I got the latest edition of English Journal this week, and while I have been remiss in keeping up with past issues, I jumped for joy to see this one, which centers on one of my favorite areas of study: Logic and Critical Reasoning. I try to teach critical thinking to all of my classes, and I was excited to see what ideas were included to reinforce this absolutely vital universal subdiscipline.
I am happy to announce that I have not yet been disappointed.
Before I get into the specifics of what I’ve read so far (which isn’t much, but there’s plenty to say about that), let me just say that I was impressed first and foremost by a few of the authors of articles in this edition. The first two actual articles are written by (respectively) George Hillocks, Jr., and Thomas M. McCann; the former is a very highly respected language arts researcher and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and the latter is another very respected researcher, former superintendent, and associate professor at Northern Illinois University (who also gave the keynote at this year’s ITEC conference that I attended in April at Illinois State University).
My knowledge of these gentlemen is roundabout: I had heard of Hillocks through Peter Smagorinsky (both from a college text and from articles in EJ) and knew that Hillocks basically set the standard for English language arts through his constructivist modeling. When I heard McCann’s keynote in April, he also spoke of Hillocks as somewhat foundational. Hillocks is particularly responsible (I believe) for the recent conclusion that traditional grammar instruction does not improve student writing, despite how well entrenched it is in modern practice.
If I had generalized Hillocks’s position into a rule, I might have had warrant for guessing what his position is on teaching arguments: don’t teach the formal stuff. (Do you know the Toulmin method? You do if you got the significance of the italicized words.) As disappointing as it is for me to admit – I love formal logic! – I think Hillocks is right. When I teach logical fallacies, most of it goes over their heads, even with giving them examples and asking them to determine what they think is wrong first. Simply put, students can tell you that it’s illegitimate to argue based on how popular a belief is, but they don’t really care that it’s called the bandwagon fallacy or argumentum ad populum or even argument from popularity. Robert C. Covel later disagrees with this and does introduce an interesting point: students may encounter terms like ad hominem if they get interested in national discourses, even on 24-hour news or some political shows, but I think that such discussions probably should not carry much weight.
What has surprised me (in some ways) about the Hillocks and McCann articles, as well as later ones, is the wide range of activities intended to teach critical thinking. Hillocks suggests a murder mystery scenario, asking students to identify general rules that can then be applied to the scenario to deduce what actually happened; McCann presents an activity where students have to analyze paintings to see which one would be best suited to be donated for a hospital waiting room; Paula M. Carbone even explains how a commonplace book – a scrapbook of sorts intended to help students engage current issues – can be used to cultivate multiple perspectives, an invaluable tool for arguing effectively.
Since I am so passionate about helping students learn how to think well, these ideas strike me as incredibly useful, and I suspect that I will use Hillocks’s idea in particular for my sophomores this year. (It’s fitting since we’ll read Agatha Christie at the end of the year, and I have students write their own murder mysteries to get them to think about the components of a good mystery.) I do a lot of persuasion with all of my classes, and this would be an interesting way of testing how this method works on a class I’ll get to follow for the next few years and see how they progress.
Educators – if you’re still with me this summer – what are some critical thinking exercises that have worked well for you? Leave a comment about how you use critical thinking and reasoning in the classroom.