MODULE 2: CRITICAL THINKING
The present module provides a guide for teachers and educational professionals for analysing the basic aspects of thinking processes, in order to support students in creating their own opinions independently, being able to analyse and evaluate the reliability of information, discourses and arguments, questioning assumptions and detecting logical fallacies and thinking biases.
In the era of hyper-connection we are living, we are bombarded with a continuous flow of information and news: young people in particular if not well trained in critical thinking, will tend to absorb any information without reformulating and questioning it, thus ending up believing immediately everything they read or hear. Critical thinking is important especially in a world that is often made of fake news, voluntary distortions of facts or reality and propaganda.
With particular reference to controversial issues, such as migration, terrorism, gender violence and sexual orientations, left to rely on friends and social media for their information, young people can be frustrated or confused about some of the major issues which affect their communities and European society today. In the absence of help from school, they might have no reliable means of dealing with these issues constructively and no one to guide them.
The role of school and teachers becomes fundamental in this sense, to support students in developing their critical thinking, approaching news, data and information in logical and conscious ways, to understand and handle life in pluralist social environments, becoming resilient against extreme views, social polarisation and radicalisation processes.
After the completion of this module, you will be able to:
- Understand the links between ideas
- Determine the importance and relevance of arguments and ideas
- Recognise arguments
- Identify inconsistencies, weaknesses and errors in reasoning
- Recognise biases
- Evaluate sources and data
Critical thinking can be defined as the ability to think rationally, exploring issues and ideas and understanding the logical connection between them, before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion. It might be also described as the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.
We all think and we do it continuously. Our thoughts and way of thinking depends on the quality of our life, the choices we made, the way we see and interpret the reality.
But often our thinking is biased, prejudiced, distorted or based on partial information. Having not a full and clear overview of a situation, issue, news, can lead us to assume a different perspective that can affect many aspects of our actions.
Critical thinking is a habit of mind that needs to be cultivated from childhood. Schools and teachers need to support students in developing their ability to reason upon ideas, accustoming them to be active learners rather than passive recipients of information.
Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not.
It requires you to use your ability to reason.
The basic unit of reasoning is an argument.
Within the context of “logic” or critical thinking, the word “argument” doesn’t refer to a heated discussion or “fight” between people.
An argument is the linguistic representation of a thinking “step” or act (called the inference), whereby someone comes to accept a statement as true (the conclusion) on the basis of accepting other statements as true (the premise).
Arguments are commonly found in newspaper editorials and opinion columns, as well as magazine essays.
Around a certain issue, a critical thinker is able to understand and analyse arguments and determine if they are “good” in the sense of logically reliable, and therefore if a rational person, upon hearing them, should be convinced. Being able to evaluate an argument allows us to not passively accept opinions and ideas given by others but to analytically, independently and consciously develop our own point of view.
In this module we will analyse what an argument is, how it is built and how to analyse and evaluate it. Furthermore, the module analyses also how our own thought processes can be not always rational but biased, even unconsciously. Not intentionally, biased discourses are used by politics or advertising, to easily persuade people about ideas and opinions, by appealing to the less rational mental processes.
To be aware of biases in our way of thinking and to learn how to recognise and detect them in the communication’s strategies used around us to make a discourse more persuasive, it is a fundamental step of critical thinking.
WHAT IS AN ARGUMENT?
An argument is an attempt to convince, using reasons (Epstein, 1998). An argument consists of two parts:
- The conclusion is the sentence that the argument is arguing for, or that part of the argument that the arguer is trying to convince you of. The conclusion is always a claim.
- The premises are sentences that are supposed to support, lead to, provide evidence for, prove or convince that the conclusion is true.
So, an argument is an attempt to convince someone that a certain claim is true, through a set of sentences such that one of them is being said to be true (conclusion) and the other(s) are being offered as reasons for believing the truth of the one (premises).
For example, this is an argument:
It is Wednesday, Paula always wears a jacket on Wednesday so Paula will be wearing a jacket today.
The last sentence is the conclusion. The other sentences are premises.
Here’s another example:
It is important to complete college education. College graduates earn, on average, more money and they report higher achievements in life.
