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Teaching Philosophy

Teaching an Applied Critical Thinking Course: How Applied Can We Get?

Elliot D. Cohen

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ABSTRACT: Encouraging students to apply classroom knowledge in their personal, everyday life is a major problem confronting many teachers of critical thinking. For example, while a student might recognize an ad hominem argument in a classroom exercise, it is quite another thing for him or her to avoid the same in interpersonal relations, say with parents, siblings, and peers. One approach to this problem is the creation of interaction software to which students can turn for input on the rationality of their own thinking. Students can then speak to computers rather than instructors about their private lives without having to share confidential information with any other human being, yet still receive relevant feedback. I discuss software technology that actually performs this function. The software in question is an interactive, artificial intelligence program that checks beliefs for faulty thinking ("fallacies"), including inductive and deductive errors. The system "scans" student essays for possible fallacies; asks questions at relevant junctions; provides individualized feedback on fallacies committed; provides summaries of fallacies found; diagnoses thinking problems; issues recommendations; and provides other pertinent information.

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The current movement in "applied philosophy" has helped to re-awaken the Socratic notion that philosophy is a way of living and not merely an academic pursuit. The crux of this movement has been that philosophical theories and methods can make valuable contributions to practical life problems. One very visible area of applied philosophy has been that of ethics. Thus, applied ethics today includes applications of philosophical theories and methods to problems in the professions such as law, medicine, and business, as well as to social problems such as world hunger, environmental issues, animal rights and sexual morality.

In the academic arena of teaching applied ethics, while theories and methods may be deemed important, what sets these courses apart from less applied courses is the emphasis attached to clarifying or solving the substantive ethical problems at hand. For example, in a medical ethics course, the question of whether a psychologist should disclose confidential information to an endangered third party is more than simply a playing field for illustrating theories of ethics. The question itself matters.

In contrast to applied courses in ethics which attempt to clarify or solve substantive moral problems such as the aforementioned, other courses are taught in ethics curricula wherein primary focus is on such matters as exposition and analysis of normative theories, metaethical or linguistic analysis of ethical terms, or analysis of the logical structure of ethical reasoning. These courses are typically counted as among the (relatively) non-applied ethics courses. Here, the substantive ethical problems are played down and theory is emphasized. These courses set the stage for actual, life applications, but they do not themselves grapple with them in any systematic manner.

While it has become reasonably clear what constitutes an applied ethics course, the distinction between an applied logic course and one that is not may be less clear. Typically college curricula include courses in Aristotelian logic and symbolic logic. While these courses typically attempt to analyze ordinary language arguments, calling them "applied" for this reason may be like calling a course in normative ethical theory such because it looks at standards of right and wrong conduct. Both provide tools that can be applied to practical exigencies, but neither course need actually make such applications, at least where the application is more than just a useful way of illustrating how the tool works.

Another popular, less traditional component of many philosophy curricula is that commonly called Critical Thinking. Typically considered the most introductory logic courses offered, these have earned the reputation of being "applied." However, while many of them aim at teaching methods of thinking by way of interesting practical examples, in the end, the development of the tools is deemed more important than the examples, and the applications of these tools to the mainstream of practical living, where they really count, may simply be left to the student.

While these courses may teach applicable tools, they can be called applied only to the extent to which they actually address life problems within the context of teaching these skills. The purpose of this paper shall be to explore the problem of just how applied such courses can realistically hope to get. In so doing, I shall describe the design of a critical thinking course that appears to have broken new ground in this applied frontier.


One major problem confronted by many teachers of critical thinking who take an "applied" approach is accordingly that of teaching and encouraging students to apply what they have learned in class to their everyday lives. For example, it is one thing for a student to recognize an ad hominem argument in a political address as analyzed in class and still another for the student to avoid the same in his or her own interpersonal relations, say with parents, siblings, and peers. The depth of this hiatus between the academic universe and the "external" world becomes more evident when it is noticed that even philosophers and teachers of logic don't always (usually?) apply the same rational standards in their personal lives as they demand in their professional publications, lectures, and teachings.

