Teaching critical thinking?
September 4, 2014 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Have you ever had a class (or similar structured educational experience) that actually taught you to be better at logic and critical thinking? If so, how'd it do that?

(I know "critical thinking" gets used two different ways, but for the purposes of this question, I'm referring the cognitive skillset, not the political sensibility-- i.e., being able to generate rigorous logical arguments, detect fallacies, articulate one's own premises, etc., rather than having one's eyes open to the violence inherent in the system.)

I grew up in a pretty debate-friendly household and have never not enjoyed dialectic, so I don't feel like I have a good sense of the steps by which these skills could be created incrementally through instruction (vs. simply being there, like a sense of musical pitch or whatever). Nonetheless, I'm now teaching a course that claims in part to inculcate "critical thinking," so I'm wondering: can anyone can report a life experience that actually improved your ability to think and argue rationally? If so, what did the trick? Are there classroom experiences that anyone can recommend as having made a real difference for your critical thinking skills?
posted by gallusgallus to Education (19 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty much all of law school. Specifically, use of the Socratic method.

Another thing I think can be useful is having students argue the opposite of their personal positions. For example, someone who is against marriage equality would have to argue the pro-marriage-equality position.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:16 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

A course in formal logic is a standard part of an undergraduate philosophy program, and my text was actually called "Critical Thinking." This book might be too technical for your students, but there are other books on formal logic, I'm sure.
posted by Leontine at 9:34 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you ever seen "The Propaganda Game"? That really helped me.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:34 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a rigorous team-based learning course in epidemiology last spring, and it was fabulous. We had lecture once a week, and then a classroom lab once a week. The lab was divided into permanent groups; we all took an individual assessment, then worked together on the assessment for a group score, then had an exercise that got progressively harder. The class worked on the exercise questions simultaneously, and had to publicly state our group's answer (via a live poll). Groups would randomly be called to advocate for their answer (big stress on warranting claims here), and the entire lab would come to a consensus (or argue it out forever and be guided toward the right answer).

At first, the course was very frustrating for me - my peers and I are used to working alone, gaming tests ("that answer must be right because none of the others are"), and doing well. Collaborating and outlining our answers first within the small group, then within the larger, was invaluable to understanding the concepts as well as learning bigger skills.

Other than that - collegiate parliamentary debate was full of assholes but taught me how to hold my own. It's quite popular globally, and debaters don't do research beforehand; they need to have a familiarity with domestic and global events, but no specific technical points are required. Videos are on parlidebate.com.
posted by quadrilaterals at 9:50 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a teacher and a student, I find that "critical thinking" gets promoted more than actually taught, you know? Sigh. Anyway, I thought I benefited from explicitly learning about specific logical fallacies. In history, sociolinguistics, and anthropology classes, learning the kinds of questions to ask in order to evaluate a situation was useful (e.g. who profits? where are the disparities?).
posted by wintersweet at 10:10 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was in 8th grade the state math curriculum had a unit on formal logic proofs (not geometry, just standard logic). It was very awesome, and taught me so much about how to use my mind. I'm not finding any good resources on Google about it though. I guess they don't teach this anymore? That's a shame.

But how it went was you were given a hypothesis, and a bunch of pre-existing conditions, and then a set of logical rules. Then step by step you make a list of assertions using the givens and the rules until you've proved the starting out hypothesis. Now that i think about it it was kind of like theoretical programming. Programming is not much different than that.

It really taught me how to systematically think through problems that didn't have pre-existing formulas and show the work for it. It was invaluable training for an English major.

Another brilliant exercise was my 7th grade Global Studies teacher who forced us to learn the proper rules for outlines. What goes in a parent item, how to assign child items, how to distill long complicated information into its essence and then communicate that accurately.
posted by bleep at 10:11 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have taught logic and critical thinking, but I do not believe these classes expand general critical thinking skills. The evidence from the CLA seems to back that up.

What does teach critical thinking is this:

1. 40 pages of weekly reading.
2. 15 pages of writing per semester
3. High teacher expectations.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:18 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've also taught critical thinking, and I agree with anotherpanacea although maybe not quite so pessimistic about the value of logic/critical thinking courses. I think talking explicitly about rules for arguments, common fallacies or rhetorical techniques, scientific reasoning in general terms, can be valuable. It's valuable to get them talking about the idea of "premises" and "conclusions" even though just those ideas still confuse many.