In this case, the first sentence is the conclusion, and the rest are premises. You should be able to note this because the other sentences provide reasons to believe the first sentence. That is, they act as premises, or evidence, for the conclusion. Another way to see that this is the conclusion is to ask yourself: what is the person trying to convince me of? It’s not “college graduates earn more money.” He’s telling me that without any evidence. But, if that’s true, that’s a reason to graduate from college. In other words, it’s a premise. The premise is presented as evidence for the conclusion. The premise of an argument is a statement which is used or offered as a reason for accepting another statement as true. The conclusion of an argument is a statement that answers the issue.
HOW DO I EVALUATE ARGUMENTS?
First of all, it is important to distinguish arguments from assertions. An argument is a set of sentences, one of which is being asserted; an assertion is a single sentence that can be true or false.
In logic, assertions are either true or false, but arguments are neither true nor false. They are either good or bad.
A good argument is one in which:
(a) the conclusion follows from the premises;
(b) the premises are all true.
PRACTICING CRITICAL THINKING: A GUIDE IN THREE STEPS
STEP 1 - FRAMING THE SITUATION
When approaching a text or a speech, it is important to take into consideration many elements, to frame the situation analytically.
You can do so, asking the following questions.
Who said it?
Someone known? Someone in a position of authority or power? Does it matter who told you this?
What did they say?
Did they give facts or opinions? Did they provide all the facts? Did they leave anything out?
Where did they say it?
Was it in public or in private? Did other people have a chance to respond an provide an alternative account?
When did they say it?
Was it before, during or after an important event? Is timing important?
Why did they say it?
Did they explain the reasoning behind their opinion? Were they trying to make someone look good or bad?
How did they say it?
Were they happy or sad, angry or indifferent? Did they write it or say it?
STEP 2 - EVALUATION OF THE ARGUMENT
The evaluation of an argument needs to be based upon rational criteria. An evaluation strategy useful for this scope is the one provided by the F.E.L.T. criteria below (Fairness, Evidence, Logic, Tone).
- Is the argument fair and balanced, or does it contain bias?
- Is the argument one-sided?
- Are there alternative points of view not addressed?
- What are the implications of this narrowness?
- Think about the implications of the argument and the author’s suggestions. Would implementing the author’s suggestions have results that they have not written about, either positive or negative?
- Are there any worthwhile implications, e.g. for policy recommendations or action?
- Are there any undesirable or dangerous implications?
Evidence and Logic
- Are the given premises reliable and relevant? Are they thoroughly explained?
- Is the movement from premise to conclusion logical? Does the argument contain gaps in reasoning or logical fallacies?
- Do the premises themselves require further justification? (Bag the question fallacy)
- Arguments need to be supported by evidence to be effective. Types of evidence include other authors’ ideas, statistics and surveys. When evaluating an argument, think about whether the appropriate type of evidence has been used to support it.
- Is there enough evidence?
- Is the evidence biased?
- Is the considered sample representative?
- Is the evidence used up to date/relevant?
In logic an argument can be valid or invalid. In a valid argument the conclusion follows on from the premises (propositions, statements or assumptions upon which the argument is based). If all the premises in an argument can be proved to be true and the conclusion can be shown to follow on from the premises, then the conclusion will necessarily be true. In examining an argument consider whether the premises (or steps) in an argument follow on from one another, and whether the premises are true.
- Are the prepositions, assumptions or statements upon which the argument is based true?
- Does the conclusion necessarily follow from the premises?
- Is the attitude of the writer appropriate for the content? For example, is it too serious? Is it too sarcastic or dismissive? Is it overly dramatic? (Tone can reinforce bias.)
- In everyday life, we often try to persuade people by using emotive language (by using words such as ‘great’, ‘fantastic’). Emotive language may make an argument appear stronger than it really is, and it is inappropriate in academic writing. As a reader you need to examine the author’s argument to make sure it is justified.
- Does the argument use emotional appeal rather than relying on the force of reason?
Is the author’s ‘voice’ conveyed through unsubstantiated personal opinion rather than through engaging with the argument?
