No matter how close to the center their shot lands, beginning marksmen achieve success simply by hitting the target. As they learn, practice, and gain experience, the target’s center becomes their focus. They develop accuracy, intentionally steadying their state and securing the center in their sights. Thinking is similar. Engaging the target’s outer rings first supports movement toward the target’s center. Movement toward the center also increases the interaction between the rings.
Reasoning and evaluation, the target’s inner rings, are two sides of the same coin. Before we examine this coin, let’s briefly review the target’s outer circles: memorization and learning. Some information possesses its greatest value when it’s memorized. At its best, memorizing enables efficiency in thinking and acting. However, memorizing, while valuable when engaged selectively, has its limits.
Learning often involves four core processes, or four “states” of thinking. (Thinking is more fluid than the term states suggests, but this simplification can help us understand its flow.) Through experience, the brain gains raw sensory data. During comprehension, the brain sorts, labels, and organizes the raw sensory data. Through elaboration, the brain examines the organized data for patterns, recalls relevant prior experiences, and blends the new data with your experiences to construct understanding. During application the brain practices using or expressing the new understanding. We should increase instruction in the skills of learning, not just guide student learning of core subject matter. In other words, we need to place more value and emphasis on teaching students how to self-teach (or self-learn). We need to teach them the thinking skills that enable self-directed learning.
Reasoning builds on learning because it requires knowledge of the subject about which one wants to think. That may seem obvious, but some instructional thinking programs suggest that by using their bag of tricks students will be able to think critically about anything. While certain understandings and skills do enable reasoning, there must be sufficient knowledge about the subject to avoid reasoning void of solid content or invalid due to misunderstanding. Reasoning uses the ideas gained through learning to construct arguments, identify supportable conclusions, and structure ideas so that their relationships, value, and implications are evident. It also empowers decision-making.
Let’s watch learning and reasoning in action.
The Tour de France mesmerizes Stan. He knew that people raced on bikes, but he never saw the excitement this annual contest generates. A trip to a local bike shop intensifies Stan’s interest. The bikes themselves, the accessory equipment, the experience of freedom riding even in the store’s parking lot draws Stan into a new world, and, thus, into learning. In conversation with the store’s knowledgeable salesperson, Stan asks questions about bike types, manufacturers, and basic equipment needs. He leaves with a copy of a book, in which he seeks new information on bike selection and maintenance. His vocabulary expands, as terms like derailleur and carbon-fiber frame contribute to his emerging understanding. Stan researches road vs. mountain vs. BMX bikes and considers what type of cycling most interests him. He charts information about various makes and models of bike and reviews expert opinions on each. He considers this data from various perspectives: What do riders say about a make/model? What are repair shops’ experience with each? What does each manufacturer reveal about the intended use for each of their models? Stan actively seeks needed information and organizes and examines it in ways that deepen his understanding of this new world.
Stan grows more excited as his learning deepens, and soon he is eager to purchase his own bike.
Decision-making is similar to constructing a valid argument, and making a sound decision requires many of the same understandings and skills. For example, Stan’s research may have revealed that Brand A offers a longer warranty on all its bikes than all the other manufacturers he reviewed. Thus, he forms a statement that represents reality (i.e., not an opinion)—a “categorical statement”: “Brand A’s warranty is longer than the other manufacturers I am considering.” As he continues to review what his research reveals, he forms several such statements—some universal and some particular in nature. Stan also monitors his thinking as he compares features on differing models. For example, Stan knows from his various test rides that he has a strong preference for a specific type of shifting and braking controls. When comparing controls, he stays aware that, because of his bias, he will likely favor models with his preferred controls. This is not an error in his thinking, but it does present an additional consideration.
Stan also monitors his thinking for fallacies. For example, he watches for post hoc errors, such as eliminating a make just because it is the company that supports his favorite cyclist’s main competitor—e.g., “They must make bikes for jerks because so-and-so rides one.”) He also tries to minimize emotionally potent factors—e.g., “I really like the detailing on this model. Since it’s cool, I’ll get that bike.”