The problem of breaking out of this "academic Cartesian circle" so as to carry rationality beyond the classroom arises in part because instructors of critical thinking are not generally privy to the details of students' personal lives; nor are they supposed to be. In their capacity as teachers, it is not part of their job to oversee, monitor, or evaluate students' private (non-academic) decisions, thoughts, emotions, and deeds. Indeed, getting involved in the private lives of their students can create prohibitive ethical conflicts of interest for teachers who have a professional responsibility to remain fair and objective in student grading and evaluation. Yet it is such involvement that comprises the "everyday living" component that applied approaches to critical thinking are supposed to address. So, students are left to fend for themselves with little or no help from their mentors where such help may be urgently needed: in the thinking that students do outside the classroom.

Once this academic-external world gap is recognized, the question of how to bridge it becomes salient. One response to this question is that of skepticism. According to this perspective there is simply no reasonable way for instructors as such to monitor students' private lives in order to see that they are applying their critical thinking lessons. Moreover, any attempt to try will constitute an unethical violation of the student's right to privacy. Hence, while teachers should encourage students to bring critical thinking home with them, they can only hope that students heed the advice.


A less skeptical response to this question is to try to create the tools necessary to bridge the gap. While it is true that the instructors themselves cannot or should not intrude into the private lives of their students, perhaps assessment tools can be built whose application entails little or no abridgments of privacy.

One possible approach to this challenge is the creation of interactive software to which students of critical thinking can turn for input on the rationality of their own thinking. Students can speak to computers rather than instructors about their private lives without having to share confidential information with any other human being, yet still receive relevant feedback. The academic-external world gap, the gap between classroom instruction in critical thinking and a form of logic-based, philosophical counseling can be traversed by computers.

A software program that actually performs this function is BELIEF-SCAN 3.1. This system is a form of artificial intelligence designed to check beliefs for common thinking errors or fallacies including inductive and deductive ones that are typically part of the repertoire of critical thinking courses. When students enter their thoughts into the system, either by typing them in directly or by importing text files produced on word processors, the system "scans" these sentences for possible fallacies; asks questions at relevant junctures; provides individualized feedback on fallacies committed; provides summaries of fallacies found; and offers diagnoses of thinking problems as well as general recommendations.

The questions posed by the program are intended to facilitate a critical, reflective approach to thinking, and students are encouraged to internalize the forms of these questions. Thereby students may themselves, without computer assistance, learn to ask these questions of their own and others' thinking as these become relevant in practical, life contexts. For example, in testing to see whether a student rationally accepts a stated rule or principle (say a moral one), the system might ask the student if he or she ever questioned the rule or otherwise carefully considered why it should be accepted; or, in employing a categorical term such as always or never, the system may ask whether there is any detail or consideration that would, strictly speaking, make use of the term inaccurate. The questions permit some lattitude for creativity and do not foreclose the student's responsibility for carefully and autonomously assessing the merits of reasoning. Rather, they appear to provide a reliable framework for such philosophical activity.

This technology of which I am inventor has received a United States Patent. The system has been tested and employed at all four site campuses as well as the main campus of Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, FL, in a three credit course on critical thinking. It has also been offered for dual enrollment at Martin County High School in Stuart, FL. The course is a component of the general education requirement for students seeking the associate in arts degree.

Each week, students taking the course are required to write essays on issues of personal concern and in turn to "scan" them for fallacies. Students are free to chose essay topics and often choose ones dealing with such issues as relationships with boyfriends or girlfriends, work or school related problems, and conflicts with parents or siblings. BELIEF-SCAN "Summary and Evaluation" sheets are produced and handed in on a regular basis. The latter do not contain any of the personal data that students have scanned but instead contain the logical information that is derived from such data. In addition, the system also contains a password system that prevents unauthorized access to personal information that remains in memory. Thus, students are afforded maximum protection of privacy while at the same time reaping the benefits of a course that applies directly to their personal belief systems.

