The Five-paragraph Fix: Critical thinking essentials

Learning to write analytical essays is one of the harder adjustments most students will have to make in college. A lot of composition teachers blame high school teachers and their commitment to the five-paragraph essay for  students’ struggles, yet that position is a bit reductive. Even after students know and readily acknowledge that they can no longer write the five-paragraph essay, they still have trouble producing essays that demonstrate critical thinking.

Understanding why writers have trouble with critical thinking starts with trying to understand critical thinking. We’ll do that here, and then look at how teachers and students can apply that knowledge. (If you’re just interested in the resources for students or faculty, scroll down about half way. If you’re interested in other posts in the series, you may find those here.)

Many students have a poor conception of what counts as critical thinking. That conception is often built on metaphors that do more to confuse than clarify. When The Washington Post asked students to talk about critical thinking, Jessica Mattson, an 18-year old high school senior, defined it as “reading deeper into what is written.” That answer gives the surface level understanding of critical thinking, but it does little to define what the process of critical thinking looks like. It also can lead students towards red herrings by trying to detect a meaning that is somehow hidden in a text like a code. The idea of hidden meaning seems to antagonize students who think that if an author wanted to convey one meaning, why did s/he hide it? Mattson’s problematic conception does not seem to come from a case of neglect on her high school teacher’s part. The post cites Nathan Schwartz, a history teacher from the same high school,who “works with students not simply to memorize facts related to [history] but also to understand why it happened by employing the thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, application and reflection.” That sounds like a better definition of the process, but still something seems to be getting lost in the translation.

Students difficulty partly stems from how their teachers conceive of the concept. That’s because critical thinking is not as straightforward as we often make it out to be.

Many of us classify critical thinking as a skill that students might learn; that’s a mistake. Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist who provides one of the better considerations of critical thinking (link to PDF) that I’ve read, suggests we reconsider: “People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill.” Critical thinking is both more simple and more complex of a skill than riding a bicycle. It’s more simple because we don’t actually have to be engaging in a specific critical thinking course (or any course at all) to learn to think critically. Studies show that even three year old can do fairly complex critical thinking with no formal training at all. At the same time, some of those who should be the best at critical thinking, doctors, scientists, professors, and CEOs routinely will fail to think critically when they encounter critical thinking in an unfamiliar context.

The problem of getting students to think critically is not then a process of teaching students new skills, but helping them transfer a skill they already have to a new subject. Teaching a student to think critically is mostly a process then of creating a scenario where students are more likely to be able to transfer their knowledge.

Willingham encourages educators to focus on two of the factors that help determine when and why transfer happens: “familiarity with a problem’s deep structure and the knowledge that one should look for a deep structure.” Familiarity refers to having enough prior experience with solving, or seeing someone else solve, problems with the same type of structure. Willingham’s illustrates the importance of familiarity with an experiment which asked children to solve this puzzle:

“A treasure hunter is going to explore a cave up on a hill near a beach. He suspected there might be many paths inside the cave so he was afraid he might get lost. Obviously, he did not have a map of the cave; all he had with him were some common items such as a flashlight and a bag. What could he do to make sure he did not get lost trying to get back out of the cave later?”

Seventy-five percent of American children correctly guessed that he could take some sand in the bag and leave a trail behind him, but only 25 percent of Chinese students correctly solved it. Are American children three times the critical thinker that Chinese children are? Of course not. The difference in their performance can be explained by their familiarity with the deep structure of the problem. American children are more likely to know the tale of Hansel and Gretel, recognize the similar predicament, and apply that knowledge. The Chinese students, who had no Hansel and Gretel tale in their culture, were not familiar with the deep structure of the problem, and therefore, were less successful in solving the problem.

Those American students who had heard of Hansel and Gretel yet were still unable to solve this problem likely lacked  the second relevant component of determining whether a student will be able to transfer their critical thinking skills, knowledge that one should look for deep structure. If a student misses the connection between the two tales, it might be that they did not know they were supposed to look for a connection at the structural level.

