Brant Abrahamson and Fred Smith
Helping students learn to reason well has long been a major goal of most teachers. Almost all educators want young people to develop an optimistic but questioning world outlook. But, what kind of study leads to this goal? What "learnable" skills are likely to help adolescents think clearly?
Our introductory unit consists of having students master a short list of common thinking faults, or fallacies. They learn to spot "child-like ways of thinking" through a series of exercises leading to individualized applications. The list of mental pitfalls to be avoided includes "Overgeneralization," "False Cause and Effect," "Crowd Appeal," "Guilt by Association," "False Analogy," and "Arguing in Circles."
Thinking Logically: A Study of Common Fallacies is suitable as an introduction to most history and social studies classes. Regardless of course, students learn to contribute to class discussions in ways that do more than generate emotional heat or restate the obvious (glittering- generalities). They learn to avoid kinds of phrasing ("obviously," "everyone knows") that undermine otherwise worthwhile essays--or ways of writing that hide ignorance by repetition (arguing in circles). The unit helps a teacher throughout the course because an additional set of specific criteria is available for student evaluation.
Thinking Logically can be taught in many ways, and a variety of alternative instructional activities are included. Methods that work well in one community may be less effective in others. Further, those appropriate for enthusiastic students at the beginning of the school year--or at the start of a day--may need modification later on. The general system we recommend, however, moves from direct instruction toward individualized learning.
A variety of studies indicate that direct instruction is the quickest way to learn a short list of central concepts that will be central to what follows. Therefore, we recommend that students begin by mastering the short fallacy definitions as they identify examples and fallacy-avoiding "questions to ask." A series of overhead transparency sheets and mastery quizzes is included for this purpose.
Learning becomes individualized as the unit progresses and students gain proficiency. Singly and in small groups they demonstrate their "considered thought" on issues relevant to the course.
Thinking Logically: A Study of Common Fallacies--like all Teachers' Press units--is built on a set of assumptions developed during years of working with students and their teachers. These include a focus on durability, open- endedness, usefulness, and partnership.
First, curricula needs to be durable. It should be based on established scholarship if students are to understand why they should work hard. Fallacy study is durable, and it is based on established scholarship. It has been a central part of academic training in the Western world since Greco-Roman times. (The long-lasting nature of the study is illustrated by a "treasure- hunt" activity using traditional Latin titles.)
Moving toward individualization helps establish open-endedness. The study is presented as a set of helpful tools, not "final truth." Sections on "Classification Problems," and "Going to Extremes" emphasize that the unit--like all academic work--is unfinished business.
People remember best what they use, and students DO USE fallacy concepts! They quickly see faulty thinking "all around,"--even to the point that warnings are needed. "Backfire and Hostility" warns of pointing fingers at others. Sections called "Manipulating Others" and "Fallacies, Lying and Ethics" caution against using one's knowledge to trick untrained people.
Finally, students should be viewed junior partners (to the degree their emotional maturity allows). Adolescents are experts on their lives and the popular culture to which their education applies. Studies in effective learning suggest that they should produce the visual displays, colored illustrations, new example sets, fallacy games, video-skits and the like. They should use the "Annotated Bibliography" to add to their fallacy knowledge as well as help tutor struggling classmates.
Bluntly stated, teachers interested in media-style materials designed to entertain "couch potatoes" will not be interested. The unit requires student attention and work--which they give! It's an introductory study they perceive as relevant to their lives. It's helpful to teachers because it dramatically elevates class discussion and student writing--and provides criteria for student evaluation. Finally, concepts "stick." They're not "left at the classroom door." Based on our long-continued research (available upon request), many students recall specific fallacies even five years later!
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