While BELIEF-SCAN summaries and evaluations are not graded, they are required. Thus, students' computer work must be complete and show reasonable effort in order to receive a passing grade for the course.

The system of logic employed by BELIEF-SCAN and accompanying text (discussed below) is non-technical in its formulation so that it can be grasped by a wide variety of students. As distinct from most other systems of logic, it also incorporates fundamental principles of cognitive psychotherapy such as those introduced by Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Incorporation of these principles into the system aims at facilitating student development of coping skills for emotional stress (anxiety, guilt, anger, and depression) and assertiveness. Utilizing these principles, BELIEF-SCAN provides feedback on the specific fallacies and categories of fallacies that may be contributing to students' self-defeating emotions and behavior.

Upon beginning the course, students also take the Practical Logic Assessment Inventory (PLAI), which is a computerized self-report inventory consisting of a battery of questions that are correlated to specific fallacies. This "Pre-test" is then used to establish students' initial rate of fallacy commission. These results are subsequently compared to the "Post-test" PLAI evaluation which students take at the conclusion of the course, and to standardized scores that have been calculated from the results of approximately one-thousand students. In this way, students' individual progress may be assessed and conveyed to them at the end of the term.

The text, Caution: Faulty Thinking Can Be Harmful to Your Happiness, compliments the BELIEF-SCAN and PLAI computer programs by addressing the same fallacy types and by employing the same non-technical nomenclature and classification system. The concept of a "fallacy" therein is itself defined in pragmatic terms as "a way of thinking or reasoning having a proven track record of frustrating personal or interpersonal happiness." This definition accordingly sets the stage for the practical or "applied" mission of the course, which is to bring logic to life.

Five different groups of "fallacies" are individually studied: factual, evaluative, logical, relevance, and meaning. Evaluative fallacies are closely linked to self-defeating emotions and behavior. In addition to standard errors such as ad hominem arguments and well poisoning, these fallacies also include those introduced by REBT, for example, turning preferences into over-idealized "musts" ("Demanding Perfection") and exaggerating the badness of things ("Awfulizing").

Factual fallacies involve distortions of empirical evidence or probabilities and include inductive errors such as those of analogical reasoning, hypothesis, causal reasoning and generalization. Other empirical errors include faulty reliance on past experience such as viewing the past fatalistically ("Insisting on the Past"), and making predictions without consideration of relevant past experience ("Ignoring the Past"); as well as abuses of the subjunctive mood ("Had Things Been Different" Fallacy)

Logical fallacies relate to faulty use of such logical operators as "or," "if...then....," and negation as well as logical relations between part and whole. Technical names of formal fallacies such as affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent are eliminated in favor of such non-technical ones as "Deriving if from then" and "Deriving then not from if not," respectively.

Relevance fallacies are those wherein evidence provided is irrelevant to conclusions adduced including such ones as bandwagoning, argument from ignorance, and sweeping generalization; as well as less usually distinguished ones such as "Parroting" and "The World Revolves Around Me."

Meaning fallacies pertain to unclear or misleading use of terms and include "Personifying" and "Vague terms"; as well as less standardly distinguished ones including the treating of contingent claims as self-evident ("The Self-Evidence Fallacy") and paradoxical meaning ("Opposite Meaning").

While both BELIEF-SCAN and accompanying text are fallacy-oriented, positive inferential criteria are also provided. When BELIEF-SCAN locates or probes for probable fallacies, it typically introduces constructive standards for avoiding the fallacy in question. For example, when a sample is too small to support a generalization or it is not representative, the system will convey the need for sufficient number or diversity in sample size. Similarly, when testing for vague terms, the system will introduce and explain definitional standards such as non-circularity.