Throughout this process, Stan is constructing a conditional argument with as much truth and validity his understanding of cycling allows. He is reasoning. When the time comes to discuss getting a bike with his parents, who offered to contribute to the purchase as part of Stan’s birthday present, he’s ready with a well-crafted “argument” and a decision made via his best reasoning abilities.
Note how Stan’s learning enabled his reasoning. Had he selected a bike on his first visit to the bike shop immediately following the Tour de France, he would likely have made a different, less-reasoned decision, which may or may not have proved to be a wise choice. Emotion would have been the main basis of his decision because he did not possess the understanding that his period of learning provided. Without knowledge of a subject, we tend to make affective, less-informed decisions. (Note, you can never completely eliminate emotion’s role in decision-making, but you can moderate its influence. See Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide for an extended discussion of this.)
Problem-solving follows a similar route. The first step involves learning about the problem and its context (or reviewing such information if the problem arises in a familiar area). Reasoning then both produces and evaluates potential solutions. If the first attempt does not solve the problem, analysis of the attempt in relation to the problem often leads to another potential solution. Though we often portray trial and error as an unstructured process, the truth is that better trials often result from learning and reasoning. (Think about it, do you really want a surgeon who approaches a problem through a pure, unthinking trial-and-error approach?) Selecting a potential solution is not that different from decision-making, which is a focused form of reasoning.
Now, you may be wondering, why my visual, the target, separates reasoning and evaluation when both seem to be involved in forming valid and truthful arguments. When I use the term evaluation, I mean the capacity to analyze, evaluate, and accept or reject someone else’s argument. This certainly requires the same understandings and skills of reasoning, but it requires understanding the argument and its constructs as formed by someone else. Is this more difficult than forming valid arguments and engaging in metacognition throughout the process? I wouldn’t claim that, except that there is an additional step, and this additional step is crucial. The thinker must understand, without initial bias, the argument another makes. (We have plenty of adults in our nation’s capital and on our cable “news” networks who regularly demonstrate their lack of this crucial, additional step.) This requires overcoming challenges such as the error of discrediting the messenger rather than evaluating the message—an error that can hijack thinking before a single idea of the argument has been considered. This is a significant challenge that is largely absent from forming one’s own valid arguments.
Additionally, by learning to form truthful and valid arguments, students gain experiential knowledge that can aid valid evaluation. An analogy may help clarify this relationship. Housing inspectors undergo various levels of education and meet certain requirements depending on where their practice is located. Thorough inspectors often have construction experience. Knowing from experience where builders are tempted to take short-cuts helps the inspector know what to examine carefully. From constructing experience, the inspector gains knowledge that strengthens his evaluation capacity. Similarly, forming truthful and valid arguments aids evaluation of arguments made by others.
Reasoning and evaluation depend on skills. The table below details some of these essential abilities. (D. Q. McInerny’s Being Logical provides a great and succinct introduction to many of these concepts.)
These abilities can be viewed as a series of developmental steps that can be emphasized in the classroom. For example, a group of educators in Philadelphia took the ability to form conditional arguments and discussed, “What is the range of this skill? What do its initial steps of development look like? What would its fullest expression look like?” After we grappled with these concepts, we considered when instruction for each step might begin and where it might mature to mastery. Here’s what evolved:Exploring thinking in this way helps a plan for instruction to emerge. Teachers gain guidance for actually teaching thinking and can better plan for its inclusion in learning. Ideally, I believe we’d approach everything through a thinking lens. For example, instead of teaching magnetism as a science unit, we’d teach a thinking skill, such as stating premises and conclusions, using magnetism as the subject matter. Simply altering how we view and approach instruction can make the difference between students seeing us as the expert from whom they must learn and seeing themselves as capable learners who possess the skills they need to learn independently.
My intention in this series has not been to provide an exhaustive look at thinking but to suggest an alternate perspective. By seeing thinking as central to learning rather than a nice addition to classroom interaction, we can begin to explore the implications for our teaching, from what we teach to how we teach it. I have not explored creativity in this series. I plan to do so in my next post, which I’ll present as separate from this series.
Thank you for reading and for your comments. These posts are intended to be discussion starters. I certainly learn much from the interaction they spark. I hope you’ll learn, reason, and evaluate these ideas and share your own conclusions!
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