For many years the only university subject I’ve been teaching has been Critical Thinking: The Art of Reasoning, at the University of Melbourne. This is one-semester subject devoted almost entirely to improving reasoning, argument and critical thinking skills – a kind of “boot camp” for rational thinkers. This subject has been the environment in which our argument mapping techniques and software have been developed and field tested.

It’s been a fascinating time, and I’m not bored with it yet. Still, on occasion I also wonder what it would be like to teach some other subject, a subject where logical thinking is a tool rather than the focus, and where argument mapping can be evaluated not for its impact on critical thinking skill gains, but rather for its benefits in supporting learning and inquiry.

In particular, given my background in philosophy, what would it be like to teach – say – Introduction to Philosophy, incorporating argument mapping?

A prior question is – how would argument mapping actually be used in such a subject?

Some early adopters have already been leading the way in terms of introducing argument mapping into general philosophy. For example there’s David Spurrett in Durban, South Africa, who for a number of years has been using Reason!Able, Rationale’s predecessor, in various subjects.

Looking at what people like Dave have been doing, and trying to imagine what I would probably do, here are some ideas:

  1. Use Rationale during preparation of lectures to create graphics of the main arguments under consideration to include in Powerpoint overheads.
  2. Or better still, display “live” argument maps during lectures from within an argument mapping application such as Rationale. That way, you can easily modify the maps to bring out points during the class, for example in response to students’ questions or suggestions.
  3. More radically, a whole lecture could be presented from within the argument mapping application. Rationale, for example, has an infinitely extendable workspace, on which you can include as many maps as you like; you can zoom and scroll as needed to bring the relevant material to the forefront. Sticky notes can be used to incorporate material which doesn’t naturally fit into an argument map.
  4. Instead of just requiring students to read some text before a class, have them try to map the core argument(s) being presented. This gives them a task with a goal, which will help them engage with the text better. (They’ll find this activity very hard at first, but with your guidance they’ll gradually get better at it.)
  5. Require students to work up an argument map of their own argument or arguments they’re presenting in their essays. Have them hand the map in with the essay. This will (a) lead them to be much more explicit about what exactly their argument is; (b) give them a logical skeleton on which to hang their essay; and (c) give you a fast way of understanding what they are trying to argue (and, in many cases, whether they are hopelessly confused).

That’s just a few ideas; no doubt there are lots of other good ways to use argument mapping. After all, philosophy (at least in the “Anglo-American analytic” tradition) is heavily focused on understanding and evaluating arguments, even at introductory levels (e.g., Descartes’ classic arguments for the distinctness of mind and body). If we’ve got a better way of displaying and manipulating argument structures, it must surely find many uses.