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i don’t teach critical thinking, i teach the material

I no longer tell people that I teach “critical thinking” in my classes. My view is that “critical thinking” is a poorly defined buzzword that people use when they can’t articulate what they are actually teaching. For example, look at the wiki entry for “critical thinking:”

Critical thinking is clear, reasoned thinking involving critique. Its details vary amongst those who define it. According to Beyer (1995), critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgments. During the process of critical thinking, ideas should be reasoned and well thought out/judged.

Notice that the first sentence is literally circular. The third sentence actually adds some content – clarity and reason. If you read the rest of the wiki, the definitions vary wildly from tautological to begging the question. E.g., don’t you first need critical thinking to discover if “participatory democracy” is a prerequisite for critical thinking?

If I don’t teach critical thinking, then what do I teach? Turns out that there is a simple answer: sociology. Other people teach stuff like physics or philosophy. Very concrete. The Critical Thinker might ask: don’t you teach a version of critical thinking? Not quite. My courses do not promise to teach vaguely defined analytical strategies. I teach specific forms of critique. For example, if I am teaching statistics for social science students, I don’t teach “clarity,” rather I teach about sampling, Type 1 and Type 2 errors, and related issues. Similarly, my colleagues in other courses teach specific arguments and ideas. The philosopher might teach about syllogism, and the economist might teach about opportunity costs, which people may not appreciate.

Obtaining truth is hard and there is no magical form of thinking called “critical thinking” that can be separated from specific domains. Aside from a very simple general rules of thumb, such as “don’t be emotional in arguing” or “show my your evidence,” the best way to be improve your thinking is to learn from those who have spent a lifetime actually trying to figure out specific problems.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 28, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

21 Responses

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  1. I agree that you located some incredibly vague definitions of ‘critical thinking’ which defined it as criticism which it should not be understood as because now we have a slew of so-called critical people who think they are doing the right thing by going around criticizing everyone.

    Critical thinking is primarily the evaluation of a statement by the validity of their evidence. So, arguments should boil down to validity arguments which depends on the nature of the evidence and not upon a mere ‘critical attitude.’ Most of the methodological caveats in both natural and social science address this chestnut head on. The criterial problem is between fact and fiction. There are all sorts of ways to fashion our perceptions and descriptions as if they are factive when in fact what we often do is make an evaluative interpretation due our biases. Critical thinking is sensitive to the language games people play and tries to disambiguate these linguistic aporias from actual events in reality.

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    Fred Welfare

    August 28, 2015 at 5:49 pm

  2. It’s probably not a good idea to teach critical thinking on the basis of Wikipedia’s article on the subject, but perhaps also unwise to reject it on that basis.

    I think there is value in modelling a general critical attitude in addition to teaching “specific forms of critique”. “Critical thinking” is a way of operationalising a much-needed skepticism about the results presented by people outside your discipline. You can be “critical”, in this sense, of research done using methods you are not yourself competent to apply. If we don’t teach such critique in university then we will have no choice but to believe (“uncritically”) anything said by people who have “spent a lifetime actually trying to figure out specific problems” that we have not devoted our own lives to solving.

    A good case of this is the current Alice Goffman controversy. Her work is being criticised (with some justification) by people who have no particular talent for ethnography. It’s the kind of thinking that all her readers, whether sociologists or not, should be capable of. And the criticism should be able to have some bite, even if her “specific form of critique”, namely, ethnographic observation, was carried out entirely by the book.

    “If I don’t teach critical thinking, then what do I teach?” you ask. “Turns out that there is a simple answer: sociology.” It sounds good at first. But what you’re really saying is that you won’t acknowledge a kind of critique that isn’t sociological. That’s certainly the line Goffman’s defenders are taking. If you think she’s wrong, they say, it’s because you don’t understand how ethnographers think.

