One of the first things I tell my Humanities students is that critical thinking is the skill of asking good questions. I explain that a good question is not self-evident, and that my critical thinking course is ultimately about learning how to ask good questions. But, why should we learn to ask good questions? And furthermore, what constitutes a good question? With these questions we begin a semester-long conversation that aims to reveal the basic conditions of good question-asking, the value of which is in a sense self-evident: critical thinking (i.e., the ability to ask good questions, to strive for impartial, reasoned thought, to acquire sophisticated problem solving skills, to seek informed judgment over biased opinion) is an absolutely transferable skill, one that is necessary to achieve excellence in thought and a good quality of life.
How to teach critical thinking?
Given its universality, I think critical thinking can be taught using a broad range of material. In a sense, the content of a critical thinking course is secondary to the way the material is taught. I don’t mean to say all material is equally appropriate for a Humanities course on critical thinking; rather, my (mitigated) point is that for any course in which texts are read, ideas are analyzed, arguments are constructed, revised and reconstructed, problems are worked out and solved – indeed, for any course that perfects the thinking process and makes thought the object of thought – critical thinking is a pre-given condition. How, then, do we teach the skill of thinking about thought?
I find this question is best clarified if we consider it in the context of writing. Writing is never just writing. Writing is essentially the representation of thought. As such, it is an act of repetition or recollection, which itself is a type of revision. Writing is fundamentally revisionary – writing is really re-writing. What we discover through writing is not just an expression of our ideas, but also (and more importantly) the possibility of thinking beyond the fixity of our ideas.
In other words, writing allows us to show what we think and likewise, what we do not think, what we do not yet think, the gaps in our thought, the errors, the blind spots, and the questions we have not asked and should ask. Indeed, writing not only unveils what and how we think, it reveals (and releases) what and how we can think. In this way, writing expresses the basic process of critical thinking, and thus, to improve the way we teach critical thinking, we must refine our use of writing as a pedagogical and learning tool.
Why I came to WID?
I came to WID wanting to improve my courses by developing better formal writing assignments. Before WID, I already had a strong belief in the short, informal writing assignment and had students write informally at least once per class. See Bean References 1 As I’d look back over these assignments at the end of term, I could trace student progress, and it was always so good for the morale. I’d see great improvement in writing, depth of ideas, and thoroughness of arguments. When it came to the formal essays, however, the great ideas, inspired writing, and profundity of thought disappeared. Something was going wrong between the short assignments and the long papers. See Bean References 2 My goal in WID was to learn how to bridge the gap between the informal and formal assignments, and receive the wonderful papers I knew my students had in them.
Within the first few WID meetings, I realized my problem. I was asking my students the wrong questions, and not surprisingly, receiving unsatisfying answers. It turns out that formal essays are really only one way, and not necessarily the best way, to help students improve critical thinking and analytical writing. I learned many good ideas chatting and sharing at the WID meetings, but the best and most important moment for me was when I was informed of the benefit of writing in different genres. See Bean References 3
I’ve provided examples two formal assignments I reshaped while I was in WID. I used in class assignments, in class discussions, informal presentations, and small quizzes as a way to scaffold the formal assignment. See Bean References 4 Both formal assignments were formerly thesis-driven essays, but after reading Bean’s discussion of the common problems with traditional methods of assigning writing and the merits of alternative methods, I completely reconstructed both assignmentsSee Bean references 5. One assignment is now a dialogue and the other is a two part project – part research report, part letter. To give you a sense of the timeline, the scaffolding begins in the first week and the assignment is due around week 8. To give a more complete picture of my process, I’ve also provided examples of the informal writings assignments I use to scaffold the formal assignments.
B. Informal Writing Assignments: 5 examples
Examples 1 & 2
Here are examples of short assignments I give students in one of my Philosophy classes. At this point, we are at “Step 2” of the scaffolding process (approximately lecture 10). Students have been introduced to some of the major trends in the history of philosophy and the basic tenets of existentialism, and are given an informal assignment on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. The assignment is done in groups, and worth a small percentage of the in-class assignment grade. Students are given about 15-20 minutes to do the assignment, which they hand in at the end of class. Students are asked to stop 5 minutes before class is over to do the exploratory writing assignment (Example 2). The goal of the exploratory assignment is to have students reflect individually on the ideas they discussed in their groups.
What does the quote say and do?