Fortunately, this is an area where many teachers are already successfully laying the groundwork for critical thinking. Metacognitive thought (i.e. reflection on one’s thought processes) plays a key role in the search for deep structure.  If a student is already reflecting on his/her own thought processes, it’s more likely s/he’ll search for the kind of deep structure that will help solve their current problem.

A third factor that determines a student’s success in critically thinking is somewhat surprising. More than anything else, a breadth of familiarity and experience with the subject matter helps to determine whether someone will be able to think critically about a topic. According to Willingham, deep thinking happens only after acquiring a lot of surface-level knowledge. At first glance, that seemed counter intuitive to me because teaching at the college level, I’ve always strove to emphasize putting difficult material in front of students and getting them to do more than just summarize it. Willingham’s emphasis on surface-level knowledge suggests that’s the wrong approach, and if you think about it further, it makes sense. Anyone who has expertise in a subject has felt the frustration of encountering someone spouting opinions about a topic that oversimplify the complexity of the problem. Think about what it’s like to overhear someone in a coffee shop recycling political views they read in headlines or on dubious internet sites. The more you know about that topic, the more likely you are to want to sit them down and explain all the places they’ve got it wrong. Students who might not have acquired a deep knowledge about a political cause might not have had that experience, yet they’ve all had conversations with adults who seek to give them advice based on a basic understanding about what high school is like.

With a broader understanding of critical thinking in mind, let’s consider how these apply to the teaching and learning of writing analytical essays.

Suggestion for students

Analytical writing generally provides readers with a way to understand a topic that is fairly complex. To this end, you may think of analytical writing as proposing an argument for how to understand how and why something is as it is.

Because deep thinking only happens after acquiring a significant amount of surface-level knowledge, the first steps of any writing project should be to read and research as widely as possible. While not all of this information will end up going into your final paper, reading widely will allow you to see what parts of your topic are oversimplified and merit a deeper critical examination.

The questions to focus on at the beginning of a project are who, what, where, and when. These questions allow you you make general observations about your topic. Analysis will ultimately deal with the questions how and why, but in order to get to this point, you’ll need to know enough about the topic to distinguish between something that is confusing because you don’t know enough about the topic and something that might be a genuine puzzle that you can help your readers understand more deeply.

As you make observations on the surface level, note any that are surprising to you. Surprises are a good start to developing an analytical essay because they show that something is unexpected and merits further investigation and explanation. For example, if you’re writing a paper about Joan of Arc, you might find it surprising to find out that she is credited with leading French forces into battle in the 15th century because you did not imagine women would be involved in combat. An observation like this can turn into a paper topic because it presents a puzzle that readers will want someone to unravel for them.

Most students write their thesis before they know enough about their topic. Developing in this way turns researching into a treasure hunt for statements that agree with your thesis while ignoring any complexity surrounding the topic. That’s a mistake that results in papers that don’t go very far beyond the surface level. You should consider your thesis statement a work in progress up through the final revision of the paper. As you’re researching, you should think of it as a hunch of how things might work and you should be looking for ways in which that hunch is oversimplified. You’ll be able to find out where your hunch is too simple by looking deeper into explanations that propose an alternative approach.

When assembling evidence in an analytical essay, look to demonstrate and explain patterns,  breaks in patterns, or complexity. This approach will help you build structure and logic into your paper because you’ll focus on showing connections between ideas rather than showing a bunch of facts that are tangentially related.

Pay attention to the structure of the arguments in anything you read. If you want to get better at writing, you ultimately need to get better at assembling essays and part of that depends on your familiarity with many types of arguments. Whenever you’re reading something, ask yourself how the author makes his/her point and consider what part of that approach you can use for your own purposes.

When writing, your main goal should be to help your reader understand your topic in a new way. That pressure to be new can be intimidating at the start of a project, but it’s not as hard as most think. Read and think until you feel like you understand a topic more deeply than you did at the start of the project, and then writing your paper is simply taking your reader through the thinking process that got you to understand the topic.

