Education System Failing Students in Critical Reasoning Skills

Written by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

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Researchers have shown that most students today are weak in critical thinking skills. They do poorly on simple logical reasoning tests (Evans, 2002). Only a fraction of graduating high school seniors (6 percent of 12th graders) can make informed, critical judgments about written text (Perie, Grigg, and Donahue, 2005).

This problem applies to both reading and writing. Only 15 percent of 12th graders demonstrate the proficiency to write well-organized essays that consisted of clear arguments (Perie et al., 2005).

Critical thinking and argument skills — the abilities to both generate and critique arguments — are crucial elements in decision-making (Byrnes, 1998; Klaczynski, 2004; Halpern 1998). When applied to academic settings, argumentation may promote the long-term understanding and retention of course content (Adriessen, 2006; Nussbaum, 2008a). According to the ancient Greeks, dialogue is the most advanced form of thought (Vygotsky, 1978). Critical thinking and dialogue are often made manifest in the form of argument. Dialectical arguments require an appeal to beliefs and values to make crucial decisions, what Aristotle referred to as endoxa (Walton, Reed, & Macagno, 2008). In all careers, academic classes, and relationships, argument skills can be used to enhance learning when we treat reasoning as a process of argumentation (Kuhn, 1992, 1993), as fundamentally dialogical (Bakhtin, 1981, 1986; Wertsch, 1991), and as metacognitive (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997). Significant differences in approach have emerged as to how best cultivate the skills necessary to form, present and defend an argument. Differences have emerged as to whether the best practices include the use of computers, writing exercises, metacognitive activities, debates, modeling, or frontal instruction. To many “argument” sounds combative and negative but the use of argument can be constructive and generative.

Epistemological understanding becomes most evident when an individual is confronted with uncertain or controversial knowledge claims (Chandler et al., 1990; King and Kitchener, 1994; Kuhn et al., 2000; Leadbeater and Kuhn, 1989). It is imperative that high school students, of diverse personal, moral and intellectual commitments, become prepared to confront multiple perspectives on unclear and controversial issues when they move on to college and their careers. This is not only important for assuring students are equipped to compete in the marketplace of ideas but also to maximize their own cognitive development more broadly. Longitudinal studies focused on high school students (Schommer et al., 1997) show a positive correlation between educational level and epistemological level. Cross-sectional studies demonstrate that educational experiences influence epistemological development and that it is the quality of education and not age or gender that contributes to different developmental levels of epistemological understanding (Chandler et al., 1990; Leadbeater and Kuhn, 1989). Education is therefore key.

Argument is a more complex and challenging cognitive skill for students than other genres of reading and writing, such as exposition or narration. It is also more challenging for most teachers who may not have the knowledge or experience of working with argumentive reading and writing (Hillocks, 1999, 2010). In addition, most teachers try to avoid conflict when it comes to learning (Powell, Farrar, and Cohen, 1985).

Many teachers have observed that students sitting in classrooms today are bored by the frontal authoritarian model of learning. For years, as a student, I was told to take out my notebook and copy what was written on the board. A curriculum in which they are active participants and engaged in democratic, and cognitively challenging for students works better. In the frontal model, teachers provide the questions and answers. In the argument model, the students provide the questions and the answers while the teachers provide the structure, the facilitation, and the guidance. Students gain the necessary skills to be critical thinkers in a complex society with many different agendas, facts, and perspectives.

Some argue that too much autonomy is given to students in a student-centered environment. But the risk is much greater with frontal lecture education: that our students master content but do not gain the cognitive, moral, and epistemic development necessary to become autonomous critical thinkers. The choice of reading matter for students is also an important factor. Students are unlikely to develop critical thinking skills naturally when their class reading assignments consist only of narrative and explanatory texts, as opposed to argumentive texts (Calfee & Chambliss, 1987).

The goal of an argument curriculum is to enhance the development of the responsible citizens and the pedagogical methodology consists of cultivating argument skills, epistemic development, and moral development. School-based nurturance of this development will lead to students’ autonomous critical thinking and their formation as responsible citizens. We must invest in the education of our youth. They are our future!

