Tag Archives: reasoning

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.

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.”

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