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    Thomas B

    August 29, 2015 at 8:27 pm

  3. Seems to me that what is distinctive about critical thinking comes into sharp relief when we think about (different ways of) reading. Reading critically means that you approach a text not only with the purpose of understanding what it says (passive reading), but, more importantly, with the goal of understanding how it works as an argument. To accomplish this, rather than trying to extract the meaning of the author’s words sentence by sentence or passage by passage in a linear and unmediated fashion (which is what undergraduate students often do before they have been trained to read critically), you need to engage the author in a conversation, posing a series of questions as you move through the reading (who is the author arguing against? what is the central argument? What evidence is presnted to support it? Is it convincing? etc.) that will help you unveil its logical structure and assess the validity of its arguments. If we think about the term this way, then you can imagine an instructor teaching sociology (or any other discipline, for that matter) critically (e.g. Foucault’s central argument is X. His evidence consists in Y) or uncritically (e.g. Foucault says that X). And note that we often teach students to think critically by teaching them how to read critically.

    Fabio, do you still find the term circular and vague when we think about it this way?

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    Mich

    August 30, 2015 at 1:40 am

  4. Before we can evaluate the argument of a writer, we should consider the act of reading as a matter of sense data. The signs of the printed word are the sense data that the reader perceives. From this act, a logical inference is attempted to the idea or ideas or thoughts which the words give to the reader. Error is a possibility on the part of the reader. The wrong inference could be arrived at either because the judgment by the reader of the meaning of the description or argument was wrong or the perception of the signs which the words gave, that is, the representations inferred was in error. The reader contains either skills for processing the signs of words and accurately deriving the writer’s meanings or a set of intuitive beliefs which fits the writers meanings or does not, in which case the understanding of the words does not occur. The gravest problem is the intuition of the reader even though this may occur merely because of a mismatch in the background knowledge sources of the writer and reader. Often, a reader can only take away a part of the reading or distort the reading to fit their intuitions. In the context of critical thinking, the reader actively looks for the reasons offered by the writer for the claims presented. There is a validity condition imposed by the reader on the reading. One way of criticizing a reading is to judge it with the one’s repertoire of logical fallacies but this may obstruct any understanding of style or of gathering the point the writer intends. If you ask the question, ‘Is there an imperative in the reading,’ then you can distill the main idea and offer objections, but you should describe the imperative before calling “it” a fallacy of some kind.

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    Fred Welfare

    August 30, 2015 at 4:58 am

  5. ““If I don’t teach critical thinking, then what do I teach?” you ask. “Turns out that there is a simple answer: sociology.” It sounds good at first. But what you’re really saying is that you won’t acknowledge a kind of critique that isn’t sociological. ” Why can’t sociology not be critical of sociology? I consider that a very odd perspective. Science is not religion.

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    Carsten B

    August 30, 2015 at 5:32 pm

  6. Durkheim pointed out two methodological positions in sociology: the qualitative ethnographic case study and the statistical analysis. Statistics is de riguer in sociology today – few students eschew the emphasis and stay in sociology. However, sociology is split, perhaps along gender lines, between sociology and criminal justice programs. And, sociology is split into levels between those pursuing the dissertation and those in teaching, e.g. adjunct lecturers. Durkheim’s point was that these two methods should be combined. At the recent ASA meeting in Chicago, I noticed at least 8 separate and different data providers and statistical analysis packages, that has doubled from last year. I was even given a free copy of SPSS on a thumbdrive!

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    Fred Welfare

    August 30, 2015 at 5:51 pm

  7. @Carsten: My worry is that Fabio want *only* sociologists to have the authority to be critical of sociology, not that sociology can’t be critical. I’m insisting that even non-sociologists can demand that a sociologist’s account of a social phenomenon “make sense”, i.e., passes the minimal tests of “critical thinking”, broadly understood. Such tests can and should be taught at university.

