Critical Thinking, Higher Education

Evidence, Argument, and Instruction, Oh My.

Just after the January 6th assault on the US Capitol, I wrote a blog in which I discussed what I felt were the limits of “truthiness.” In my thinking, our cultural habit of embracing the laughter that accompanies the snarkiness of that term (a feeling I truly love, by the way), was not helping us anymore. While truthiness summarizes an important moment in the history of politics and the news, it also seems to leave us at the laughing stage, which is not the right place to stop. We’ve gotten complacent about taking that important next step of questioning the thinking behind “truthy” claims and arguments. Now more than ever we need to commit to that hard work.

I was calling for my colleagues in higher education to commit to teaching informal logic. As a young adult, I remember that before I had the tools that I gleaned from that foundational philosophy class, I often felt bullied by arguments I sensed were wrong. I just couldn’t break them down properly. Those many years ago, I remember the awakening I felt in Dr. James Freeman’s class at Hunter College. In mapping out the structure of arguments, I suddenly felt able to defend myself, and to think things through. I kept his book, Thinking Logically: Basic Concepts for Reasoning, on my shelf for many years.

Well, to my delight an old family friend, Dr. Mark Battersby (emeritus faculty from Capilano University), who has spent his career teaching philosophy and trying to further the instruction in critical thinking and its necessary components argument and evidence responded to that column. Mark and his frequent writing partner, Dr. Sharon Bailin have written several texts addressing the teaching of critical thinking, most recently Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking (2nd Edition). Well, Mark wanted to remind me that without attention to evaluating evidence, mapping arguments will not get us very far. Indeed!

Evaluating evidence should be the heart of all that we do in higher education. No amount of diagramming arguments or participating in debates will work if we cannot distinguish between good and bad (better or worse) evidence. Whether considering probabilities, the validity of a scientific experiment, or the basis for making an ethical judgement, evidence is the critical element in our decision making. I would suggest that this particular skill is almost the entire point of an undergraduate degree.

Nevertheless, we have a way of neglecting the direct instruction necessary to build the capacity of our students to evaluate evidence. We seem to get bogged down in “covering material” instead of evaluating it. Or we focus on the techniques of math (statistics) or experimental design, while neglecting the frameworks for the questions that these techniques are meant to help us explore. Then there are those who feel that indirect instruction is best. The thinking seems to be that modeling the evaluation of evidence and arguments in our lectures and class discussions is sufficient for student enlightenment.

Well, I just don’t think these approaches are sufficient. The barrage of (mis)information that we encounter every day, and the assault on authority of all kinds, as an extension of the US commitment to individuality and independence, are testing the limits of our collective skills at evaluation of evidence. It is too much to handle by osmosis. We need to hone a toolkit.

At WCSU, we have at least four general education competencies that are rooted in the evaluation of arguments and evidence. Information Literacy takes on sources and ethical use of information. Writing Tier 1 (Composition I) connects the writing process to critical thinking. Oral Communication requires students to determine “the boundaries of arguments” and “identify and site relevant and appropriate evidence.” Critical Thinking asks students to “distinguish between arguments and unsupported claims” and “evaluate assumptions and the quality and reliability of evidence.” I should add that Scientific Inquiry and Quantitative Reasoning also play an important role in laying the foundations for competence in evaluating evidence. Given that we only have a few other categories in the general education curriculum, it seems that we care deeply about fostering the habits of mind and the skills necessary for critical thinking.

What is missing, however, is evidence that we are offering direct instruction in these topics. We are mostly relying on osmosis, and in this high speed internet world, with no true habits of reflection, only reaction, it is too easy to miss the logical leaps and faulty claims if we don’t know how to label them as such.

Let me commit, again, to the importance of direct instruction in the dissection of arguments and strategies to evaluate evidence. Our students need the vocabulary that comes from informal logic and an understanding of probabilities to even begin tearing apart and rebuilding arguments. These foundations are as essential as basic literacy and arithmetic. They are the building blocks for a successful college career.

Now I don’t have an opinion on which courses or disciplines are the best contexts for laying these foundations. It is possible to cultivate these skills in any discipline, and at WCSU, where we have adopted a competencies-across-the-curriculum approach, this instruction is dispersed. That’s fine. But those who take it on should make it central to the class, not a brief unit for a few weeks, and there should be a common vocabulary in the end. And, since the knowledge is foundational, students should encounter and develop their initial skills with these ideas in the first year.

This does mean reprioritizing some of the things that we do but imagine how much more fun we can have in later courses if students have these tools to draw on! If we do it right, we will also see improvement in student success overall. And perhaps most important of all, our graduates will be prepared to make informed decisions and arguments for the rest of their lives. Now that’s a learning outcome I would love.

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