Chapter Eight: Implementing Critical Thinking Skills



I.    Introduction

The primary element of the theoretical narrative in this chapter is the flowchart, which brings the three stages together in a dynamic way.  In addition, the narrative addresses the role of judgment, style, rationality, and the passions in the process of critical thinking.  The applications to follow are designed to aid students in piecing all parts of the process together.  If the students have worked through exercises described in previous chapters, they are in a position to do it all on their own.  I conclude this part with a discussion of rubrics, which bring all parts of the process together but are simple enough to aid you in setting your course up for critical thinking work 

II.    Teaching Points

When all is said and done, one should have in place a flexible and powerful B.S. detector.  Think of the flowchart in the Theory section of this chapter as the schematic diagram of this detector.  If things have gone well, your students should have internalized something like this, i.e., a networked set of guidelines that aids them in constructing arguments of their own and evaluating arguments of others.  If something stinks, the detector will announce it; if not, then the detector will chug along until you have a compelling argument or a favorable evaluation.  For an image, think of an inverted tree-like array of connected flags that pop up in a certain order as one moves through the process of critical thinking, with certain paths signaling good arguments and other paths signaling bad ones.  It is useful to think of it like this, since you can describe the detector as the product that explicit instruction in critical thinking delivers.

  1. Don't put it all together too soon.  You should work on the parts---i.e., argument identification, (re)construction, and evaluation---early and often, both independently and in combination.  Save the detailed, start-to-finish argument analysis until near the end of the class.  Trying to do this all too soon will smudge the conceptual boundaries that separate the stages, and that will make it difficult to acquire conscious appreciation for the complexity of the critical thinking process.  

  2. Tie the model you use to the skills list you use.  Much of the discussion in the theoretical narrative after Chapter Two has focused on the three-stage model of critical thinking.  The skills mentioned in Chapter Two have been mentioned and employed, but they have not been the primary focus.  In your class, it might behoove you to make sure that they are more integrally linked.  (One way to do this is developed and defended in the Theory section of Chapter Three.)  For instance, early it might be better to focus on the skills.  Students will be familiar with most of them from other contexts, and you can trade that familiarity in for some early work on critical thinking.  As the course moves along, however, and you develop the three-stage model, you should discuss the ways in which the skills come into play.  By the end, your students should have a pretty good idea of the stages at which a given skill is typically applied.  

  3. Develop your own flowchart.  The flowchart I have supplied is general and represents one way to lay out the process of critical thinking as it is manifested across a wide range of circumstances.  Most implementations of this handbook will not be so general; rather, they will be embedded in a certain thematic and/or disciplinary context.  After you are proficient in the exercise of critical thinking skills, It is useful to develop your own subject-specific flowchart.  Do this by reflecting on how you attack a problem or construct an argument in your own discipline, noting the methods used and questions asked.  You develop flowcharts of this sort by distilling patterns of inquiry from an array of specific instances of inquiry.  This requires recognition of the inquiry and then conscious appreciation for its steps and nuances.  

  4. Note stylistic differences.  It will become apparent early that people approach arguments in different ways.  Some are inclined to see arguments where others see none, and people will reconstruct and evaluate arguments in very different ways.  It is important to call attention to these differences.  Granted, not all attempts will be acceptable, but there are typically many distinct ways to think critically about an argument.  One valuable upshot of this emphasis is comfort---a student will be less anxious about the process of critical thinking if they know that they can do it in a way that is consistent with their own intellectual approach than if they felt that they must dramatically change the way they do intellectual business.

  5.  Don't downplay the passions.  Critical thinking can get in the way of a passionate response, or it can itself be a passionate response.  Do not ignore the importance and the prevalence of passionate actions and reactions.  There will be times when critical thinking just gets in the way.  Talk about these times---make sure that they know that it is not a one-size-fits-all tool for every job.  Take advantage of contexts in which you plan to do no critical thinking to comment that critical thinking is not especially appropriate, given the context and your goals.  At other times, critical thinking can itself become passionate, since evaluation is often a highly charged emotional affair.  This can be a good thing, but the passions can also get in the way.  Call attention to this---perhaps in a discussion that gets a bit raucous, or in a text that goes a bit too far into hyperbole. Without passion, life is a tedious daily grind until death mercifully brings the whole business to a halt; don't let students think that critical thinking is only valuable to those who embrace the grind.  

II.    Instructional Ideas

  1. Have the students develop their own flowcharts.  Just as this exercise is useful for you, so too is it useful for your students.  Asking the students to do this in groups, or perhaps on their own, can be an effective way of reinforcing their own understanding of the process as it has informed work in your class.  (You might wish to do it in discussion, if you believe that it is too daunting as a group or individual exercise.)