First, explain the main point of the quote. What is the writer saying? (5 marks)
Second, contextualize the quote in the broader text and clarify the argument (i.e., what the quote does). (5 marks)
Each question is worth a total of 10 marks.
a. Faith therefore is not an aesthetic emotion but something far higher, precisely because it has resignation as its presupposition; it is not an immediate instinct of the heart, but is the paradox of life and existence. (Fear and Trembling pg. 126)
Consider the following questions as you discuss what the quote does: Why is faith, according to Kierkegaard, not an aesthetic emotion? Why is it the paradox of life and existence? What is the paradox?
b. … thus to live joyfully and happily every instant by virtue of the absurd, every instant to see the sword hanging over the head of the beloved, and yet to find repose in the pain of resignation, but also joy by virtue of the absurd – this is marvelous. He who does it is great, the only great man. (Fear and Trembling pg. 129)
Consider the following questions as you discuss what the quote does: Why does Kierkegaard claim that the great man, the knight of faith, lives joyfully and happily every instant by virtue of the absurd? What does Kierkegaard mean by the absurd?
Exploratory writing assignment done individually at the end of class (2 minute free writing assignment):
Is Kierkegaard an existentialist? 5 marks
Examples 3, 4 & 5
The following are examples of assignments I give during the first half of the semester in my second level Humanities course (World Views: The Foundation of Violence). The scaffolding in these assignments is quite repetitive. First I ask students to work in groups and apply basic behavioral theories to a violent situation depicted in a film. Next, I have the student groups apply more elaborate behavioral theories to a real and specific situation of violence. Finally, students must individually apply the elaborate behavioral theories to a real situation of violence and students must use different genres to investigate and explore their thoughts on the matter. Although students are asked to deepen and elaborate their skills each time, the three assignments are basically the same in structure. The examples and questions are designed to create an overarching learning experience such that students can transfer and apply their ideas as they work through the various assignments. To reinforce the transference, the midterm exam requires that students apply the elaborate behavioral theories to all three examples of violence.
1. What main point does the film make on the nature of violence? Likewise, what main point does the Milgram Experiment make on the nature of violence? (5 marks)
2. Do you think the test subjects in the film should be absolved of their violent actions because they were ‘playing roles in an experiment’ and because they were ‘following authority and orders’? (5 marks)
3. Do you think these experiments are ethical? In other words, the experiments were designed to better understand human violence and motivation, yet to succeed in the experiments, harm and violence was necessarily inflicted on the test subjects. Was this justified? (10 marks)
4. Use the 4 explanations of how ordinary people commit acts of violence to analyze the escalating violence in the film Das Experiment. Be as detailed as possible in your answers – provide examples from the film to justify your answers. (20 marks)
McDonald’s Strip-search scam
Using Zimbardo’s ten methods of compliance strategies on pages 273-274, explain and analyze the McDonald’s strip-search. Remember that you are trying to use the theories to explain the specific context of power difference and compliance to authority in order to understand the events that occurred in the fast food franchise. Once your analysis of the strip-search scam is complete, answer the question: who is responsible, and why? Consider all the people involved in the scam when you address the question.
Here are a few examples of free writing assignments I give to students before and after every viewing of the documentary film Standard Operating Procedure. Before students watch the documentary they are given questions that are intended to help guide them as they watch the documentary, and to help them cull and interpret the information they are seeing. They are asked to take notes on the film and to use the guiding questions to help them in their note-taking. At the end of the class, they are again asked to write, this time they are given a very specific question and asked to free write. The point of the free writing assignment is to have students focus their thoughts immediately after viewing the documentary. They are given a topic to think about and asked to free write for 1-2 minutes. I grade these assignments for completion (5 marks each). I explain to students that the more effort they put into these assignments, the easier it will be for them to construct their paper and letter. When the paper topic is handed out, they are told to use all the writing (notes and free writing) as part of the groundwork of their research.
Examples of pre-viewing guideline questions:
- How do the behavioral theories we studied in class apply to the events in the documentary? Use the theories to help make sense of the actions of the military police.
- Why does Errol Morris film the way he does? What do you notice about how the images are shot?
- Why does Errol Morris include the love triangle between the military police as part of his documentary narrative? What point is he making?
Examples of post-viewing free-writing questions:
- Do you think the testimonies are accurate?
- What is the director’s intention? Is the director biased?
- What is shown in the photographs? What is left out? Is photography a neutral form of journalism?
C. Scaffolding (Alternative) Formal Assignments: 2 examples
Course: Philosophy: Ideas and Culture – The Existential View
Task: Dialogue (first “paper”)
Objective: To have students clearly express and justify their interpretation of the assigned philosophical texts. In this assignment, students use excerpts from Soren Kierkegaard’s The Unscientific Postscript and Fear and Trembling, Plato’s Apology, and Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist.
Course: Humanities: World Views – The Foundation of Violence
Task: Research report and letter (first “paper”)
Objective: To have students clearly express their understanding of the psychological theories and to apply the theories to the case study in an interesting and justified manner. In this assignment, students use excerpts from Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: How ordinary people turn evil, an article by Seymour Hersch on the tortures at Abu Ghraib published in The New Yorker magazine, and the documentary Standard Operating Procedure by Errol Morris.
