Critical Thinking Note 1

Critical Thinking Note 1


Here is a critical thinking problem that will be familiar to many instructors. We ask students to give a reason for believing something and they answer with a single sentence, perhaps a rhetorical question or just a phrase. Their answer may be in some way relevant to the issue at hand, but it is the exception rather than the rule for students to give enough information to show how some conclusion follows from what they have said. The problem here is that relatively few of our students know what an argument is.  This is lesson one in critical thinking. Arguments consist of sets of complete sentences including premises which, together, are offered as a reason for accepting a conclusion.

Another problem familiar to many who teach is that students don’t often know what to do with an argument once it is fully spelled out. When students are asked if an argument is a good one or not, the typical responses are a nod of the head if they like the conclusion or some gesture towards a completely unrelated argument against the conclusion if they don’t like it. The problem here is that our students don’t know how to evaluate arguments on their own merits. Lesson two in critical thinking introduces the basic standards for evaluating arguments. Are the premises of the argument true and do they in fact support the conclusion.

Learning to identify, formulate and evaluate arguments are basic, essential, and often difficult critical thinking lessons. The basic anatomy and physiology of good argumentation can be clearly spelled out in well under an hour. But internalizing these lessons more often takes months of self-consciously working out details, looking at applications and practice, practice, practice. This is not remember-the-answers-for-the-test curriculum. Critical thinking is a skill, like cooking, carpentry or yoga. Learning to think critically is within reach for most people, but it requires some dedicated attention over an extended period of time. This is what a class in critical thinking is for.

Unlike cooking, carpentry and yoga, critical thinking is a very general skill. It has applications in a great many spheres of life, including cooking and carpentry, but perhaps not so much yoga. Business leaders know this and critical thinking skills are in high demand in the workplace.  Critical thinking skills are the key to solving problems in the work world we could never anticipate in the classroom. They transform students into life-long learners who can adapt to change and innovation in a broad range of professions.

Given all of this, one would expect an institution like ours to make a high priority out of teaching critical thinking.  In one way we do. We claim to teach critical thinking as an infused general education outcome.  But while there is ample opportunity for application and re-enforcement of critical thinking skills in our diverse curricula, there is usually not so much space for dedicated attention to the basic nuts and bolts of how to formulate and evaluate arguments. This is what a class in critical thinking is for.

For a long time we have had a class in critical thinking.  PHIL& 115, Critical Thinking, currently constitutes a quarter of the Philosophy Department’s offerings. But this class is about to lose its shelf in the BC curriculum. For well over a decade PHIL& 115 has satisfied the reasoning requirement in the DTA. However, changes to the math component of that requirement are about to result in the removal of PHIL& 115 from the list of QSR courses (quantitative and symbolic reasoning) in our DTA. Not only is this pretty much a done deal, but it is the best outcome we could have hoped for (Symbolic Logic, PHIL& 120 stays on the QSR list).

The imperatives that have led to removing Critical Thinking from the statewide reasoning requirement are complicated. But the implications are clear. As of Fall Quarter 2013, we will be teaching a lot less critical thinking at BC. This is a setback, not only for the Philosophy Department, but as much so for our students and the institution as a whole. This note is among the first of several steps the Philosophy Department will take in response to this setback. On a few initiatives, we may be seeking your collaboration. Our plan going forward includes the following:

  • We will periodically send out Critical Thinking Notes via email of which this is the first. Expect at least one per quarter but probably not more than one per month. The main purpose of these will be to better acquaint the campus community with the critical thinking curriculum and how to teach it effectively. We will also keep you up to date on other initiatives and progress via these notes.
  • We will produce a brief critical thinking handbook that will be copy left and editable. The idea here is to provide the campus community with a very concise critical thinking textbook that can be adopted at will or adapted to suit the needs of varying programs and courses.
  • We will conduct critical thinking curriculum development workshops for BC faculty through the BC Faculty Commons.
  • We will actively seek new shelves in the BC curriculum for our Critical Thinking course, PHIL& 115.

The goal of the BC Philosophy Department is to advance the critical thinking skills and habits of our students and the campus community at large. If you can think of other ways we might usefully serve this end, do let us know.


The BC Philosophy Department,

Russ Payne

Mark Storey

Steve Duncan

Ferdinand Tablan

Jason Benchimol

Meggan Padvorac

Tim Linnemann

Zoe Aleshire


February 18, 2013

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