STEP 3 - CREDIBILITY AND RELIABILITY OF SOURCES AND DATA
Usability of Data
Check the available data in support of the argument presented:
- Are they relevant to the topic?
- Are they complete (i.e. across groups, geographical areas or sectors?)
- Are they sufficiently recent?
- Are they representative?
- Are they trustworthy?
Reliability of the Sources
Review the sources of the data and try to assess:
- the qualifications and technical expertise of the source
- its reputation and track record for accuracy
- its objectivity and motive for bias
- its proximity to the original source or event
- Triangulate the information with other sources
Alternative hypotheses (Devil’s Advocacy)
Explore multiple ways in which a situation can develop based on same data. Identify alternative options or outcomes and/or explore the consequences of a specific course of action.
- Brainstorm to identify all possible hypotheses.
- List all significant evidence/arguments relevant to the hypotheses.
- Focus on disproving hypothesis rather than proving one.
- Establish the relative likelihood for hypotheses and report all conclusions.
- Logic Mapping: Mapping the logic underpinning an argument or decision to identify faulty logic.
- Read through the arguments and evidence supporting them.
- Use post-its to identify key elements of the logic. Each post-it should contain one assumption, assertion, key argument, deduction and conclusion.
- Arrange the post-its on a wall/board, clustering similar themes and identify the connecting or linking arguments and key relationships.
- Group each cluster under a theme. Note any isolated post-its or clusters that do not fit into.
- Create a diagram showing the key elements of the arguments.
TIPS FOR APPLYING THE METHODS TO DIFFERENT SUBJECTS
Critical thinking is a habit of mind that can and should be, developed and applied to any subject and matter.
The specific strategies and methods included in this module particularly fit with analysis of text, speeches and discourses, so they perfectly apply to teaching as languages (native and foreign).
Critical thinking can be easily practiced also, in teaching history, geography, art and literature, social science and similar, but also mathematics and sciences.
- In language and literature (national of foreign):
Teachers can submit a text or a video to students and ask them to analyse it. Particularly effective can be the analysis of articles from newspaper, adverts or political discourses – for example, presidential elections, actual or historical, to detect logical fallacies and biases and evaluate the text in a critical way.
- In philosophy:
Analysing a theory that can rise different opinions and positions;
- In Geography and History:
Challenge the Eurocentric vision of books and sources, exploring different points of views.
- In Art and Literature:
Ask students to analyse and comment on a piece of art, a poem or a passage from a book, asking what the author intended to express and analyse different critics (positive and negative);
- In Mathematics:
- Rather than directing students to use a particular strategy to solve an assigned problem, the teacher should work with them to identify various strategies and to develop criteria for choosing a suitable strategy from among the options.
- Error analysis: Teachers can include intentional errors in a formula or in the procedure to solve a problem or an exercise asking students to find the errors and explain the reason why it is incorrect and how the correct version should be
- For any teaching subject:
- Ask students to make autonomous research about a certain topic, asking them to consider at least 3 different sources of information and to analyse the difference between them. Then build the content of the lesson asking the first students to report the result of the research and the others to turn, add further findings and elements.
- Not give pre-built information and opinions but make students create the content of the lesson step-by-step in a peer-learning process, asking questions such as “why?” and “what if…?”;
Martha Bailey, Shirlee Geiger, Hannah Love, Martin Wittenberg, Critical Thinking: Analysis and Evaluation of Argument, Portland Community College, USA licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License Available at: https://www.oercommons.org/courses/critical-thinking-analysis-and-evaluation-of-argument
Excelsior Online Writing Lab (OWL) https://www.oercommons.org/courses/argument-critical-thinking/view This site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-4.0 International License.
Marianne Talbot, Critical Reasoning for beginners, Oxford University, series of podcasts available at http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/critical-reasoning-beginners
ACAPS, Cognitive Biases, Report 2016 Available at: https://www.acaps.org/cognitive-biases
Critical Thinking Skills – https://www.skillsyouneed.com/learn/critical-thinking.html
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Coordinator – Centro per lo Sviluppo Creativo Danilo Dolci – Italy