Areas I’d like to improve
I spent almost all my time in WID reworking the content and structure of my assignments. I did not, however, manage to change my grading techniques. In the future, I’d like to improve my rubrics. See Bean references 6.
Possible ways WID can grow
I really enjoyed the experience of participating in WID and I’m certain my courses and pedagogical skills have greatly benefitted from sharing best practices with other teachers. I think a peer review committee for teachers wanting to have their assignments, exams, grading standards and rubrics reviewed would be a great help to all teachers. Also, I find the online blogs helpful, but I wonder if there’s a way to organize the blogs by topics or problems. For example, perhaps a list of common problems (i.e., Are you having trouble getting students to write formal papers? Having trouble getting students to do the reading?) could be linked to a bank of WID-compiled ways to manage these problems. I just wonder if there’s a way to help teachers search the blogs more efficiently.
E. References – Bean, Engaging Ideas
1.One of my favorite chapters in Bean’s Engaging Ideas was chapter 7. Thankfully, it was one of the first readings we did for the WID discussion groups, and, as a result, I was able to take a full semester’s advantage of the insight I gained. Chapter 7 discusses informal and exploratory writing activities as alternatives and complements to formal writing assignments. As I already believed in the informal writing assignment, I was happy to find out that there is a good amount of proof that informal writing assignments are beneficial to students and pedagogically sound. I was furthermore happy to find out that group work is also a good learning tool (see pages. 185 and following), as I like to combine informal writing assignments with group work. I also appreciated the distinction Bean makes between informal and exploratory writing. Exploratory writing was less known to me, and I found it was a helpful complementary exercise to informal writing assignments that required a slightly complex level of thought. Most of all, I found Bean’s ideas on using informal and exploratory writing to scaffold formal assignments extremely useful (pgs. 138 and following). Most of the changes I made to my courses were based on the ideas I gained from this section of Bean’s work.
2. In Chapter 6, Bean discusses the common view of traditional methods of assigning writing and compares it to alternative methods. Although the traditional method is not without its merits, Bean underscores the point that the traditional method is for the most part the only method we think is valid. Bean argues that alternative methods allow students to link the process of thinking to writing more explicitly, which thereby overtly engages the student in critical thinking. One idea I found very helpful in rethinking how to approach writing assignments is developed on pgs. 95 and following. In these pages, Bean discusses the importance of articulating the learning goal as a preparation for designing the assignment. I considered this great advice for all assignments (formal and informal, long and short) and moreover, I found that expressing the learning goal to students (particularly the learning goal of in class, informal writing assignments) very helpful. Doing so allowed me to make sure my assignment had a clear point, that it linked to other things we had done and will do in the course, and that what the students gain from doing the assignment is unambiguous. Furthermore, students seemed to appreciate the explicitness of the learning goal. It became clear to them how the present assignment linked to things they did earlier in the class, to the previous class, to the topic of the course, and to future assignments and tests. Articulating the learning goals of my assignments to my students allowed me to situate the assignments in a meaningful context.
3. Chapter 4 introduced an idea I had never considered before – having students write in different genres (see pages. 52 and following). The basic argument of the chapter is simple and disarmingly self-evident and has definitely won me over: Writing refines thinking. Writing in different genres refines different forms of thought. Thinking in different forms creates a stronger understanding of the deep structure of thought. Finally, understanding the deep structure of thought is, in a sense, the goal of critical thinking, that is, to create the completely transferable skill of clear and organized thought.
4. Scaffolding is intuitive to most teachers – all teachers do it whether they know it or not. As Bean shows us in Chapter 13, there are ways to improve sequencing and scaffolding techniques. As I mentioned in Bean References 1, the best way to think about scaffolding is to use Bean’s ideas on backwards designing. In a sense, the sequencing of smaller, lower-stakes assignments, informal and exploratory writing assignments arise organically when the end goal is clearly determined. See especially pgs. 231-249.
5. As I discuss above, Chapter 6 does a great job of laying out the strengths and weaknesses of traditional vs. alternative formal writing assignments. The chapter was valuable for me because I design my courses with a final goal in mind. Previously, the final goal was a traditional formal writing assignment. After rethinking the merits of the traditional formal writing assignment, however, I redesigned the end goal of my courses to focus on alternative formal writing assignments and by extension I redesigned most of my informal assignments too. Indeed, rethinking the end goal allowed me to rethink the process of getting there.
6. In the future, Chapter 14 will be invaluable for my grading. In a sense, Bean applies the same argument from designing assignments to designing rubrics. Basically, backwards designing is a key part to creating a successful and pedagogically sound rubric. Moreover, clear, multi-faceted writing guidelines allow students the opportunity to understand how to improve their writing. That is to say, general guidelines are less helpful than task-specific guidelines (see pages 270 and following).