Teaching critical thinking to high school students: what critical thinking is (3 of 6)

The following are my teaching assignments on critical thinking for California 12th grade students in the semester-long courses, “US Government” and “Economics.” I offer them for non-profit use:

This assignment explains what critical thinking skills are applied to California courses in US Government and Economics. Now we’re getting to the tools students need to discover and confirm factual reality:

Critical Thinking Skills in Government and Economics

“The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators … They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.”  – William Sumner, former Chair of the Political and Social Science Department, Yale University, Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. 1907. pg. 633

This Framework proposes that critical thinking skills be taught at every grade level. Students should learn to detect bias in print and visual media; to recognize illogical thinking; to guard against propaganda; to avoid stereotyping of group members; to reach conclusions based on solid evidence; and to think critically, creatively and rationally. These skills are to be taught in a context of a curriculum that offers numerous opportunities to explore examples of sound reasoning and examples of the opposite.” History – Social Studies Framework for California Public Schools, pg. 8.

“This Framework encourages teachers to present controversial issues honestly and accurately within their historical or contemporary context. History without controversy is not good history, nor is such history as interesting to students as an account that captures the debates of the times… Students should also recognize that historians often disagree about the interpretation of historical events and that today’s textbooks may be altered by future research. Through the study of controversial issues, both in history and in current affairs, students should learn that people in a democratic society have the right to disagree, that different perspectives have to be taken into account, and that judgments should be based on reasonable evidence and not on bias and emotion.” History – Social Studies Framework for California Public Schools, pg. 22.

Using critical thinking skills to evaluate policy in government and economics are central to our American way of life. Democracy only functions when citizens are responsible for understanding our most important policies and using their political voice. In addition, voters, juries, and consumers all use critical thinking skills to consider “expert” testimony and evidence with the understanding that the information claimed to be true might be misleading or an outright lie.

This assignment has three specific learning objectives:

    1. Discern fact from spin. Facts are measurable, independently verifiable, objective, and do not change no matter what is said about them. Spin is subjective, exists only when someone languages it into existence, and may or may not closely conform to factual analysis. Facts are real. Spin is talk.
    2. Participate in civil conversations based on facts. Democracy values any good-faith interpretation of data. Diversity of opinion provides multiple perspectives and depth. In order to ethically disagree with a position, one must be able to accurately state that position. Students will apply classical and conservative skills from the art of argumentation to hold people accountable for accurate factual information and to identify and destroy spin not based on fact.
    3. Engage in policy decisions. Policy (what to do) is the end result of conversation. In democracy, dissenting opinions can be as important as the majority opinion, as time and further evidence often change our understanding and policy choices. That is, the losing policy option of today might become the winning policy choice of tomorrow.

Critical Thinking Tools: Classical and conservative scholarship has over 2,000 years of developing tools of thinking and the art of argumentation. In the evaluation of evidence, physical evidence is the most reliable. Physical evidence is reliable because its data conform to immutable laws of science. The academic fields of physics, chemistry, and biology can provide independently verifiable and replicable data that will support some hypotheses/claims, while falsifying others. Simply, physical evidence cannot lie.

Legal documents have language that can vary with interpretation, but are generally written to convey specific meaning. For example, laws/rules for stop signs, and when a baseball runner is safe or out at a base are meant to be clear and understood by all relevant parties. Case law (past legal rulings) evolve to clarify ambiguity in legal interpretations. The least reliable evidence is testimony. Testimony only exists because of what people choose to say. This can be inaccurate from faulty observations and/or reporting, along with the possibility of deliberate misrepresentation. However, the recording of history often depends on testimony; with strongest reliability coming from multiple, independent, and primary witnesses. In discerning fact from spin, it’s important to note that political “leaders” can testify that they support a policy that is “politically correct” while their voting record and/or executive actions undermine that policy. You’ll consider this issue in your next assignment on specific policy analysis.

