Midweek self-criticism: what about that logic and critical reasoning course?

Mar 10 2011 Published by under Academia, Personal, Teaching and learning

Back in mid-December, a reader emailed:

If I remember right, you were at one point talking about teaching a course on logic, scientific method[s], etc. If so, and if it happened this semester, is it possible to get a copy of the syllabus? It sounded interesting, and I once taught such a course and might in the future.

On the other hand, maybe I remember wrong, and you're wondering WTF I'm talking about. In that case, uh... um... Happy Holidays!! that's the ticket.

My correspondent did, in fact, remember correctly that I was discussing the planning of this course, although that discussion here pretty much stopped when my semester commenced kicking my butt.

In any event, given that I taught the course fall semester, it was planned at least enough that I was able to deliver it to the enrolled students. How did that go?

I would not describe it as an unqualified success.

One issue was that it was really hard to fully integrate the two distinct threads of the course (distinct threads which, as I noted, flowed from the laundry list of learning objectives for the course's general education area). On the one hand, we were concerned with critical reasoning, grappling with actual "arguments in the wild", recognizing strengths and weaknesses of such arguments (including many flavors of informal fallacies), and having the students develop their own skills in framing arguments of their own, often in response to the arguments put forward by others. On the other hand, we were tackling the formal properties of arguments -- which meant mucking around with symbolic logic, truth-tables, truth-trees, methods of proof, and the like.

I'm sure there exist approaches to weave these two threads together, if not seamlessly, then with more success than I had.

However, a pretty serious stumbling block for me was the fact that maybe half of the students had a fairly easy time with the symbolic logic, while the other half struggled with it. And, it's hard to find the time to illuminate the connections when you're working on getting the basic idea across (and when it's taking at least three times longer than you had hoped it would take).

If I had to do it again (and I might!), I'd be tempted to split up the semester into two distinct blocks, the first focused entirely on the formal properties of arguments, and the second on "arguments in the wild". Getting what seems to be the harder material out of the way might open up some space to then see how it connects to the natural language argumentation with which the students are more at home.

It might also result in a lot of the students who are most freaked out by the symbolic logic dropping the course within the first couple weeks, but I had a bunch of people hoping spaces would open up so they could add the course. Front-loading the difficult material might actually be a kindness to the students who recognize their inability or unwillingness to deal with it, so they could drop the course before drop day.

I was pleasantly surprised at the students' ability to engage with arguments in English (as opposed to Ps and Qs). Both in class discussions and in their essays, they did quite well at identifying the premises that were being put forward to support a conclusion, at zeroing in on implicit premises, at finding places where the link between premises and conclusions was not as strong as the person making the argument would have you believe, and at mounting persuasive counterarguments of their own. In other words, they demonstrated their ability to bring critical thinking to their reading of the op-ed page. This is a very good thing indeed.

On the other hand, some of the students hadn't figured out how to ask good questions (or in some cases, any questions) about material they were having trouble understanding (again, mostly the symbolic logic stuff). This became painful in the class meetings and review sessions devoted to helping them get clear on the concepts and skills on which they were unclear. If you can't even tell me which problems from the homework you want to see worked on the board, or whether, once you see they worked on the board, they make more sense to you, then I need telepathic powers to figure out how to help you learn this stuff.

Sadly, I do not have telepathic powers.

As it shook out, I don't think I'd use my own syllabus again. Still, I will probably come up with a couple drafts of syllabi for the next iteration of the course. One will try to address the issues I discovered with the particular student population I had. The other, to satisfy my hunger for Platonic ideal forms (one of which must exist for a logic and critical reasoning course), will propose the mix of topics and activities I'd want to teach with no regard for externally imposed learning objectives or for the existence of students who might actually be resistant to spending more than the minimum time and effort on learning the material (and maybe even caring about it).

I reckon that drafting those syllabi would be a nice diversion from the mountains of grading. When it happens, I'll post them here.

2 responses so far

  • Larry Moran says:

    I'm having a similar experience. I wanted to teach a course on the controversies in evolution and I had hoped to focus on critical thinking and the logic of scientific arguments.

    Unfortunately, I had to spend most of my time explaining why there were controversies because the background of the students wasn't sufficient to even recognize that there were different points of view.

    I'm ending up teaching a course about the facts of evolution and not about critical thinking. The lesson I've learned is that you can't teach critical thinking until the students have enough information about a subject to recognize that there are problems.

  • Doug Spoonwood says:

    It looks like attempts to give courses like this have a history. I have here a copy of the 2nd edition of Lukasiewicz's _Elements of Mathematical Logic_. In the preface to the 2nd edition Slupecki write "The last section of the Elements-- "On Reasoning in the Natural Sciences"--has been dropped, too. Included in the first edition as a "Supplement", it was not connected with the contents of the remaining sections."