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    Thomas B

    August 30, 2015 at 8:49 pm

  8. Thomas B: Again, I simply don’t understand where that worry is coming from. I would be worried as well if that was true, but one certainly does not have to agree with (or even understand) critical thinking, to acknowledge that sociologists aren’t perfect and don’t embrace all possible perspectives. That’s just being scientific.

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    Carsten B

    August 30, 2015 at 8:55 pm

  9. It’s coming from Fabio’s post. He seems to be saying that a critique that is not rooted in the particular craft skills that are taught in a specific discipline needn’t be taken seriously by people working in that discipline. So, for example (in the Goffman case), a legal scholar who points out that an ethnographer seems to be confessing to having committed a serious crime, is dismissed because he doesn’t understand how ethnographers work. And then dismissed again when he points out that the ethnographer’s new explanation (of why nothing illegal went on) contradicts the original account. Critical thinking brings the results of accepted methodologies into contact with common sense and plain logic in this way.

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    Thomas B

    August 30, 2015 at 9:10 pm

  10. I don’t think that the minimal level of critical thinking is simple ‘making sense.’ That involves persuasion and rhetoric, not evidence presenting and reason-giving, causal analysis, or demonstration of proof. Making sense is merely communication that meets the obligation to be understood and this is hardly critical.

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    Fred Welfare

    August 31, 2015 at 12:05 am

  11. Thomas B: “Seems to be”, seems to be the key phrase here. I strongly disagree with your interpretation that are based on very strong assumptions about science and how to use science. I don’t understand why one would assume that when I teach social networks, that I won’t offer a critique of social networks from other perspectives. In other words, I expect most sciences not to contradict common sense and plain logic.
    In a similar vein, the field of social networks is very conscious about ethics and what kind of information is legal to obtain. Anyone who doesn’t accept such constraints, doesnt understand social networks.

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    Carsten B

    August 31, 2015 at 7:04 am

  12. I don’t think I’m assuming anything, certainly not about you or social science in general. Fabio is saying that he doesn’t teach general critical skills any longer. It sounds to me like you do teach critical thinking, but I would encourage you not to confine “critique” to the application of alternative but equally orthodox perspectives. (Maybe you already don’t; I’m not presuming you are; I’m just stating my view.) For me, critical thinking is about bringing our claims onto a foundation of “reason”, broadly understood, not just the application of alternative sociological theories and methods (what you’re calling “perspectives”.)

    It’s great that the social networks field has an ethical sensibility, but Fabio seems to be saying that the only ethical reasoning he will teach is the ethics that is already supported by his particular field(s) of study (in which case ethics becomes a “specific form of critique”). I think Fabio’s advice is wrongheaded and parochial, which is why I’m commenting, and if I’m assuming anything it’s that his peers in the social sciences agree more with me about it than with him. While I’m often very critical of the intellectual ethos of sociologists (Alice Goffman and Zygmunt Bauman are good recent examples), my remarks here are focused on Fabio’s post, not any general point about “how to use science”.

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  13. What does a foundation of “reason” mean? I studied philosophy for 5 years, so I guess I should know, but I simply don’t. I still haven’t seen anything that critical thinking brings to the table, that isn’t already on it (that is on a proper science table).
    Btw., I wrote “other perspectives”, and suddenly these are just alternative sociological perspectives – why not other perspectives per se?

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    Carsten B

    August 31, 2015 at 9:01 pm

  14. Critical thinking lets people who are not “proper scientists” sit at the table. Again, I’m assuming you’re in some sense defending Fabio’s point (otherwise we’re talking past each other). He seems to want to take issues off the table that are normally assumed to be on it. And he seems to be saying that the only relevant alternatives will be sociological, i.e., “proper science”. (“I don’t teach critical thinking; I teach sociology.”)

    (The scare quotes around “reason” were intended to suggest a broad, non-technical sense of the word. Like I said above, it’s just the claim that our results should “make sense”.)

