Critically Ventilating

As those of you who have read my scribblings in the past might know, I teach Critical Thinking as an adjunct instructor at a public college.  With your kind indulgence, I am going to vent a bit about some of the issues that I have with the teaching of this class, partially as venting and partially as an indication of what can go wrong in the ed biz (as Tom Lehrer once put it).

First let me say that I am a great believer and supporter of education, in terms of learning new things and general self improvement.  However, I have had more than a few problems with the educational system.  And now is one of those times.

Teaching critical thinking is one of those interesting things in that you are looking for an attitude change as much or more than the acquisition of facts or skills.  I have looked many times and have been assured that it is possible to assess the changes in a person, what, criticalness of thinking, but as of yet, I have not found an instrument that actually does that.  So, assessment is a bit of an issue.  Sure, I would love for students to come up to me at the end of the semester and say, “You know, I think maybe Trump is a liar,” or “Creationism now seems nuts to me” or even, “This class made me decide I’m an atheist.”  But I am not holding my breath for any of that, and I certainly can not give grades based on that criteria.

My first semester or two, I had to figure things out on my own, and I think I did OK with that.  Recently the college has decided that all instructors should follow the same course outline and all use the same assessments.

Had they invited me to the meetings where the course outlines were decided I would have told them that I think it all sucks.  The textbook is much too heavy on deductive argumentation (a full chapter on Venn Diagrams, another on logical truth tables, out of twelve chapters).  The book barely mentions cognitive biases, statistical concepts such as correlation and nothing at all about Bayesian reasoning.  So, I am not a fan.

The assignments are even worse, in my estimation.  For each chapter there is a quiz.  Each quiz consists of an average of about seven (yes, 7) multiple choice or true/false questions.  Students are to take 10 of the 12 quizzes.  Each chapter has a discussion board question which allows free form answers, but students only have to do six of the twelve chapters (yes, you read that right as well, 50%).  Finally there are four “papers,” three of which amount to expressing opinions.  Here are the four assignments: 1. asks the students to say what they would do in a legal case (and justify their reasoning); 2. Write a personal goal statement and plan; 3. Make a major decision using a decision matrix; 4. Write a position paper on a controversial topic.

In a meeting last year, I suggested getting rid of the tests and having more projects (I previously used oral presentations and debates) and people freaked out.  This year I have been informed that students should be allowed unlimited attempts at the quizzes and that they can work together on them and treat them as “learning exercises.”  But the scores still count toward their grades — and no other assessments have been added.

I now have no way to differentiate the students, the quizzes were a bit of a crap shoot, now everyone should get them all right, bulletin board posts tend to be good and they are informal, so most people get full points, three of the papers are just expressing opinions, and most people do terrible on the position paper because they are not good at academic style writing.  So, do I give everyone an A or a C?

I feel like they have made a class that is supposed to impart one of the most meaningful “soft skills” of the 21st century is now pretty meaningless.  I am deeply disturbed by this development.

And don’t worry about my future as a result of my public airing of this, I am already “fired” by my college.

This past summer the college decided that all instructors have to have a Masters degree.  At first they said that they would pay half the cost to help those of us who are lacking, but then decided the funding would only go to a chosen few.  I still have no idea how they chose the few.

But this is where I have a real problem with educational system.  I have 30 graduate class hours from a Masters program.  For lots of different reasons I did not write a thesis and therefore did not get a degree.

I have looked at getting my degree and pretty much no college I have contacted will give me credit for my previous graduate work (too old!!).  When I look at their programs (all online, no graduate school here!) I basically take 30 hours of classes to get my Masters — no thesis requirement!  Which is exactly what I have now.  So, basically it will cost me $20K to retake the courses I already have to do a job that I have been doing for the last seven years, with no guarantee on their part that will be given future class assignments.

To add some insult to injury, my background is in psychology and I do often teach psych classes, but for the past several years, I more often teach critical thinking now, so if I got a Masters in Psych, I STILL would not have a Masters in what I am teaching.

Again, although I love the idea of education and self improvement, the idea of certification chasing (paper with little or no real meaning) is abhorrent to me.  I have been told that since I have the required number of graduate classes in psychology I can continue teaching if I get a Masters in ANYTHING.  That strikes me as completely insane.

Thanks for letting me vent, feel free to fire away in the comments.


What is Critical Thinking?

Of course every election season has me asking the above question, especially this one, but that is not why I am asking.

Several years ago I was asked to teach Critical Thinking at my college and I agreed to do so.  The textbook I was given looks at the subject from a philosophical standpoint.  It starts with “What is an argument” and includes things like Venn Diagrams, Truth Tables and several chapters on formal and informal logical fallacies.

The book touches on (very obliquely) Bayesian and other statistical reasoning which I expand on quite a bit.  It also touches (very obliquely, again) on some of the modern work in cognitive biases, which, again, I do expand on.

My question to all of you is: Is there other areas of Critical Thinking that you feel are important?

What have been your most important lessons in Critical Thinking?

What do you wish you knew about Critical Thinking?

Any and all responses would be most helpful to me and my students!