Mike Bybee has been teaching critical thinking and writing for 40 years. Since 1996, he's been a tutor at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
My students face a lot of unhealthy pressure in school, on standardized tests, and on college application essays. Much of the time, they feel they're being asked to look and sound a certain way, regardless of whether their writing is honest or true. (I think you'd call this sophistry - trying to look good without thinking clearly.)
To make things more challenging, many of my students have few alternatives at their disposal. They've been encouraged to echo their teachers' or parents' views, and they haven’t received training in critical thinking (what you'd call dialectic, I believe).
I'm curious: how do you introduce the study of dialectic? Why do you start where you start, and not somewhere else?
You recognize that students are encouraged to regurgitate thoughts. You then asked, “How do you introduce the study of dialectic?”
Well, it depends.
If I have a rather older, more sophisticated group, then I can ask them to read a story and ask, “Do you believe this?” But that rarely works (for some reason) with younger people, so here’s what I do instead: On the very first day, after we learn one another’s names, I have a “canned” story that I tell. Then I ask a question that can be answered five or six different ways. [That prevents the students from regurgitating an “accepted” answer.] “How many of you think that the answer is this?” I ask. And some people “vote” for that one. And some people “vote” for another, and so on.
If I’m clever enough to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut, a conversation starts with people defending their points of view against points made by other people.
Then I can say something like this: “Okay. Well, write an essay giving your answer to this question and the reasons you think your answer is the best answer.”
Since these students are just starting out, they write generally coherent (albeit unsophisticated) papers. If I have the budget, then I get photocopies of all the papers to all the students, and we have a chance to read and respond to them. (If we can’t physically duplicate them, then I ask students to read their essays aloud to the rest of the class.)
After we have all had a chance to read all the essays, I then ask the class as a whole (not the author, who only gets to listen), “Does this essay have a question at issue? If so, what is it?” You can see that for these early papers, of course they have a question at issue—I gave it to them! So this early on, it’s hard to go wrong.
I then ask, “Does this essay have an answer to that question? If so, what is it?” Sometimes the author tries to butt into the conversation, and I have to say, “You already gave us your BEST attempt to do this, so your job is to sit and listen and determine to what extent you properly addressed your audience. If you listen to your audience respond to you, you can see how well you’ve done and what you can do better next time.”
I then ask, “Does this essay have evidence for that answer?” For early papers, this is only sometimes not the case, but occasionally someone tries to “get by” without presenting evidence for their position. This gives me a chance to emphasize Plato’s Meno: True belief is not enough. We need true JUSTIFIED belief. Writing is not expressing a bunch of THOUGHTS. Writing is expressing THINKING, and expressing it on a page so you can tinker with it.
And THEN I ask the killer question: “Does the evidence provide the structure for this essay?”
For earlier essays, the answer is almost always, “No.” Their evidence (if and when presented) is just a confused mélange of goofy expressions, usually each of which demands evidence itself.
That’s how I begin. . . . And that’s how I proceed. Every time we read an “outside” essay, those are the questions I ask. (If we read Rousseau’s “prize-winning essay," [Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts] we see why he’s hugely embarrassed by it. It’s terrible! If we read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we get to see all those points in action.)
Every time we read one another’s papers, those are the questions I ask.
Sometimes I get to say, “See how this author used her thinking to structure her writing?” And sometimes the students get it—and more frequently, towards the end of the course, the students get it.
But it’s a slow process, developing a habit, a habit of thinking of writing as thinking, and thinking of evaluating writing as evaluating thinking.
And that’s what I would call “dialectic,” if someone pressed me.
At the beginning of this process, what kinds of stories do you have your students read? And if you don't mind sharing, what's the "canned" story you tell, and what question do you ask afterward?
I also like the sequence of questions you ask. My students can usually see whether an essay includes a question, an answer, and evidence for that answer.
Where they struggle, however, is in figuring out how to structure their thinking. There are lots of compelling ways to write an essay - you can think clearly and still be uncertain about how to sequence your thoughts for rhetorical effect.
I don't offer comprehensive responses to these concerns. Instead, I suggest some models, and we read lots of essays and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each. This works - the students get exposed to a wider and wider range of approaches to writing - but I'm wondering whether you have something more direct and powerful up your sleeve.
The “canned” story I tell is Alligator River from a book on values clarification. It narrates these events about five people, and at the end of it, I ask, “Who’s the least moral person in this story?” It’s like “Lifeboat,” a more famous story in the same vein.
From there we get increasingly more sophisticated things to read. In a college (or advanced high school) setting, I use the anthology A World of Ideas. We read. We discuss. In discussions I try to focus on places where the students disagree. And then I have students write essays that each other would read about those disagreements. (That way everyone had a horse in the race, so to speak.)
Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. The most difficult thing for a student to recognize (or to produce) is a well-structured essay. Often that’s because students (and we teachers, too) have little idea about how evidence itself is structured. Just because we can think (and some of us can think well), that doesn’t (necessarily) mean that we can think well about thinking well.
Moreover, it almost always requires writers to rethink an essay after they’ve written it, and having rethought it, they then have to rewrite it. That process is not without significant effort, and it requires some time, too—and both these are at a premium in today’s world.
Most students - most people, I think - resist that re-thinking and re-writing process. They've built half a building, and they feel disheartened at the idea that they have to tear part of it down. When your students express those feelings - or when they don't express them, but you know they're feeling them - how do you respond? And how do you structure your classes so that students have the time, space, and motivation to do that rebuilding?