  2. Have students work out the relationships between the outcomes of a group critical thinking exercise. If you break a class up into groups and give them a single argumentative text to analyze, you will almost always get as many different results as there are groups.  Don't just let this go without comment.  Ask the students in discussion to work out the relationships and differences between these results.  Have them work out which differences are stylistic and which are more substantive.  Often, the differences will reflect varying emphases, but they may also represent different degrees of charity as well as different approaches to what is tacit in the text.  This is a way of calling attention to the variety of intellectual styles and to the fact that superficial differences can conceal deep similarities. Perhaps more importantly, this  is a way to keep the critical thinking dialogue going at a level where the students have more at stake.

  3. Have students "put it all together" on their own.  Raise an issue that is relevant to the topic of your course and then let the students identify, reconstruct, and evaluate two opposing positions on this issue.  Ask them to make a decision for themselves between these positions and defend their choice.  Have them report this in a 5 to 6 page essay, or in an oral presentation.  Be sure to follow up the assignment with a discussion that allows the students to talk amongst themselves about the variations in their results.

  4. Keep a critical thinking journal.  As soon as your students know enough about critical thinking to do it on their own in a conscious and reflective way, have them keep a journal in which they record the details of episodes in which they think critically.  This will help them attend to the various stages of the process, and will also enable them to work on aspects that they find troublesome.  This should focus on critical thinking episodes that show up outside of class.  Ask for, say, 10 entries by semester's end.

  5. Assign three-part writing assignments.  Have them locate an argumentative text (or distribute one) and assign 2 to 3 page argument analysis essays on this text.  If the text is lengthy or argumentatively complex, focus them on a part of it that contains a single argument.  It is better in these essays to have them attend to the details; given this, one argument will suffice.  You can either assign them the argument, or you can have them locate it.  If you are nearing the end of the course, it might be time to let them demonstrate their argument identification ability by selecting their own argument for analysis. (To this end, I recommend the "one paragraph rule", which has students concentrate on arguments that fit inside a single paragraph; arguments much larger than this will be difficult to treat comprehensively in an essay of this size.)  The essays will contain three sections.  In the first section, they should identify the location and nature of the argument they have selected for evaluation.  The second section contains their reconstruction of this argument, with both explicit and tacit steps indicated.  The final section itself has two parts.  The first will detail their understanding of how the author intended the argument to work, and the second will contain their own evaluation of the argument, be it critical or supportive.  Either way, the second sub-section should contain an argument of their own.  All of the sections but the last sub-section should be charitable. 

  6. Full-blown debates.  These are very useful if you have the time and a topic that deserves special attention.  Select a issue that is debatable and divide the class up into as many groups as their are sides to the issue. Give them a week and one or two class periods to prepare (one if TR, two if MWF).  Devote the last class of the week to the debate.  Have the groups appoint a spokesperson to make the initial case, which will take from 5 to 10 minutes.  Give them all 5 minutes to work up a rebuttal, and then another 3 minutes in which to rebut the arguments of the other side(s).  End with a general discussion of the debate.  This is effective in that it forces groups to think not only about arguments that work for their conclusions, but also about the arguments that could be raised as objections to their conclusions. Thus, they approach arguments as both producers and consumers.  It is good to do this near the end of the semester. 

  7. Use role-playing exercises.  If critical thinking derives its importance in your area because of its connection with certain specific roles, have the students engage in role playing exercises where they must employ the process on their feet.  For example, if you are training military officers who must solve problems and direct soldiers with limited information and limited time, it is effective to put them into situations where they must make quick decisions among options.  An effectively designed role-playing exercise can be used to teach the critical thinking process in this context and to test the extent to which it has been learned. 

III.    Rubrics

III.1    Describing Rubrics

Rubrics are authoritative rules that guide conduct.  In a class where critical thinking is a point of emphasis, a rubric can be created that aids you and your students as you critically engage topics and texts.  This rubric would be a brief set of subject specific rules that guide evaluation by structuring engagement.  These rules should serve double duty---they would embody the spirit of the critical thinking model you employ, and they would serve as a lens on the course material, bringing into focus those aspects of the topics and texts about which you want students to think critically.  Think of the rubric as a study guide schema that can be applied to many different texts throughout a course. Each time a new topic is broached or text cracked for the purpose of critical thinking instruction, students would inspect the text to see how the rules that constitute the rubric are applied in it.  An instrument such as this makes it easier for new students of critical thinking to engage in analysis, and it also helps ensure consistency of evaluation across the class.

Rubrics should be fairly specific, drawing on the subject matter of a course.  Any course in which critical thinking is taught in an embedded way could be enhanced with rubrics.  In general, these instruments will be associated with topics or themes.  In a course that is developed around a them, such as a Core Discovery course, one rubric may be all that is needed.  In courses that are more thematically diverse, you might wish to develop one rubric per theme.  (This is not necessary, of course, if you wish only to use one of the themes to teach critical thinking.)  There are several ways to develop a rubric.  After a review of the texts you plan to assign, you might identify their essential dimensions and then create a rule that captures the way in which each dimension structures the overall topic.  Alternatively, you might develop a set of general study questions for each text and then identify commonalities among these questions, converting the commonalities into rules.  Each rule should be the kind of thing that focuses the student on an aspect of a text that is crucial to their understanding of the text itself as well as its relation to the broader theme.  (Of course, not every rule may apply to every text; when this happens, though, you should make a point of noting it.)