Consideration of policy can include competing factual allegations. The scientific method can be adapted to evaluate the probability of truth in competing explanations. Simply put, explanations supported by compelling evidence are rational. Explanations/hypotheses that do not have strong evidence and/or have strong evidence that falsify that explanation are rationally dismissed. When people embrace a hypothesis unsupported by evidence, there are several possible explanations. From our own experience, we know the most likely reason is that someone is lying to protect personal interests. Also within our personal observations is that people are often quick to say they “believe in” something even when they have no idea what they are talking about or even when the facts seem to make their belief impossible to be true. Another factor is that human beings can deny facts that are too challenging to valued beliefs. The psychological theory of cognitive dissonance states that people can reject the facts rather than destruct their belief system. I encourage you to recognize and champion the idea that a person’s belief system does not meet any academic or professional standards for evaluating reality. We can create a spectrum to show these ideas:

Falsehood                                         Truth

(less)           EVIDENCE            (more)

Ignorance                                           Knowledge

Denial                                             Embracing facts

Cognitive Dissonance                          Realist

Psychosis                                               Sanity

Lying                                                      Honest

When people deliberately misinform, there are rhetorical tactics that scholars have studied for literally thousands of years. Among the most likely you’ll encounter: ad hominem (character attack), straw-man (lying about and/or distorting an opponent’s argument), cherry picking (choosing only the evidence that supports one’s argument while intentionally ignoring competing evidence), emotional denial, distraction, and appeal to authority (trusting experts rather than examining the evidence).

Ad hominem is rejected in academic, scientific, legal, and professional consideration when evidence can be evaluated on its own merits. As stated, I require students to accurately represent an opponent’s argument before disagreeing, thus eliminating straw-man arguments. I’ll encourage you to identify lies of omission or cherry picking, and to understand your power to demand full disclosure of important information. We’ll try to quickly discern emotional appeals and distractions as irrelevant to facts. An appeal to authority can be helpful as expert testimony, but only when that testimony walks us through the evidence to improve our understanding. An invalid application is when the speaker asks the audience to merely believe the “expert” or if the expert’s work obfuscates rather than clarifies. All rhetorical fallacies hinder comprehensive factual consideration of an issue.

A recent contribution to our understanding of fallacious reasoning is from Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton, one of our nation’s most respected philosophers. His 2005 New York Times’ bestseller, On Bullshit  (5-minute interview with Jon Stewart) and his follow-up 2006, On Truth are poignant. Frankfurt advances a classical academic argument: when we are unaware of something (in this case, BS), we are unable to intelligently respond in its presence (literally “irresponsible”). When we can clearly distinguish BS, we can artistically and effectively respond (literally “responsible”). Frankfurt defines BS as manipulation to herd people into supporting a particular policy, and ubiquitous in government. BS includes facts when they support a policy goal, but its purveyor has no regard for the facts; only for the public to support what the BS-artist dictates (yes, as in “dictatorship”). BS does not use facts to help people’s comprehensive understanding and democratic choice of what to do. BS selectively uses partial truths to thwart comprehensive understanding, and eliminate people’s democratic choice based on the facts. Its purpose is to control what people do. If lies serve better than partial truths, lies will be used. If lies are revealed, the BS-artist will continue to say whatever’s necessary to keep pushing people toward their policy goals. In political theory, the manipulative control articulated by Frankfurt as BS is categorized more as dictatorial government rather than a democracy. Voting without the facts does not count as a choice. When the information to choose is controlled, one is being dictated to without the freedom democracy intends.

Importantly, factual consideration of current government and economic policy is from a different framework than factual consideration in the study of history. Historical research and analysis understand that current events will benefit from future factual disclosures and time to consider the meaning of events. In government and economic policy, our professional time frame to consider and act on issues is necessarily limited and initiates on prima facie evidence. Prima facie means that if the best current evidence is found to uphold the alleged facts and not successfully challenged, it’s held as legally reliable. Policy and legal actions embrace historical research, often leading up to the present. Because the limitations of accurate understanding of current events is understood, the process of prima facie welcomes any challenge to the evidence and/or alternative evidence, considers expert testimony from multiple perspectives, and then debates the issue to sufficient degree to best inform a policy choice. This process is repeated with every policy proposal and is mirrored in our legal proceedings.

This is an example of prima facie you currently have: your upcoming choice of post-secondary education is a policy decision with limited time to choose, and operates on prima facie data and arguments. You’ll make your best call in good faith, with full recognition you’ll continue to collect data, revise your prima facie understanding, and can change policy if the facts and arguments are compelling.