At the end of each text chapter are many exercises in the form of "practice scenarios," which are realistic dialogues containing types of faulty thinking addressed in the chapter. In class, students divide into small groups to discuss these dialogues. They then reasemble as a class to provide individual group presentations and class debates on the exercises addressed in group. Groups are also sometimes asked to invent and role play their own scenarios before the class. In performing these group activities, students also employ "Fallacy Flashers," which are flash cards that contain the names and definitions of the fallacies studied in each unit. A packet of cards is provided to each student at the start of the semester.

Students are also encouraged to keep personal thinking logs in which they employ course materials to examine and keep records of their own cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to personal life encounters. This matter can then also be employed as entry data for BELIEF-SCAN analysis. In this manner, students are able to track their own progress as well as gain clearer practical understandings of their personal belief systems.

Students also do readings for logical analysis from a second text containing short essays many of which are on controversial subjects. Utilizing course materials, students analyze and discuss these essays in small groups.and as a class. For example, in one instance students read one of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Individual groups are given different "deductions" drawn by Holmes and are asked to discuss the evidence for each and whether or not this evidence supports the conclusion. In other instances, students break into small groups to discuss essays adducing arguments in favor and against such controversial social issues as euthanasia and capital punishment.

In addition to in-class exams, which consist of multiple choice questions designed to test proficiency at identifying fallacies in practical contexts, students are also required to do 2000 words of essay writing. Drawing topics from the aforementioned anthology or from handouts, students undertake logical analyses of assigned essays in terms of the distinctions studied in the course. Many students employ BELIEF-SCAN to locate fallacious reasoning in these articles.

The current version of the system has capacities for importing files from word processors when these files are saved as text files. Such a capability also permits peripheral use of text scanners to enter documents--articles, book chapters, etc.-- into word processors, and then, in turn, importing them into BELIEF-SCAN to check for reasoning errors. Such facility makes possible the checking of assigned readings for reasoning errors without first having to type them into the system.


Anonymous student surveys of students who have completed the course suggest a trend toward increased student proficiency in critical thinking in practical contexts. For example, survey comments indicate decreased frequency of self-defeating emotional and behavioral responses among students in confronting practical life problems and situations.

In one study of 26 community college students, 23 reported that use of BELIEF-SCAN helped to improve their critical thinking skills; 24 reported that the program provided useful insights into their own thinking about personal matters; and 22 reported that use of the program helped them to notice fallacies in their thinking that they previously did not know they were committing. Subsequent surveys have consistently been corroborative.

In the same 26 students, comparative analysis of BELIEF-SCAN reports with pre-test PLAI results have indicated that, on average, one-third of the fallacies detected by BELIEF-SCAN on two or more occasions (as evidenced by BELIEF-SCAN summaries) were ones with which these students did not perceive themselves to have any problem. A subsequent study of another 25 community college students indicated an average of 7 fallacies with which these students did perceive themselves to have a problem (as per pre-test PLAI reports). On the other hand, an average of 5 additional fallacies, with which these students did not report having any problem, were found in two or more BELIEF-SCAN summaries. This data appears to support the general hypothesis that students often do not perceive their own irrational thinking, and can accordingly be enlightened about weak spots in their own belief systems through computer use.

Comparative analysis of mean PLAI category scores have consistently indicated reduction in the level of fallacy commission in each of the five groups of fallacies addressed in the course. In a sample of about 150 community college students, the mean total score on the PLAI pre-test was 132.543, whereas the total mean score on the post-test was 113.647 indicating a overall improvement (across all five fallacy categories) of 18.896.


While, at this juncture, more data needs to be collected and its significance evaluated, there is reason to think that instructors of critical thinking can, with the assistance of computer technology such as that summarized above, effectively narrow the gap between classroom and students' "external" world. Without undue invasions of students' privacy, instructors can oversee and assess their students efforts in applying critical thinking to personal living. And they can do this without ever having to leave the classroom!

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