One course in critical thinking is no substitute for a good liberal arts education: a lot of reading and then a teacher (and other students) who ask difficult questions about the reading, and actually presses (gently) for good answers. A good deal of writing that gets pointed feedback from the teacher.

Some specific experiences I remember that might be things you can incorporate:

- A professor telling me "no, that doesn't seem plausible for x reason" in a literature class. Sometimes literature classes can be free-for-alls with no public acknowledgement of wrong theories - so it can be very valuable to provide those boundaries that show how we decide which interpretations are plausible and which aren't. Show how you use evidence from the text in figuring out what's plausible.

- A course that required us to submit short (200 word? 300 word?) summaries of the readings. (The readings were argumentative academic papers.) I worked so hard on those summaries, and it was a great exercise, to see which details are extraneous to the main point, what things you can shave off or group together, etc.

- Working with a student in my office on a paper that he had written. It was an 8 page paper. I asked him to write up an outline on the whiteboard of what his thesis was and what his evidence or arguments were. Partway through doing that, he understood what I was saying about why his paper was hard to follow and didn't have a clear enough structure... and then we talked about how he could revise, and he did, and the paper was much better. So - I think if you can get students to write a draft and then talk to someone about it in a way that makes them speak some of their assertions, it makes them see it in a new light.

- There's a joke that the two kind of objection you can make to someone's argument boil down to these. Depending what you're asking students to do, you can have them try out making objections of these types:
"Oh yeah?" - Why should I believe that your assertion is true?
"So what?" - Even if your assertion were true, why should I believe that it leads to the implications you suggest?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:51 AM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Another thought -

Just thinking about literature classes. In high school, often their classes are focused on "what does the text really say" or "what did the author intend for us to think" kind of questions. The next step is to get into a kind of conversation with the author -- "okay, author, you want us to believe such-and-such, but is that really true, is that giving us a real insight into the world or is that a distortion?" They need to be able to answer the first kind of question well (to accurately understand and support their claims about what the author intended or what the text says) in order to get into the second kind of question.

Critical thinking is also something you can encourage by encouraging them to ask each other questions in class, or to (gently) raise challenges to another student's interpretation.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:00 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are also some good answers in this old thread.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:13 AM on September 4, 2014

Yeah, that was a quick bit of pessimism (or actually optimism for close reading, in-depth writing, and tough grading). But it's a serious problem: I find it's very hard to distinguish between classes that require critical thinking skills and classes that cultivate critical thinking skills. All of what LobsterMitten says here is totally awesome teaching advice, but we don't know if these kinds of experiences expand general/global skills in critical thinking.

There's some good evidence for argument mapping, though.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:22 AM on September 4, 2014

I went to a liberal arts college that required even the science majors to take three full years of humanities courses. Quarter system, so I had at least 9 and really probably 12 different teachers demanding essays from us.

To follow on melissasaurus' point - making students argue the opposite of their positions is absolutely what worked on me. In a 10 week course, one teacher in particular had us spend the first half of the term writing properly cited, 5-page essays every week arguing our beliefs regarding some topic from some primary social science text. The last half of the term had us turning in 5-page essays debating the arguments we forwarded ourselves in the first half. Grades in the first half were solely based on how well we constructed/supported our argument. Grades in the second half were based on that same criteria, plus how well we counter-argued.

This will be weird - but another thing that helps is having kids write software. There are many ways to solve a problem with code. There are also many ways to not solve a problem with code. Even the "best" way to solve a problem depends on context in terms of circumstances at the time, audience (aka - users), etc. The "best" solution at a given time might be anything but that in a different context given the demands and consequent trade-offs. Great teachers in computer science will have kids code to solve a problem, then change up the problem and assumptions just enough to tempt some kids to try and adapt their old solution, and others to take a new approach.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 11:27 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel like my first introductory literature course in critical theory was fantastic for really helping me to start to think independently.

First, the course material was probably the first time that I'd really been introduced to the idea that there course be multiple takes on any given text/idea (my high school classes were very much focused on teaching critical thinking by getting a "right" answer to a series of pre-prepared questions).