Prima facie is an essential concept for government and economics; we’ll continuously refer to it. The idea, in other words, is to lay one’s cards on the table for all who are interested to see. If any of the alleged facts are proven to be false, those cards are removed from the table. If other revealing facts are discovered, they are put on the table. In our work of studying government and economics we will honor prima facie evidence as sufficient to establish facts in question unless refuted. This standard reflects the highest professional and academic standards, and will be how we approach analysis of current events in government and economics.

Honest scholars in history, government, and economics never claim to command the complete set of facts. We’re quite clear that discussion of policy move forward on the best available evidence, is entirely open to the submission of new evidence and correction of existing evidence, welcomes diverse perspectives on the meaning of the evidence, and honors democratic choice for policy.

I encourage you to embrace the classical education idea of dialectics, whereby competing claims are considered, discussed, and appreciated from their contributions to clarify complex issues. Multiple contributions often lead to a synthesis or unimagined discovery. No individual knows all and sees all. Each of us has only some of the virtues of being human, and even then only in relative strength. It’s only from multiple points of view that we achieve our best approach to comprehensive understanding. To illustrate, the following drawing of happy faces show individuals’ limited perspectives viewing a complex issue (represented by the polygon art). We can only understand the whole when good people from diverse perspectives report what they see of the facts and their analysis of those facts. Without others’ contributions, any individual is limited in understanding. Please note: the most informative facts and analysis come from the point of view directly opposite from one’s own! This also means that the more students contribute to our class discussions, the better all of our learning will be.

Parents and students are welcome to participate in the development of this lesson, as well as all lessons during the year. Please e-mail me if there is information you consider important to include in this brief lesson on critical thinking that is missing, could be better communicated, and/or if information is in error. As always, I encourage students and parents to discuss and research issues they find important that this lesson may have sparked. Feel free to contact me if I can be of service to your learning.

Assignment: Please respond to each part of the following questions to both answer the question and best express yourself. That means you should write to defend the accuracy of your answers and to enjoy/learn from your self-expression. When I ask for examples, these can include your life as an individual, observations of friends and family, organizations, and governments. Examples must have actually happened and not be hypothetical! They must include enough detail for a person new to the idea to see it in action. The purpose of this line of questioning is for you to understand important ideas and then relate the idea to a specific example to see these ideas operate in reality. If you really learn the idea, you’ll have the power to apply it at will in any area of your life. Applying ideas that improve your life is the purpose of education.

Each question is worth one point. I recommend to cut and paste the questions, then word-process your answers with space to add writing from our class discussions.

  1. Please define “critical thinking” (that’s right; I did not explicitly define it for you in the reading because I want you to develop understanding on your own terms). Explain how it’s useful. Explain an example where a person(s) benefited from critical thinking.
  2. Please define “fact.” Explain one example.
  3. Please define “spin” or “interpretation” of fact(s). Explain one example.
  4. If you’re committed to truth, explain why you have to accurately state an opponent’s argument before disagreeing. Explain an example where this happened. Explain another example where it didn’t happen because the person was not committed to truth.
  5. Explain why physical evidence is our most reliable information. Explain one example.
  6. Explain why testimony can be unreliable evidence. Explain one example that shows how testimony about what happened can be significantly different from what really happened.
  7. Write your analysis of what percentage or the time people give their opinion on something without adequate factual information compared to the percent when people verify facts before giving an opinion. Explain one example to support your analysis.
  8. Define “ad hominem.” Explain one example you’ve personally observed.
  9. Define a “straw-man” argument. Explain one example you’ve personally observed.
  10. Define a lie of omission or “cherry picking.” Explain one example you’ve personally observed.
  11. Explain an example you’ve observed of someone intentionally ignoring evidence that would refute their factual claim(s) or argument.
  12. Explain Professor Frankfurt’s academic definition of “BS.” Explain one example you’ve observed in political or personal life.
  13. Define “prima facie.” Explain one example.
  14. Explain why government policy operates from prima facie evidence rather than waiting for historical certainty. Explain one example.
  15. From what you understand so far, please explain the degree you find these classical and conservative tools of thinking helpful to understand government and economics. Please include any suggestions for improvement.  Explain one example where you’ve successfully applied them since reading and thinking about these ideas – time to put them to use if you haven’t done so yet 🙂
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