Critical Thinking for Educational Equity

Early in my career, when I still got to teach logic and critical thinking on a regular basis, I was shocked to discover how many students entering college didn’t really understand how the truth-functional conditional (“if.. then..” claim) worked. I was equally shocked to discover how many of my students were attempting to get through intermediate algebra requirements by following textbook recipes for solving problems. The logic of algebra was largely lost on these students. I could see clearly how this could be an insurmountable barrier to getting a college education. And yet we maintain degree requirements in math without supporting significant instruction in the underlying logical reasoning skills. The lack of focused instruction on basic reasoning skills makes things like algebra an often insurmountable obstacle to obtaining a college degree.

We should think of critical thinking and logical reasoning as basic skills. We do provide extensive dedicated instruction in other basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic. But focused dedicated instruction in critical thinking and logical reasoning gets lost in the shuffle. It’s our less advantaged students that pay the price. Educationally advantaged students often pick up the critical thinking and logical skills along the way. Such “infused” teaching of critical thinking and logical skills works OK for students who have talented attentive teachers who recognize these barriers and have the bandwidth to address them as they come up, or for students who have peers that are figuring out logical and critical thinking tools along the way, or who have well educated parents who can help them figure out how the truth functional use of “if. . then. . ” works in the course of doing their high school geometry homework. These educationally advantaged students, of course, are disproportionately white and affluent.

This was in fact my experience growing up as a white kid in Mesa, Arizona. I was the child to two parents with advanced degrees. Having a single income home (my dad was a high school reading teacher), we were of modest means. But my mother was very well qualified to help me figure out geometry, algebra, biology and chemistry. She helped other kids in the neighborhood with these things as well. I was able to pick up decent critical thinking and logical skills along the way. But only because I enjoyed the educational advantage of a scientifically trained mother, and an educated father who was keen on keeping up with technology. Along with this I had grew up with friends and teachers who expected me to figure these things out and go on to succeed in college.

Things weren’t like this for my Latin American classmates who lived just a few blocks away. Their parents taught them how to fix an old car, or how to make tamales (a skill I now wish I had). When they got to the community college I attended after high school, they more likely arrived (if they enrolled at all) without a good understanding of how the truth-functional “if . .then . . ” worked. Not because they lacked aptitude I had, but because their dad didn’t bring home a Commodore Pet for them to learn how to program BASIC on, and because their mom wasn’t equipped to keep an eye on how algebra homework was going and provide the critical explanation in a timely fashion.

How can we as educators attentive to issues of equity help to correct for these prior educational disadvantages? Let me propose providing dedicated, robust instruction in critical thinking as a way to address the intellectual barriers our less advantaged students often face at their source. Reasoning skills are basic skills and picking them up in the context of studying other things does not work well for students who don’t enjoy all the extra support I had, be it in the classroom, at home, or among their peers.

When I arrived at Bellevue College 20 some years ago we had healthy offerings in Critical Thinking and Logic. We filled multiple sections of both our reasoning courses every quarter and served thousands of students with dedicated instruction in basic reasoning skills. Shortly after I became chair of the Philosophy Department, the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges decided that reasoning just meant math. Our course offerings in basic reasoning skills were all but wiped out and they have not recovered since. They won’t recover without the support of wiser degree requirements. Since then I have challenged educators and administrators at every opportunity to explain why we dedicate so much instructional time and attention to basic skills like math, which is really just reasoning with numbers and variables, but basically no dedicated instruction to more general reasoning skills. I have never heard a good explanation.

It is the more general reasoning skills we teach in courses like Critical Thinking and Logic that equip marginalized and otherwise educationally disadvantaged students to succeed in the STEM courses we prioritize. By pushing STEM to the exclusion of focused attention on the basic reasoning skills required for success in STEM, we cement and sustain educational inequities that tend to fall disproportionately along the lines of race and other historical facets of marginalization. Treating Critical Thinking and Logical reasoning skills like other basic skills could go a long ways towards addressing these inequities. Doing so will require more than lip service. We don’t rely on teaching other basic skills across the curriculum, to be picked up along the way if things go well. Imagine if math were taught only across the curriculum, not in required math classes. We all recognize that dedicated instruction in required courses for basic skills like math and writing. Why not for the basic general reasoning skills featured the standard Critical Thinking curriculum? Our failure to require dedicated robust instruction in Critical Thinking is one of the many ways we perpetuate entrenched educational inequities.

Leave a Reply