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On the AILACT list, Michael Scriven wrote:

Mark got in a dig about ‘speed reasoning’ my most popular course; perhaps I should mention that the first thing I say in the first session is, there’s no royal road to speed reasoning, you just have to become good at plain old slow reasoning first, and then do it a thousand more times, and you’ve mastered speed reasoning. BUT WE CAN HELP with the first part, by giving you a nice bunch of tools, beginning with argt structuring, plus a number of templates for patterns to spot as problematic, plus some neat ways to counter those, and now let’s see how that works in ten subject matter fields, and then we’ll test you on five other ones to see if you’ve ‘got the point’ See… it’s easy to improve!

As it happens, that’s a pretty good description of the pedagogical approach in our “Critical Thinking: The Art of Reasoning” subject at the University of Melbourne. Though I’d emphasize that we don’t just begin with argument structuring, we use argument structuring in diagrammatic form (i.e., argument mapping) throughout the subject.

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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.

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An inspiring account from Kylie Sturgess of the Methodist Ladies College in Perth, Western Australia.  Kylie was runner-up in the 2006 Australian Skeptics‘ Prize for Critical Thinking.

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How do you help your students to achieve really worthwhile gains in critical thinking skills?

We worked on this problem for about five years at the University of Melbourne. We wanted a method for improving critical thinking skills which demonstrably achieves substantial results.

I’ll add now that we wanted a method which reliably acheives these results, i.e, gets them year after year, and in a variety of different contexts.

We think that we succeeded in this. The Reason method, as we called it, achieved gains of about 0.8 standard deviations semester after semester with University of Melbourne students.

We’ll soon be releasing a comprehensive review of the empirical literature (a “meta-analysis”) which compares our results with results found in other studies. Looking at the charts of the data, there certainly appears to be something special about the Reason method.

Increasingly, teachers and researchers around the world are doing their own studies to see if they can obtain the kind of good results showing up in our studies.

That’s great. It is crucial that the results be independently tested and (we hope) verified.

However, any independent attempt at replication should attempt to recreate the essential ingredients of the method being tested.

If you do a study which drops some of the essential ingredients, it doesn’t tell us much about the method.

Unfortunately that’s what we’re seeing. Again and again, attempts by third parties to find out if the Melbourne argument-mapping-based method “really works” don’t really test that method. They drop out a crucial ingredient – and then, usually and predictably, they find that they don’t achieve the same good results.

There are two crucial ingredients to the method we devised.

The first and most important is practice. Lots of practice. The Reason method, in a nutshell, is an application of the Ericsson theory that high levels of skill in any field come from lots of “deliberate practice.” Our idea (hardly very original or brilliant) is that the same will be true of reasoning or critical thinking skills.

The second ingredient comes out of that notion “deliberate.” Basically, deliberate means “good quality”. The challenge we confronted was – how do you get students to do LOTS of “good quality” practice?

Our insight was that you could improve the quality of practice students are doing by putting that practice into a good environment. In particular, we came to believe that argument mapping is a far better context for practice of reasoning skills than typical “prose”-based contexts (such as the typical university lecture, discussion section, book etc. which makes little or no use of argument diagrams).

So the second crucial ingredient in our method is using argument mapping. Specifically, doing one’s practice using argument mapping software.

Let me repeat that for emphasis. The method consists of

  1. LOTS of practice
  2. using argument mapping software

We used to call the method, in more technical language, “DPAM” – which stood for “deliberate practice using argument mapping.” Not very catchy.

Yanna Rider, one of the Austhink team, came up with the much better acronym LAMP. The method is Lots of Argument Mapping Practice.

Now, whether or not you use argument mapping, doing LOTS of practice is going to demand of a lot of institutional resources. Crudely put, it is going to take a lot of time and effort from staff, or time and effort from a lot of staff.

That’s a problem. Educational institutions are usually stretched pretty thin already, and putting MORE resources into some teaching exercise is a “big ask.”

What they are more often looking for is some way to get results with LESS resources.

So, what we usually find in independent attempts to “replicate” our results is that, when you look closely at how the method is being implemented, the focus is on argument mapping. the LOTS of PRACTICE has been downplayed or ignored.

Our prediction of course is that, to the extent that you don’t do the practice – the extent that you do AM rather than the full LAMP – you won’t get results as strong as ours.

The good news in all of this is that it is possible to achieve substantial gains. But you have to be prepared to do what it takes.

If you find out about an argument mapping study whose results were less impressive than ours, ask – were they really doing enough? Or does it look like they were hoping that argument mapping is some kind of magic bullet?

We believe that an argument-mapping based method is more efficient than other methods, because it offers a better quality of practice. So, for the same amount of resources or practice, you’ll get better results. But if the amount of practice your students are doing is negligible, the results will also be negligible.

One of our goals is to help educational institutions have their students do lots of argument-mapping-based practice without imposing significant extra resource requirements on those institutions. So a teacher can use the LAMP method without creating a lot of extra work for herself.

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In an email exchange with Jeff Ricker, who is putting together a good resource site on critical thinking for faculty at Scottsdale Community College, I sketched the following scenario:

“I teach business studies, but my students are depressingly bad at basic critical thinking activities – for example they have trouble producing a piece of written work that presents a position backed up with coherent arguments. I’d like to help them with this but I have to cover the business studies material in my subject. Besides, I don’t know that much about critical thinking myself – I think I can do it, but what exactly it is, and what the most effective way to do it is, I don’t really know. To make matters worse, I’m overloaded! I don’t have time to go researching this. What can I do?”

To which Jeff said “Yes, this is it precisely.”

Austhink is putting together a package to assist college instructors in this sort of position. The goal is an “off the shelf” solution for incorporating a short module of argument-mapping-based critical thinking instruction into just about any college subject. We want to make it as easy as possible for the instructor to get good results. The package is built around Rationale, of course, but includes

  • Instructor’s guide
  • Powerpoint overheads for use by the instructor
  • A short textbook for students
  • Lots of practice exercises

Although we have much of this worked up already, it will be a few months until the package is ready.  If you’d like to hear about it send us an email (we’ll add you to our general email notification list) or join the Rationale Google Group, an email discussion forum.

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