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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Comments (10)

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    Alan Stewart

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    Skepticism and its’ derived questions are the road to truth. The tribal PC culture is a dead end road that denies creative thought processes. This will only get worse. The PCs are DENIERS in their own right. To deny the opines of Coulter, Peterson, Murray, Moleneux etc is an educational obscenity created by vapid intellectualism.

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      James McGinn

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      Alan,
      There is no politics in science, but there is a lot of science in politics. The delusion that you are falling into (which is very typical of conservatives and PSI adherents) is to think that pointing out the pseudoscience of your political opponents makes you a genuine skeptic. I’ve had conversations with you. When presented with contradictory evidence of traditional beliefs you are just as brain-dead as liberal AGW alarmists are with climate change nonsense.

      I am a genuine science skeptic. You are a political pretender.

      Read the comments in this to see how a real scientific skeptic thinks:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfNuWJDJvRw

      None of you conservative nitwits is really a scientist–like me.

      James McGinn / Solving Toradoes

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        Herb Rose

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        Hi James,
        I watched your UTUBE presentation and believe what you were describing was the surface tension of water (which does form a stronger bond) which is a result of water being confined to a two dimensional plane instead of a three dimensional volume. In the body of the liquid the water molecules would bond in all directions (similar to carbon in coal versus carbon in graphite) making for an unstructured collection of molecules with low viscosity. In ice the lower kinetic energy of the molecules would allow the molecules to form a stack of layers where the oxygen atom in one layer was over the hydrogen atoms of a water molecule in another level sharing the polarity bond. This might explain why ice is less dense than water until it gets cold enough to begin contracting.
        Have a good day,
        Herb

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          James McGinn

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          Herb Rose:
          Hi James, I watched your UTUBE presentation and believe what you were describing was the surface tension of water (which does form a stronger bond) which is a result of water being confined to a two dimensional plane instead of a three dimensional volume.

          James McGinn:
          Yes, essentially this is correct. However, I’m not convinced that you fully understand the how and why thereof.

          Herb Rose:
          In the body of the liquid the water molecules would bond in all directions (similar to carbon in coal versus carbon in graphite) making for an unstructured collection of molecules with low viscosity.

          James McGinn:
          Well, firstly, your comparison to coal/carbon is not accurate. Coal is a hydrocarbon. Carbon forms covalent bonds with other carbon molecules. H2O molecules never form covalent bonds with each other. H2O molecules only form hydrogen bonds and the strength of these bonds is inversely related to comprehensiveness of the bonds–which is very different from carbon. Diamond is fully tetrahedral bonding of carbon. So this is very different from H2O in that the very low viscosity of liquid water is a result of the polarity neutralization that itself is a consequence of fully tetrahedral bonding in water.

          Here are some more facts about hydrogen bonds between water molecules that distinguish the H bonds of water molecules from covalent or ionic bonds. Firstly, it’s important to keep in mind that the force of H bonds is a result of the polarity of the H2O molecule which itself is a consequence of the structural lopsidedness of the H2O molecule. But this effect is neutralized with H bonds themselves. More specifically, each H2O molecule can form a hydrogen bond with up to four other H2O molecules. However, each hydrogen bonds neutralizes 25% of the polarity of the two H2O molecules that participate in the bond. Therefore, when H bonding is comprehensive (as is the case below the surface of liquid water) there is no force (4 x 25% neutralization = 100% neutralization) associated with the bonds (thus why liquid H2O is fluid despite having more bonds). This is not the case with carbon/coal or any substance that forms covalent or ionic bonds.

          (Note: if you find the above paragraph unintelligible that is because you are not working hard enough to understand it.)

          Herb Rose:
          In ice the lower kinetic energy of the molecules would allow the molecules to form a stack of layers where the oxygen atom in one layer was over the hydrogen atoms of a water molecule in another level sharing the polarity bond. This might explain why ice is less dense than water until it gets cold enough to begin contracting.

          James McGinn:
          No. You are not taking into account polarity neutralization, which totally defeats the notion that ice has anything to do with tetrahedral bonding.

          The best way to describe what is happening in ice is three dimensional surface tension. H2O molecules DO NOT stack neatly against each other. With lower kinetic energy they start to lock in and twist against each other. In so doing, they essentially break bonds and/or create surface within. Doing so activates even more polarity and more twisting against each other, creating a cascade effect of emerging surface tension (polarity) internally. It is the creation of surface within that causes ice to have lower density than water.

