Thursday, July 21, 2016

Good thinking

Erik Palmer is an excellent communicator. His first book, Well Spoken, which  I blogged about here and here, was well-written and informative. His newest publication, Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning, is similar in its easily accessible style, practical suggestions and informative direction. The book starts with exploring the idea that the Common Core Standards (CCSS) include argumentative writing and reading throughout the grades. We need to persuade people as adults and the CCSS have it right that this is an essential skill students need. Further we need to back up our assertions with support. Now a day does not go by when I do not hear a teacher reference finding evidence to support an assertion. Rarely do they discuss what qualifies as good evidence, just the right or wrong information (afterall, workbooks have a correct answer.)

Palmer argues that one of the first things we need to do is share a common vocabulary.

  • Statement, conclusion, position and claim--> results of thought
  • reasons, premises, warrants --> help lead us to the thought

Palmer uses the term argument to mean the "group of statements that leads to a conculsion." (p 15) Using this defition he then goes on to explore the idea that an argument is cold- it is a detailed listing of inforamtion that lead to a conclusion. Persuasion, however, he sees as hot- it is the manner of presentation designed to get you to agree.

The first section of the book is devoted to argument. What makes a sound argument? He explores logic in depth. The major principle of logic that he uses is syllogism. Teachers of algebra and geometery often teach syllogism. (Think back this is the "If p then q" statements many of us had to work with during our logic unit in high school.) Syllogism is one of the main underlying reasons we want students to take higher level math- they learn logic. Wouldn't it be better if kids didn't need to wait until high school or beyond in order to learn logic. With the push for agumentative writing we can now see this move. Palmer introduces the term, but sadly, never makes the math relate. We use syllogisms all the time without even thinking about it. While we may not structure our statements in the strict logic format, we could.

If you have money, you can buy an ice cream.
You have money.
You may buy the ice cream.

If you behave in the store, you may have a quarter to buy something from the machines outside.
You behaved.
Here's the quarter.

If you revise your paper, you will get a better score.
You did not revise.
Your grade sucks.

We see examples like this all the time. This is logic embodied as a syllogism.

He then extends the syllogism discussion by addressing what is evidence. He describes five types of evidence: facts, numbers, quotes, examples, and analogies. Unfortunately, CCSS tests seem to reduce evidence to merely quotes. We should definitely teach students to identify quotes that support our conclusions, but we also need to teach students to use other types of evidence as well. We could have students examine argumentative pieces and highlight the evidence provided and how they explain it and put it together to build an argument. (This technique then can be used to showcase elements of persuasion and rhetoric.)

From there Palmer moves to discussing persuasion. This would be the ethos and pathos that Aristotle described. He describes various persuasive techniques like bandwagon, loaded words, and plain folks. Then he moves on to other rhetorical devices like hyperbole and rhetorical questions. These devices and techniques abound around us. Examining advertisements is a great place to start teaching these skills. Further it helps our students become savy consumers- another life long goal. Then you could move to speeches and see how these tools are present in what people say. Since we are knee deep in political commentary as the presidential campaign is reving up, many interviews with candidates and their supporters are available. Critically ask students to look at them. See how people use these devices to make their points. Often they either side step the argument/questions; sometimes they use poor logic to make their point. We should use these short snippets to help us teach children to become critical citizens- another life long goal of education.

This book offers helpful minilesson ideas across multiple subject areas and grade levels. Most teachers could pick it up and find easy ways to integrate his ideas into their curriculum. The importance in teaching logical thinking cannot be underestimated. This book demonstrates how it can be done, not as a stand alone unit, but as a component of units that you already teach.

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