Can critical thinking change the world?

Guest post by Christina Majoinen.

Cartoon by Benjamin Clanton

Cartoon by Ben Clanton

I first learned the basics of critical thinking in a class called ‘Analysing Arguments’ as a fresh first-year university student. Every class was a revelation. As I learned what an argument was, and the various ways arguments could go wrong, I felt simultaneously grateful and angry. I was grateful that I had taken this class, grateful that I had the opportunity to learn to distinguish between appropriate evidence for a claim, and what looks like appropriate evidence at first glance but actually isn’t. I was angry, however, that nobody had taught me any of this before. I couldn’t fathom why my school teachers had thought that it was necessary for me to learn the complex structure of our parliamentary system, but not to learn to recognise a politician’s illegitimate appeal to authority. Without the tools to assess politicians’ platforms, how could I possibly be in the position to use my knowledge of the parliamentary system wisely come voting time?

I, along with my fellow undergraduate philosophy students, revelled in my newfound vocabulary for disagreement. Rather than saying “That just doesn’t sound right to me”, I could now say: “I think your premise is mistaken”, or: “Your conclusion doesn’t follow because you haven’t ruled out this alternative.”

I thought, with the arrogance of youth (which I am sure to still possess in some measure), that if only everybody would learn what I had learned, the world would be a better place. We would all be able to clearly communicate what we believed, matter-of-factly point out the errors in each other’s reasoning, and collectively hold our politicians accountable for providing good reasoning for their platforms.

Cartoon by XKCD

Cartoon by XKCD

As I continued into postgrad philosophy however, my role in the classroom shifting from that of a student to that of a teacher, I began to feel uneasy with the culture of argument I observed in my classroom. It wasn’t that my students were failing to evaluate arguments properly. They were often quite good at it, and what they lacked in precision they made up for in enthusiasm for learning argumentative proficiency. Something else was missing.

The clues were subtle: The student getting cut off mid-sentence by a peer. The student whose pitch rose just a little in response to someone relentlessly playing devil’s advocate. The student who sat in the corner never volunteering an opinion, just in case it was wrong.

Stephen R. Covey spoke an important truth about humanity when he said: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This quotation seems to encapsulate what was wrong with these problematic exchanges in the classroom. Students did not always make an effort to really understand each other’s arguments. More often than not, they only attempted to gain a shallow understanding of each other’s views: just enough to mount an opposing argument. This is not true critical thinking: true critical thinking requires the ability to understand and carefully consider opposing views.

Cartoon by Bernard Schoenbaum

Cartoon by Bernard Schoenbaum

How was I, as an educator, to encourage students to seek a deeper understanding of each other’s views? The answer came through a course I took on philosophical enquiry. Philosophical enquiry is most frequently practised with children, but it is just as well suited to adult discussions. In a philosophical enquiry, all members of the group have equal rights to contribute and there is a strong emphasis on listening carefully to each other’s views. Participants are invited to voice disagreement if they disagree, but as an alternative they are also invited to build on each other’s arguments, working together to build the best version of a particular view. This subtle shift in emphasis creates a remarkable ideological change: ideas no longer belong to the individual; they now belong to the whole group.

This “enquiry dynamic” can be contrasted with what I will call the “interview panel dynamic”. In the interview panel dynamic, one person (let’s call her Zahara) is singled out and other members of the group, one after the other, question Zahara about her views. Each member of the group may contribute, but it is Zahara’s views which are being discussed here, and Zahara responds with the same uneasiness as an interviewee facing an interview panel.

Cartoon by Tom Fishburne

Cartoon by Tom Fishburne

Learning about philosophical enquiry helped me realise that in my eagerness to encourage discussion in my classroom, I had specifically encouraged disagreement, privileging it over productive agreement. Introducing philosophical enquiry into my tertiary classroom has had a remarkable effect. Not all students benefit from it: those who were apt to describe themselves as “enjoying playing the devil’s advocate” are indifferent about the shift towards more collaborative discussion. However, many students do benefit greatly from the change. Students who previously sat quiet in the corner now voluntarily participate in discussion. Students who previously felt overlooked by their peers now feel heard. Though I have no empirical evidence to back this up, I strongly suspect that the students who benefit most from philosophical enquiry are those who are most at risk of being marginalised by the culture of professional philosophy: minorities, women, the shy, the socially anxious.

