scepticism?  Certainly it can.

For the exact same reasons teaching fallacies can be a serious opportunity for students to learn about the value of failure.  “Teaching students to fail” by Edward Burger in Inside Higher Ed recommends not only informing students about the value of taking risks and learning from their own failure, but making that part of the assessment.  He makes it sound pretty simple and very effective.

Combining this with fallacies seems perfect, as it encourages students to consider the epistemological (or in Douglas Walton‘s terms maieutic) qualities of fallacy analysis and criticism in general.  I’m teaching fallacies this term so I’ll let you know how it goes!