          Maybe the worst thing that Linus Pauling established is this idiotic notion that ice involves tetrahedral symmetry or what has been labelled lattice ice. This plainly stupid notion was reinforced by two model building brits, Bernal and Fowler.

          Tetrahedral arrangement of H2O molecules fully neutralizes H2O polarity. This is why liquid water, the most fully bonded (the most fully tetrahedral) form of water, has such low viscosity. Thus, there is no such thing as lattice ice. It is a plainly stupid supposition. It may take us another hundred years to get over this stupidity.

          There is a tremendous amount of blatant stupidity that forms a huge barrier to advancement in many field. And much of it pivots off of Linus Paulings’ seemingly insignificant omission of incidental symmetry.

          Are You Confused About Hydrogen Bonding In Water?
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfNuWJDJvRw

          James McGinn / Solving Tornadoes

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            Herb Rose

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            Hi James,
            My comparison of coal and graphite to water and ice was not intended to be a comparison of the bonds bur their structure. Graphite forms layers which is why it is used as a lubricant and conducts electricity. A snow flake, where water vapor converts to ice, is not tetrahedral but a flat structure. Coal is not primarily a hydrocarbon structure but mostly carbon (The coking process removes the hydrocarbons from coal and converts it to almost pure carbon.) where there are bonds in all directions. Coke has different properties than graphite because of the different structures of the carbon bonding.
            A single proton will neutralize a single electron but that doesn’t mean that the electron and protons aren’t radiating electrical field in other directions. In an atom the protons neutralize the electrons but since the electrons are surrounding the nucleus the atom should have a greater negative field than positive field at the atoms surface.
            I have another question about water and heat. Wouldn’t the surface tension of water droplets explain why liquid water holds so much heat? A molecule striking another molecule transfers kinetic energy to it. If the struck molecule is much larger than the striking molecule the energy is transferred to all the atoms in the molecule. The surface tension of water molecules at the surface of a droplet would transfer energy to all the other molecules on the surface tending to hold heat in the droplet.
            Have a good day,
            Herb

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            jerry krause

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            Hi Herb,

            When you wrote–A snow flake, where water vapor converts to ice, is not tetrahedral but a flat structure–you made it plain that you have never seen a snow flake.”

            Have a good day, Jerry

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            James McGinn

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            Herb:
            My comparison of coal and graphite to water and ice was not intended to be a comparison of the bonds but their structure. Graphite forms layers which is why it is used as a lubricant and conducts electricity. A snow flake, where water vapor converts to ice, is not tetrahedral but a flat structure.

            James McGinn:
            The tetrahedron that I am referring to is that of atoms that have 4 valence positions in the outer shell. So that is Carbon, Nitrogen, and Oxygen (and to a lesser degree Fluorine and Neon). (Lewis structure describes why they arrange themselves into a tetrahedron.)

            Maybe it will help if I tell you the reason I made the video. There are fundamental differences between more well understood types of bonding (ionic and covalent) and hydrogen bonding between water molecules. Specifically, our understanding of H bonding between water molecules has been mischaracterizes. The culprit, it seems, is the human tendency to analogize from what is known. Specifically we have mistakenly applied fundamental assumptions of covalent bonding to hydrogen bonding between water molecules. This mischaracterization was reinforced by Linus Pauling through what I refer to as Pauling’s Omission. The particular notion that Pauling Omitted is what I refer to as Incidental Symmetry. Because of the omission of incidental symmetry science is saddled with a huge flaw. This huge flaw is manifested in what has been labelled the anomalies of H2O. The anomalies of H2O are generally considered a mystery. However, I argue that they are not a mystery but become perfectly comprehensible once we include what Pauling mistakenly omitted, incidental symmetry.

            The inclusion of incidental symmetry allows us to resolve all of the 70 or so anomalies of H2O. I maintain, that it also allows us to resolve a yet discovered anomaly associated with the sheaths of vortices. And this will allow us to correctly understand the nature of storms for the first time.

