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Critical Thinking by Example

Although this blog is not really active anymore, I know that people come here looking for free textbooks, and publicizing them is part of the central goal of this blog to undermine the textbook publishing racket in CT.  So I’m pleased to learn of Critical Thinking by Example by Mark Walker at the New Mexico State University.


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.

Analysis without evaluation: I miss my fallacies

In order to include Michael Gilbert’s book on Arguing with People I have had to skip a few chapters in Bailin and Battersby’s Reason in the Balance.  So far it’s worked pretty well, Gilbert in fact provides a larger context for understand the B&B focus on inquiry, or knowledge driven argumentation. I believe it will help students relate the bulk of the class to the rest of their lives. However, skipping through a book brings problems.  B&B provide no suggested short routes, but I have designed this: skipping Chapters 4-9 with the exception of covering the discussion of types of judgment, as that is crucial for the latter part of the book.

I also wanted to skip the section on fallacies because I believe that they ought not to be taught in brief, but I’m now wondering if they are not essential in adding an element of evaluation to the analysis.  Students are learning ways to categorize and analyze arguments, but not how to evaluate them — or at least they are not gaining practice in that.  Fallacies are a quick way to bring that power to students.  Indeed that’s part of the problem: fallacies can seem to empower students too instantly and encourage the dismissal of other’s arguments.  Now, I know the B&B analysis is not so simple and problematic as it involves the notion of burden of proof. However, that is also why it takes five chapters — about five teaching weeks, almost half a term.

So, next time I’ll consider a different path.  I think the empowerment to evaluate and not just analyze ought to be part of one’s introductory reasoning course.  And it’s hard to do with a large group, which is one reason that I think fallacy-based approaches persist and remain valuable in pedagogy.

That may mean, however, that I miss out on one of the singular strengths of the B&B text, which is building their account of inquiry to apply it to different disciplines.  That, I believe will also empower students, and I’m excited to watch it play out later this term.  But I am palpably aware that the practice in evaluation is missing.


My first impression as I started to work with Reason in the Balance (2nd edition) was excitement at the wealth of instructor resources. Just the introduction to the Instructor’s Manual provides a wealth of strategies for managing and designing the class.

I have also been pleased to find the Powerpoint slides, and the quizzes, which are immense help especially for the first time one uses the book.  Given how often new instructors are given critical thinking courses to teach, these aids can be invaluable. Even a veteran like myself can be aided in making the best use of an unfamiliar book.

I am still enjoying these resources: I am happily using and reworking many of the powerpoint slides — it saves a great deal of time and energy.  So far, my biggest disappointment is that I have been looking for something I can’t find.  The second chapter has an exercise that refers to a video the instructor will show — so the students may apply the analysis just taught.  It seems like a great activity for class, and I was looking forward to it.  I expected given all the resources that some suggestions would be provided, but found none.

So, I was torn between trying to come up with something myself, and risking not finding anything that works, or using a less dynamic exercise. But after 20 minutes I did find a fun example: 

Normally I avoid sports examples like the plague but I thought the students would enjoy it, and indeed they did. It was good to go beyond my comfort zone and into arenas more familiar to some of them. We used it to apply the 5 guiding questions for inquiry set forth by Bailin and Battersby. It works remarkably well given that one can really only hear one side of the discussion, and the volume is extremely inconsistent.  I wish the authors had provided an appropriate clip — or two!

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.

Homework: To grade or not to grade

Grading homework has undeniable value. Students need feedback on their work to learn and the more personal and individuated the more they are likely to benefit. But the turnaround time for grading can make it frustrating for everyone. The class has already moved on to the next topic or so by the time students receive graded feedback, and so both students and instructors end up juggling multiple cognitive skills in a way that seems to interfere with learning, and the progress of the course.check-mark-1292787_960_720

So this term I’m not grading any homework. I’ve done this before in a fallacies class, just go through the answers in class. Previously, I simply kept it on the honour system, but it was a small enough class at around 20 that we could have good discussion. This time with 90 1st-year students I will give them credit for simply completing their homework: 1 mark for completion when they arrive in class ready to take it up, and partial marks for partial efforts. Not done or done late? No credit. Students can miss one — due to illness or whatever — and still get a perfect grade: They will have 11 opportunities to earn 10 marks.

I developed this structure in part because of advice I received from a friend who teaches the very large intro psych class: keep them busy in class. That applies to class rather than homework, of course, because in a large class it’s especially easy for student to disengage.

But it reminded me how valuable simply attempting the exercises can be — especially at a first-year level with students from all across the campus, many away from home for the first time, most who will never take another philosophy class. Engaging such a range of students who are just discovering post-secondary education is a big challenge.

All argumentation and critical thinking classes depend greatly on practice, like any other skills-based course such as a performance or lab course, and keeping students engaged can be as valuable as detailed feedback. This may be especially true at the introductory level where they have more to gain from simply working through the problems. In learning the proper answers in class they still have the opportunity to learn from their errors, to start their descent on that Dunning-Kruger curve.Dunning Kruger Chart


It may be too that being responsible for evaluating the correctness of their own answers will give students an authority that they appreciate. Of course I know that people have a difficult time recognizing our own errors, but that is a skill students can develop during the course.There will be opportunities for students to get detailed feedback and coaching too, but they must seek it out.

Perhaps students will collaborate in their learning? The in-class exercises will encourage that. Are they likely to plagiarize their homework? To copy from each other? Unfortunately, I expect it from time-to-time, and will direct my graduate assistants to be on the lookout. However, the students’ greater loss should they cheat in copying homework will be in their lost opportunity to learn from their real mistakes; and that will hurt them when it comes to the tests, which are worth a great deal more in terms of grades. Those who go through that may learn something distinct too, about how learning can’t be short-cut, that they have over-estimated their own competence; but they will still in other ways be behind the others.

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).

Critical thinking about social perception

A quick way to demonstrate the power of critical thinking to students, and perhaps improve their ability to understand and negotiate social networks comes from the Washington Post reporting on research by Kristina Lerhman et al. Our usual assumptions about the influence of majorities are brought into question, when we take into account who is most connected to others.


This exercise (do it!  it’s fun!) shows how behaviour we observe locally can  fail to represent what goes on globally.  This “majority” illusion can compound other socially biases such as my side effect and confirmation bias.

It should be fun for teaching too!