Chapter Three: Critical Thinking and Argument



I.    Introduction

In the theoretical part of this chapter, I discuss the two principal senses of "argument", viz., as the activity of arguing and as a rationale, or a conclusion supported by reasons.  I then develop and defend the view that one can succeed in teaching critical thinking skills by teaching students how to evaluate arguments, where this amounts to teaching them how to (a) identify arguments, (b) reconstruct them, and (c) analyze them. The applications below focus primarily on the nature of argument and arguments.  

II.    Teaching Points

  1. Make the two senses of 'argument' plain. Students are familiar with the activity of argument, having just lived through puberty. However, perhaps surprisingly, many will come to you unaware of the fact that the word "argument" has a second sense, viz., a piece of reasoning intended to establish the truth of a conclusion. As this second sense is the more relevant to the practice of critical thinking, it is important that the students understand what it means. Make it clear that arguments understood as rationales are found all over the place, even where there is no hint of argument the activity.

  2. Expose them to both senses of 'argument' at once. As I just noted, arguments as rationales are often found outside of contexts in which anyone is actually engaged in the activity of argumentation. Nevertheless, arguments understood as rationales are often most effectively introduced in the course of an argument. Don’t shy away from using the activity of argumentation to teach students what arguments as products look like; however, don’t work on achieving this end exclusively through the activity of argumentation, as that will incline the students to see them as much more closely related than they are.

  3. Be sure to emphasize the form/content distinction. This is a difficult distinction to make, even in a class that is completely focused on the logic of arguments.  However, efficiency and ease in critical thinking requires that one be able to recognize patterns, and it will simplify things if formal patterns are distinguished from patterns in the subject matter.  Content similarity is likely something you won't need to discuss---that should be pretty clear.  However, similarity in form can be tough to see.  You needn't belabor it or go symbolic, but you should call attention to common argument forms when you find them, and you might talk about the arguments you encounter in an abstract fashion so as to familiarize them with the formal level of analysis.  Among other things, this can help motivate and clarify formal evaluative standards, such as validity.

  4. Arguments aren't necessarily bad things.  Familiarity with the term "argument" only as it applies to the activity of arguing will likely leave students with a bad taste in their mouth.  This, however, should not adversely affect the role that arguments play in critical thinking.  After all, as we are thinking of them, arguments are found whenever a claim is supported by reasons, and so they are found in many contexts where no one is arguing with anyone else.  They may not like to argue, but this does not mean that they will not like to analyze arguments and, through this, think critically.

  5. Arguments are everywhere.   Anytime someone makes a claim that they support with reasons, they are making an argument.  Many actions can be seen, in context, as arguments.  (Consider the fact that the action may well be the result of a piece of practical reasoning that preceded the performance.)  Advertisements are arguments.  Textbooks are full of them, as are lectures.  The media traffics in arguments, both through what they choose to cover and what they choose not to cover.   (Note that it is a mistake to think of arguments as residing only on Op/Ed pages in a newspaper---most stories contain arguments, where a certain interpretation of events is served up as correct, supported by observations, quotes, etc.)  Once students begin to see arguments where they are, they will appreciate the importance of honing their critical thinking skills.

  6. Think about the relation between the definition, the model, and the skills.  A definition will help you identify what counts as critical thinking, a model will help you figure out how to teach it, and the skills will be what you focus on in the exercises you conduct with your class.  But to do this effectively, you must come to understand the relationships among these things.  I have tried to extract my model from my definition, and I have argued that the skills which count as critical thinking skills in certain contexts are covered by the model.  However, our efforts in here have been abstract and your efforts will be more specific and concrete.  Given this, you should try to develop a definition and model that are informed by your subject matter, giving special emphasis to those skills that are central to the methods and practices of your discipline. 

  7. Don't feel compelled to reveal it all.  I have argued that explicit instruction in critical thinking skills is important if you want your students to retain what you teach.  However, this does not mean that you must tell them everything.  For instance, many of the distinctions and lists that have been discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 need not be included in the material you supply your students.  It is important to make distinctions and teach critical thinking in stages that you make explicit; however, you might decide that a lengthy list of skills is just too much information.  This is especially true if you are teaching these skills in an embedded way---you don't want the critical thinking details to overwhelm the subject detail. Nevertheless, even if you choose not to reveal much, it is important that you could, if called upon to do so.  Don't refrain from reflecting on the details just because you don't plan to teach them explicitly.

III.    Instructional Ideas

  1. Have them talk about what they take arguments to be. Begin class with a free write where they describe, in brief, what they take an argument to be.  They discuss what they have come up with.  The goal of the discussion should be to impress on them the fact that there are two senses of "argument" relevant to critical thinking, and that one of these is more relevant than the other, viz., argument as rationale.

  2. Ask them to spot arguments and turn in brief descriptions of their nature.   This could be done in advance of a class discussion of the location of arguments, i.e., where they can be found.  After introducing students to the rationale sense of "argument", ask them to find as many of these as they can and write them down, turning this in before class.  Review them and let them know if they haven't understood what it is they should be seeking. This could be done in conjunction with the more focused argument identification exercises introduced in Chapter Four, or it could be done in advance of that.  In the latter case, the work done in Chapter Four could be used to hone their skills.

  3. Use the "15-minute" debate.  Capitalize on their familiarity with the activity of arguing by having them engage in mini-debates.  This can be done with any topic on which there could be a difference of opinion, including interpretations of literary texts, etc. Dived the students up into groups of 10.  If you have 4 of these groups, you will need two debate topics.  Assign to two groups positions with respect to one topic, and to the other two positions with respect to the other.   Give them 10 minutes to work up a defense of their position, making sure that someone acts as scribe and writes down their defense.  Give each side no more than 5 minutes to state their case. This will leave about 15 minutes or so in a 50 minute class period, and I would recommend using this time to discuss the nature of the arguments presented, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  This debate is not about winners and losers; rather, it is about exposure to the process of critical thinking, and this should be the focus of a general discussion at the end of the class meeting. The point of 15-minute debates is two-fold: (a) it allows you to combine critical thinking practice with topic coverage, since you can select the topics from material you wish to address in class that day, and (b) it exposes the students to the process of critical thinking.  This can be done at any point in the semester.

  4. Argument briefs.  If you have students read a paper that is argumentative, or a paper that is likely to elicit a reaction from them, have them write a brief, one paragraph piece in which they take a stand on the paper and defend it.  This can be done in a free write at the beginning of class, in the middle of class when it becomes clear that they have a reaction to the paper you're discussing, or prior to a discussion.   It can also be done outside of class in a journal.