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    Thomas B

    September 1, 2015 at 4:29 am

  15. Science is the practice of reason where reason specifically means the validity of the evidence supporting a claim. Reasoning is the process of connecting the evidence to the claim. So, a sociologist who practices sociology should be doing exactly the same thing as a psychoanalyst or a psychologist or a physicist or even a philosopher. In all of these instances ‘critical thinking’ is expected: claims that are not supported by evidence, or where the reasoning that connects the claim to the evidence is obscure or ambiguous or outright contradictory can be exposed as false by anyone. Now, the tricky part is that sociology is a specialization of the social sciences and so collects and analyzes data in a certain way which should be understood by the recipients of an explanation before they can determine its validity. Different statistical approaches like different ethnographic approaches will result in different interpretations of the same phenomena. Therefore, not only are comparisons necessary but combined methods are really required: an adequate (considers all of the data) theory explains the same phenomena through both a statistical lens and an ethnographic lens. So, there are several underlying issues: different statistical analyses, different ethnographic approaches, longitudinal and cross-sectional approaches, and of course the main issue – the coherent explanation of the phenomena given the multiple approaches. Please excuse my simplification of the matter because there are always multiple causes for any phenomena.

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    Fred Welfare

    September 1, 2015 at 5:23 am

  16. ASA DATACOLLECTION AND DATA ANALYSIS BOOTHS

    1. ICPSR at University of Michigan with 9 core partners
    2. Minnesota Population Center Data Projects
    3. National Longitudinal Surveys
    4. NORC at Univ. Of Chgo (Nat’l Opinion Research Center)
    5. Panel Study of Income Dynamics
    6. Project Management Institute
    7. Roper Center for Public Opinion Research
    8. StataCorp LP – Nat’l Education Panel Study
    9. VERBI Software GmbH/MAXQDA

    At most every presentation, brief mention is made of the source of the data that serves as the backing for the conclusions of interest. Sometimes, the presenter adds in that bit of crucial information that helps you to interpret the forest of figures.

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    Fred Welfare

    September 1, 2015 at 5:26 am

  17. I’m in agreement with Fred here. By not teaching “critical thinking” (i.e., “the practice of reason” that underlies all science as a foundation), Fabio is keeping the means by which we develop a “coherent explanation of the phenomena given the multiple approaches” from his students. He’s also, perhaps inadvertently, conditioning his students not to acknowledge non-specialist critiques of “obscure or ambiguous or outright contradictory” claims. He is, in an important sense, detaching “science” from “reason”. The danger is that sociology becomes ideology.

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    Thomas B

    September 1, 2015 at 5:33 am

  18. An example that might make point clearer just occurred to me. At first pass, it sounds reasonable to say, “I don’t teach critical thinking. I just teach sociology.” But would we say the same of someone who said, “I don’t teach critical thinking. I just teach finance”? I.e., would we be comfortable with business schools that openly eschewed the teaching of anything other than the “specific forms of critique” that define b-school specializations?

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  19. Again, you are assuming that sociology doesn’t encompass “practice of reason that underlies all science as a foundation”. Why wouldn’t it? To me such reasoning is a natural part of sociological reasoning – it doesn’t have to be un-a-sociological. I simply don’t understand why you have such a narrow conception of any particular field. It makes no sense to me.
    So, given that I consider “practice of reason” as part of proper sociological reasoning – I am not missing out on anything, am I?

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    Carsten B

    September 4, 2015 at 1:06 pm

  20. And, again, I think we’re talking past each other. I may be misunderstanding Fabio, but it seems to me that he’s saying that he will not, explicitly, teach the “practice of reason that underlies all science as a foundation”. Instead, he will “just” teach sociology. That is, Fabio is proposing a narrowing of the students’ conception of sociology. Because I agree with you (it seems), I’m opposing such a narrowing.

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    Thomas B

    September 4, 2015 at 3:38 pm

  21. […] weeks ago, we had quite a discussion about critical thinking. There was one strand of debate the baffled me. Thomas wrote the […]

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