Reflection and critical thinking
   Encourage students to move beyond sloppy reasoning


Reflection is one of the major processes teachers should invite and support during learning expeditions. 

We are being reflective when we think about our thinking. Does what we are saying or thinking make sense? Is it reasonable? Do we have enough evidence to support what we think? Are we being logical? Are we being honest? Are we being fair?

In Habits of Thought, Richard Paul of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking says that the basic building blocks of thinking are

(1) Beginning with clearly stated goals and purposes for study and inquiry;
(2) Formulating and framing problems and questions;
(3) Developing a defensible perspective and point of view;
(4) Assessing resource materials and texts for honesty and fairness;
(5) Questioning assumptions and biases;
(6) Making valid inferences; and
(7) Evaluating consequences of judgments and reasoning.

Classroom discussions can prepare the way for critical thinking when students are invited to:

(1) Summarize what others have stated;
(2) Elaborate on concepts and ideas;
(3) Relate topics to their own knowledge and experience;
(4) Give examples to clarify and support ideas; and
(5) Make connections between related concepts.

Often students don’t reason well in the classroom. Sloppy thinking is sometimes accepted or praised by teachers because it although it is poorly reasoned it offers the socially fashionable positions. According to Paul, teachers too often let students get by with “random and undisciplined” thought:

Most people . . .do not have “evidence other than the stuff of their subjective reactions to justify their preferences. They prefer because of the way they feel not because of the way they reason. To choose because of these subjective states of feeling is precisely to lack criteria of evaluation or evidence that bears upon objective assessment. When challenged to support subjective preferences, people usually can do little more than repeat their subjective reactions (I find it boring, amusing, exciting, dull, interesting, etc.) or rationalize them (I find it exciting because it has a lot of action in it.)

The traditional way to teach critical thinking more rigorously is through teaching writing. Students can be invited or assigned to tackle topics that require analysis. In such writing, they should be clear about the purpose of their argument, and then teachers can question whether the evidence and reasoning they put on the page are sufficient to accomplish that purpose:

The fundamental criterion to use in analyzing and evaluating reasoning comes from an analysis of the purpose of the reasoner and the logic of the question or questions raised. For example, if a person raises the question, say, as to whether democracy is failing in the USA (in the light of the dwindling number of people who vote and the growing power of vested interest groups with significant money to expend on campaign contributions), we can establish general criteria for assessing the reasoning by spelling out what in general one would have to do to settle the question.

Heritage Projects provide many chances to help students “reason their way” into school subjects “instead of being spoon-fed information that they memorize and then forget.”

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