A well-designed rubric will help initiate the process of critical thinking.  In the first place, it will focus student attention on what really matters for the purpose of the course, and that will help them home in on the arguments that are most fundamental.  Second, by helping them identify what has less importance, it will aid them as they search out claims to use in reconstructing arguments.  Third, it will structure their evaluation of the text relative to the course goals, since it will reinforce the dimensions along with analysis should take place.  Finally, it will help bring a measure of systematicity and coherence to the various evaluations conducted throughout a semester.  By using the rubric consistently, students will come to appreciate relationships among texts, and this will make it easier for them to forge a coherent understanding of the course as a whole.  Of course, the rubric won't do the work for them---they must know when and how to apply it, and they must use it effectively.  Students won't be able to plug it in and thoughtlessly generate argument identifications, reconstructions, and evaluations, but it will point them in the right direction.

III.2    Illustrating Rubrics

  1. Philosophy 202---Symbolic Logic (Michael O'Rourke)Much of the work in this class involves constructing and evaluating proofs in a first-order deductive proof system.  These are highly stylized arguments, with premises that lead to conclusions in conformity with strict inference rules.  The practice of proof helps students come to appreciate the nature of the following relation that obtains between conclusion and premises, which is a focal theme of the course.  Given this, I have constructed a rubric that aids students in constructing and evaluating proofs.  I encourage my students to apply this rubric whenever they set down to do a proof.  The elements of the rubric are sequentially ordered, and are cast as questions that can be asked of a particular proof problem.  Taken together, they constitute a flowchart that can guide the process of proof construction.  They are as follows:

    1. Can you convince yourself that the conclusion follows from the premises?  If so, move to (2).

    2. Are there any proof steps (i.e., a certain type of inference rule --- see Inference Rules) that can be applied to simplify the premises?  If there are, apply them until the premises are as simple as possible  and move to (3), or your reach your conclusion, in which case STOP.  If there are not, move to (3).

    3. Are  there any conclusion-driven proof methods (i.e., a second type of inference rule --- see Inference Rules) that can be applied?  If so, apply them to set up a sub-proof and fill out the details of the sub-proof by returning to (1) and restarting the process for that sub-proof.  If not, go to (4).

    4. Are there any premise-driven proof methods (i.e., a third type of inference rule --- see Inference Rules) that apply?  If so, apply them to set up a sub-proof and fill out the details of the sub-proof by returning to (1) and restarting the process for that sub-proof.  If not, go to (5).

    5. Set up a proof by contradiction (see Inference Rules) and return to (1) to begin filling out the details of the sub-proof.

    For more details about this rubric, see the Philosophy 202 homepage, and the Proof Strategies handout in particular.  This rubric supplies a set of rules that guides my logic students as they construct arguments that meet certain constraints.  Granted, these are very formal arguments, but the process is no different from the standard critical thinking process for being more abstract. 

  2. Core 101---The Monsters We Make (Kerry McKeever, Michael O'Rourke, Dean Panttaja, George Wray).  This class is a year-long exploration of both monsters and the themes surrounding the concept of monstrosity.  We will look at the creation, development, and multiple reiterations of the monstrous, through both classic and contemporary works in literature, film, and art. Application of this information will help the student identify the societal, political, and cultural mechanisms used to influence and shape contemporary conceptions of the monster in the real world.  In other words, the course will focus on the dynamic of demonization---how it works and how we work it. Since this is a Core Discovery course, we are required to teach critical thinking in an explicit way to our students.  To aid us in this, we have designed a thematic rubric that will structure our initial engagement with each text we study. 

    There are two ways to characterize this rubric.  First, one can think of it dimensionally.  The dominant dimensions are those of essence and process.  In our texts, there are two roles whose essence concern us, viz., the monster and the person(s) who make the monster (i.e., the maker).  Who fills these roles in the text and why/how do they fill them?  At any given point in the text, one can inquire as to who fills these roles.  However, since these texts tend to have narratives that unfold in time, we have our second dimension, process, which can be seen as orthogonal to the essence dimension.  The role of monster may be filled at one time by one character and by another character at a different time.  Likewise for the maker.  The process dimension focuses attention on the changes in the way these roles are filled in the text, and why those changes come to pass. 

    Second, the rubric can be cast as a set of questions.  The first form supports a somewhat visual understanding of the rubric, but this form is more portable and easier to apply to texts.  The questions we will have our students ask of each text are as follows:

    1. Who is the monster?

    2. Why are they a monster?

    3. Who makes the monster?

    4. Why do they make the monster?

    5. How do the answers to these questions change through the text?

    These are simple and easy to commit to memory, but they will work to ensure that our students take what we want them to take from the texts we assign.  Further, it will focus their attention on those aspects of the texts that can be regarded as argumentative, smoothing the way for serious critical thinking exercise.  For more details, see the Monsters homepage or the Rubric handout.