In the best of times I find teaching critical thinking tremendously frustrating. I do not teach it at all for long stretches as a result, but the five-five schedule of a full-time community college teacher means that I return (frequently) to courses that I find frustrating in order to avoid the insanity that can result from teaching multiple sections of the same course. Three sections of the same course can produce (in me at any rate) something that resembles sleep walking in the classroom and a constant state of déjà vu (didn’t we go over this last class?).
In any case, I believe in critical thinking. I feel like I am doing something valuable as we work our way through the importance of giving reasons and all the ways that our thinking can go wrong even when we do so. The class finishes with a discussion of how to think critically about science and this semester’s class ended with a convergence of ideas and events that illustrated many of the most important ideas in the course.
Last week students were to write one page arguments either for or against the hypothesis that females are more nurturing and compassionate than males. The assignment was connected to a discussion of fallacies and they brought their papers to class and exchanged them to search for fallacies in their fellow students’ papers – many of which, so I discovered while grading them, they had also committed in their own papers. The assignment worked fairly well (although the original papers were not very good – at least that made finding the fallacies easy). But what was even better was that the exercise coincided with the release of an article on sex differences in brains and their purported link to behavioral differences published in PNAS. The results were picked up and reported in a variety of media outlets – actually “misreported” would be a better description. and the final unit of our semester on scientific method.
First, the current discussion providing an opportunity to illustrate a particular problem that had occurred in their own papers – the difficulties that arise from dichotomous thinking about nature and nurture when talking about sex differences in behavior. Second – the numerous critiques of the science provided a great opportunity to discuss a variety of issues connected to “scientific method”: choice of research question, the use of background knowledge in research design, the question of what counts as a significant difference in statistical information, and the general complexity involved in the production of scientific knowledge. There have been a number of excellent commentaries on this research that can be used to highlight these issues. I offer several of them here: Cordelia Fine’s critique of the paper and I also recommend her Delusions of Gender, Berit Broggard’s post on the New APPS blog, Sophia K. Scott (critiquing the science specifically), and a more humorous take by Dean Burnett from The Guardian.
I have used sex difference research as an ongoing example throughout a critical thinking course before – mostly research on differences in mathematical ability – and I strongly recommend using one or two specific examples as the core examples for a critical thinking course. It is particularly challenging as students have to confront their own persistent beliefs that gender differences must be hardwired.