Blog Post: Evaluating Reasoning: Part 2

Gerald Nosich
Dec 03, 2019 • 4y ago
Evaluating Reasoning: Part 2

{"ops":[{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"Evaluating Reasoning      Part 2"},{"insert":"\n\nIn a previous blog of mine (November 1, 2019) I invited you to evaluate the reasoning in three sample student essays.  You were asked to compare the three and to rank them with respect to how well-reasoned they are.  That is clearly something you can do whether you are an instructor or not.  And of course it applies not just to assessing the reasoning of students. It applies to assessing the reasoning of anyone.\n            There are many pitfalls that come up both in thinking well and in evaluating the thinking of others.  Mostly we do such thinking and evaluating without being conscious that we are doing so.  We tend to say or write things that we believe are “right,” and we tend to agree or disagree with something said or written based primarily on whether it is in accord with what we already believe.  We tend not to ask ourselves consciously, explicitly, Is that accurate? Is that relevant to the issue?  Does it stress what is most important in the issue or does it focus on relatively minor aspects? Is it logical?  (These, of course, are some of the standards of critical thinking, mentioned in the Criteria Corner of the Tasting Room.)  Mostly, we rely on our minds to process these standards without our having to pay explicit attention to them. And often this works at least moderately well for us.\n            That previous blog contained three “student” essays. Actually the essays were written by Richard Paul and me, and they were intentionally designed to show comparatively good reasoning, another to show comparatively poor reasoning, and another to show no reasoning at all.  The one that showed poorer reasoning was the second essay, the one where the “student” compared different kinds of alarm clocks. \n            Again, that essay was explicitly written in order to show actual reasoning taking place, but reasoning of a poor quality.  \n            Richard and I traveled together and gave regional workshops around the U.S.  Participants were almost all instructors, from pre-k to graduate school.  Many taught writing. We asked all the participants (anonymously) to compare and rank the critical thinking in the three essays. The results were discouraging: the poorly reasoned essay was given an average rating of 6.5 out of a possible 8; the third essay (the one that clearly showed far better critical thinking) was given an average of 4.5 out of 8.\n\tAs I say, we found the results discouraging—but not surprising.\n            The background was a California State-Wide Essay Test on Critical Thinking. As part of that test, the educational experts gave a model essay of “exceptional achievement” (Their highest rating: 8 out of a possible 8.)   We, however, found that it rated a 1 out of 8: “minimal evidence of achievement,” or, at best, 2 out of 8: “limited evidence of achievement.”  Richard called the test “a fiasco.”\n            In the rough-and-ready experiment Richard and I conducted, why did participants rate a poorly reasoned essay higher than the better reasoned one. The answer probably had to do with the fact that the better-reasoned one is comparatively dull; and because the writer began by giving the strong points in favor of one conclusion, but then came to a different conclusion.  The poorly reasoned essay, by contrast was written in a sparkly way; it made reference to the writer’s personal experience and that made it far more vivid; and it came up with an original answer rather than just talking about the inventions mentioned in the book.  Both those essays were written intentionally with those qualities.\n            If this analysis of the results is correct, it graphically shows one of the pitfalls in evaluating critical thinking.  If a piece shows what is often called “good writing”—writing that is sparkly, vivid, original, with a personal flavor we identify with—we have a strong tendency to evaluate it highly, we tend to see it as showing good critical thinking.\n            The problem is that "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"sparkle"},{"insert":", "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"vividness"},{"insert":", "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"originality"},{"insert":", and "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"a personal flavor we identify with"},{"insert":"are not standards of critical thinking. Please don’t misunderstand me: all four of those qualities are important, indeed they are often extremely important. That kind of writing brings points home to us; it moves us; we respond to it; sometimes, when those qualities are done well, we find ourselves lifted up, our spirits buoyed, our hearts full.\n            But that’s not the same thing as showing good reasoning, or valid thinking.  It’s not even close.  The most egregiously false, misleading, even absurd or ridiculous ideas can be described in sparkly, vivid, original ways, and imbued with a strong personal flavor that we identify with.  In literature, D.H. Lawrence wrote in a lush gorgeous way, but his theme, more often than not, was that the only life worth living was the life of the body, divorced as much as possible from the life of the mind.  (I have to admit that as a young man I was a Lawrence aficionado and—to my current dismay—took his ideas to heart.)  In politics Hitler’s infantile ranting tapped vividly into his audience’s personal experience.\n            The main goal of a critical thinking writer is to write clearly, striving for accuracy even when the point being made is not an original one, and in a way that is directly relevant to the issue in question.  It is writing that stresses what is most important, that addresses issues with appropriate depth, breadth, logic, and fairness.  When examples are given, they are "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"representative"},{"insert":"examples, perhaps personal, perhaps not.\n\tIf the essay is a persuasive one, the aim is to convince the reader by the quality of the thinking, not by the quality of the prose.  A "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"secondary"},{"insert":"goal is to write vividly, with sparkle if possible, with all the originality that is consistent with speaking truth as far as the writer can determine it; and tapping into the audience’s identity when that helps people take the truth seriously.\n"}]}

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