Introducing philosophical enquiry in the university classroom, however, is too little too late. Students are already enculturated into the interview panel dynamic, and gravitate towards it. As they advance through their degree, they become more enculturated into this style of discussion, because it is what they see modelled by professional philosophers. Virtually all professional philosophical discussions employ the interview panel dynamic. This makes sense, of course, for seminars and conference presentations where the focus is on a particular philosopher’s recent work. It is interesting, however, that the few times I have tried to lead professional philosophers in philosophical enquiry they seem to struggle with collaborative thinking, listening with the intent to reply, immediately reverting to the interview panel dynamic. (Of course I am working from a very small sample here, so this should be taken with a grain of salt.)

The interview panel dynamic obviously works for the practice of professional philosophy. But in my experience it doesn’t work for a lot of students. An educator in philosophy has an obligation to teach students to think critically, and moreover to be open and responsive to the views of others. If my experience is representative, then it would seem that replicating the culture of professional philosophy in the classroom is not sufficient. In order to learn to think critically students need instruction in evaluating arguments, but they also require practise in listening to, entertaining, and building on other people’s ideas.

Critical thinking without collaboration isn’t enough to make the world a better place. But collaborative critical thinking just might be.

Lisk Feng (cropped)

Art by Lisk Feng

Christina Majoinen’s two great loves are literature and critical thinking. She is an educator in philosophy, and trains university tutors in running effective philosophy tutorials. She has an MA in Philosophy and is currently embarking upon a PhD in Education. Her most-loved book is the cult classic, The Princess Bride. Visit her website: Project TGL: build The Good Life.

The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

5 responses to “Can critical thinking change the world?

  1. Pingback: ¿Puede el pensamiento crítico cambiar el mundo? | Didáctica de la Filosofía·

  2. Love the article. I too believed critical thinking could make the world a better place when I first discovered it.

    Got any links to resources to learn how to analyze arguments and philosophical enquiry?

    As an aside… the quote from Covey resonates with me deeply. I been through some intense trainings on listening skills. It was incredible at first – being able to listen and understand people so well. I learned more about people in just a couple years than I had in my entire life prior. However, after that discovery phase, the other side of the sword started to get to me where I began to feel less and less heard, seen, and understood. All I began to notice was that no one was ever really listening to me, save for a few.

    I was curious if you had ever experienced something like that and how you may have found a way around that little conundrum.

  3. This is a great article Christina. I came around to teaching in this way after years of trial and error, but I have found it the most effective way to teach. It has two added bonuses that I think are worth mentioning. First, students tend to remember more of what was discussed, in part because they feel more comfortable about talking about it with one another since the activity of first learning about it was a collaborative one. Second, in may experience students tend to invest more in the whole teaching-learning relationship, to an extent I think because the teaching-learning going on is more fun for everyone. Class becomes a enjoyable social occasion as well as a place to get some work done.

  4. I am retired now but I taught philosophy of education for years. In another course introducing students to tertiary study I also encouraged students to develop the critical thinking skills required for
    university study. What I realised very quickly was that I needed concurrently to encourage appropriate attitudes when thinking critically in academic discourse. True critical thinking should seek to discover rather than destroy: it is about seeking truth and becoming wise. But Uni students are starting out on their academic/ professional journey; they want to prove themselves in their world. Doubt and disagreement are part and parcel of this. They are also an essential part of the research dialectic which our students will need to cultivate on a different level as their studies progress. How to encourage our students to trust each other enough to doubt and disagree with each other is part of the challenge and, dare I say it, joy of teaching.

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