            Herb:
            I have another question about water and heat. Wouldn’t the surface tension of water droplets explain why liquid water holds so much heat? A molecule striking another molecule transfers kinetic energy to it. If the struck molecule is much larger than the striking molecule the energy is transferred to all the atoms in the molecule. The surface tension of water molecules at the surface of a droplet would transfer energy to all the other molecules on the surface tending to hold heat in the droplet.

            James McGinn:
            With H2O the heat (kinetic movement) is essentially trapped because there is no leverage for the energy to be transmitted. And that has everything to do with what I mentioned previously about polarity being reduced to zero with comprehensive H bonding as we find in liquid water (4 x 25% neutralization = 100% neutralization). So, to answer your question, No, surface tension has nothing to do with this trapping. (In fact, along the surface there would be more consistently higher polarity and therefore more leverage and, therefore, less ability to trap heat (kinetic movement).

            I hope that helps. The only thing I can suggest is to watch Paulings Omission again and see if you can get a better grasp of how and why incidental symmetry of fully coordinated H bonding dictates the low unusual behaviors that have been called the anomalies of H2O.

            James McGinn / Solving Tornadoes

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    jerry krause

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    Hi Rabbi and Alan,

    First Rabbi, if I really knew what Alan’s “derived questions” were I might agree with him for I do ask myself questions as I try to learn about the natural world. But what I try to learn has nothing to do with Skepticism. The little I know about Aristotle, the person, was that he was a very skillful debater or arguer. But I know he and his fellow philosophers got many fundamental ideas about the physical world absolutely wrong and that one is too many.

    And I know that Galileo would not accept the astronomical observations (measurements) of Tycho Brahe and the Johannes Kepler’s mathematical analysis of Brahe’s data because Galileo clearly believed that the near truth of observations had to be supplemented by argumentation and it was Galileo who was absolutely wrong. And I know that Kepler in his initial analysis had found that the other planet’s orbits, as observed by Brahe, approximated a circular orbit well enough because of the known uncertainities of Brahe’s (or anyone’s) measurements. However, when it came to Mars, one of the most visible planets, the uncertainity of its fit to a circular orbit went beyond what Kepler accepted to be the uncertainity of Brahe’s measurements. So that when Kepler tried to fit the data of Mars to a elliptical orbit, it fit well enough. And when he went back to the previously accepted circular orbital fits he discovered Brahe’s measurements fit elliptical orbits better than they had fit the circular orbits which he had previously accepted.

    And I have read that Brahe began his observational efforts because he knew that some (which I forget) predicted astronomical event had missed by several days and Brahe knew this had to have been because of previous measurements which were to imprecise. So, he began his great effort to make more precise observations because he ‘knew’ the previous were not adequate. And not because he was skeptical about anything.

    I question Svante Arrhenius’s radiation balance calculation because I know that air temperature is not the temperature of the earth’s surface which he used in his calculation. And it certainly does not take to much critical reasoning to see this. Just put your hand on the hood of a car about 1pm local time on a cloudless day and convince me by argumentation that the temperature of hood is the same as the air temperature. I do not call this critical reasoning, I call it critical observation.

    And there is a professor, who observed the evidence that the northern portions of the northern hemisphere’s continents were previously covered with reasonably thick glaciers, and who, when asked what his greatest achievement was, stated: “I have taught men to observe.”

    Have a good day, Jerry

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    Alan Stewart

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    Interesting thread Jerry. Skepticism is examining a hypothesis or set of information for its’ veracity that produces a set of questions. My father taught me this: ‘Believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see and you might get close to the truth.’
    Skepticism is a logical process based on empirical knowledge. Life decisions made on blind trust are often catastrophic. Skepticism has always served me well.
    Cheers

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    jerry krause

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    Hi Alan,

    ‘Believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see and you might get close to the truth.’

    In science such a philosophy will not work if one totally ignores the knowledge gained by the reproducible results of the many experiments conducted by the many scientists of the past. And to expect that only half of one’s experimental results might be valid.

    I have just submitted an essay to John O’Sullivan about measured meteorological data of which I had no responsibility in measuring. According to your father it seems I and you and John and every reader (as a Skeptic) of what John posts at PSI should consider this information to be meaningless. I believe not.

    Have a good day, Jerry

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