Second, we were required to write a 1-page free-form response paper twice per week to address some aspect of the current course material. I found that to be a painful exercise at first, but I attribute that to a lack of practice. I now look back on it as the first time that I really used my own thinking/writing skills on a regular basis. I count it as one of the most valuable experiences in my entire college career.
posted by owls at 12:20 PM on September 4, 2014

I'm coming from a science perspective, so my definition of "critical thinking" may or may not be helpful for you, but I found that I improved my critical thinking the most in (mostly graduate level) classes where we had to read scientific articles and basically tear them apart - summarize the key points but most importantly identify all weaknesses in rationale/hypothesis as well as methods used to test it, and brainstorm some ways it could have been done differently. This was typically done in a group with one or two assigned papers, but also sometimes as a written assignment or a powerpoint presentation, and all three approaches were helpful for me, in similar but slightly distinct ways.

I'm guessing you could do a similar exercise with something like a newspaper article, a book, an essay, an opinion, even an overall philosophy, etc etc. The important parts were having time to think about it beforehand, being forced to come up with some critiques ourselves, and then hearing how others in the class interpreted it. Maybe give out some examples before the exercise, if anyone is completely new to the idea.
posted by randomnity at 12:23 PM on September 4, 2014

Maybe this will be helpful: In undergrad I had a course where we had to pick one article each week and critique it (in writing). The article had to discuss something relating to world affairs (so not celebrities, movies etc.) but one could use whatever newspaper (yellow press, serious newspaper, magazine) one wanted. The prof picked three people each week at random who then had to read their article and critique. The class gave feedback. One could voluntarily turn their critique in if one did not get picked (for better grades).
posted by travelwithcats at 12:32 PM on September 4, 2014

In university courses I've taught, I've typically had a learning objective about "increasing students' capacities to engage critically with the social world" and have tried hard to make that an actual learning outcome. What follows is my North American experience, so YMMV as an individual.

In 100-level (1st/2nd-year) courses, the students have tended to have trouble with adopting a world view different from their own (much less a full-on theoretical framework). Students I've had at that stage are much more commonly only able to evaluate the merits of particular views: e.g., "I do/don't like world-systems theory because X" or "I think demographic transition theory has some problems like Y and Z."

So I've done a number of exercises along the lines of "If I believe Wallerstein about World Systems Theory, what else do I probably believe?" and "If we accept such-and-such criticism of the Demographic Transition Model, where else does that criticism potentially apply?" The goal is getting them to think with rather than about some world view. Those are the critical thinking skills I've found appropriate to that level.

In high school, by contrast, the students tend to still be untangling who thinks what about X, when writers quote or cite other writers.

For advanced (3rd/4th-year) university courses, grappling with theoretical frameworks is much more useful and appropriate, and also tends to be how I test the students. One recent midterm had the students read a news article, and then just gave an instruction to "Analyze the article by applying the concepts of two different weeks, of your choosing" (with some filler text after). The idea there is do develop both context-specific skills in the academic discipline, and the broader critical thinking skills in which the students take a theoretical understanding of the world and apply it to an event.

The goal for strong critical thinkers is actually to be able to navigate between different theoretical viewpoints--and that's for academics as well as in the non-academic world. From working on an organizing campaign, for instance, the question "If I'm X right now, what am I doing to beat us?" is one of the best generative questions I've seen--and that's exactly transposing a whole different world view into the room.
posted by migrantology at 1:16 PM on September 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

I really liked Barbara Minto's The Minto Pyramid Principle as an introduction to logic, thinking and problem solving.
posted by rippersid at 1:19 PM on September 4, 2014

I really didn't like the Minto Pyramid principle - people who make much more money and are probably all around better people love it.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:01 PM on September 4, 2014

During my first two years of a doctoral program in the social sciences, we would read classic articles in the field then, during classroom discussion, proffer every alternative explanation we could conceive and critique every aspect of the research methodology and data analysis. I've always felt that this was the most valuable part of the graduate school experience, in that it enabled me to see holes in my arguments before I presented them.

Sorry for the delayed comment here; I'm just back from vacation.
posted by DrGail at 8:58 AM on September 6, 2014

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