You don’t need to learn to think critically. Everyone thinks critically about something. You may been lucky enough to have your choice of dates to the prom and in making the pick of who you would go with, you had to consider the benefits of each date and make an informed decision. Or you may have played a video game where you’ve encountered lots of puzzles and you’ve had to search through your inventory and measure the relative value of lots of strategies before picking one. You already know how to think critically. You just need to learn to apply that critical thinking to new topics.

Persistence pays off in writing analytical essays. When you first start, it’s going to take longer than you want, and you’re not going to feel like you’re doing as good of a job as you can. As you do more of it, you’ll start to get better, and the process will become more enjoyable.

Suggestions for faculty

If you want students to write papers that demonstrate critical thinking, do your best to point out how the scholars you’re learning about arrived at their conclusions. One of the reasons so many students have trouble adjusting to college writing is because a lot of the knowledge they’ve learned has consisted of facts divorced from the analytical processes that discovered those facts in the first place.

Conduct workshops where students group together to create opposing arguments and workshop them as a class. This approach allows students to see how their peers construct arguments. The insights into critical thinking in such a workshop are likely to be deeper than those arrived at in analyzing professional arguments because students’ peers are more likely to be just a couple steps ahead of them while professional scholars might be using arguments that are so polished that their origins are hidden. This approach also gives you the opportunity to coach students on what types of arguments are more effective.

Work with students to redefine their writing/research process, and don’t ask for students to come up with a thesis until late in the process. Students need to see research as more than just looking up scholars who agree with how they already feel about their project. If they have a thesis early on in the process, they will tend to shut down their critical thinking and simply look to assemble evidence that agrees with them.

Consider assignments where the goal of the assignment is to take a reader from a surface level understanding to a deeper understanding. Some of the science professors at my school have an assignment that ask students to find an article in a popular source that talks about a scientific study and then to find and compare it to the published study itself. This assignment encourages critical thinking because it  starts students at the level they normally finish at and forces them to become aware of the problems of oversimplifying complex topics.

Avoid assignments where students are asked to critically analyze an abstract or complex concept to which they’ve had very little exposure. When I first started teaching, I tried to cover lots of topics and sacrificed depth for variety. Our class discussions were often shallow or one-sided because students had so little familiarity with each topic that they were not able to see past the surface level.

If your class deals with complex or abstract theories, it may be best to find a way to have students write papers where students apply the theories to topics they are already familiar with. For example, an education class at my school has students write about their past educational experiences at the start of the class. Then in the class they learn about several different theories of education and learning. Their final paper asks them to return to that initial essay and revise it by applying the theories learned in the class to uncover new depth and insight. When the student puts in effort throughout the course, the results of this essay demonstrate deep analytical thinking and reinforce the student’s understanding of both the theory and his/her own education.

Task students with presenting their essays to a familiar audience. Building in a familiar audience can help a student tailor his/her approach to the research and writing. In general, I tell students to write their essays as if they are talking to themselves at the start of the class and trying to show them how to understand their topic in a complex way. Writing to a specific person will give students an idea of what they need to discuss and also what that person’s interest in the topic is and therefore what s/he will find persuasive.

Have students write regular reflections where they speculate on what they might not be getting from a particular text or what that text might be glossing over. This will help students adopt an attitude of healthy skepticism and will activate the metacognitive thinking that leads to good thinking.

Make students aware of the critical thinking that students already do. Any teenager who has navigated the social structure of a high school considers the motivations of their peers and how responsive to those motivations the student will choose to be. Those decisions require critical thinking (although not always logical thinking.)  Getting students to see the similarities between considering all of these sources and doing research/writing can help remind students to look for parallels on the level of deep structure.

Encourage students to keep at it. Two lessons from Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, are worth mentioning here. First, we’re not built to think critically all the time, and if we can avoid doing so we will. Our working memory only has so much space and when we learn something new, we’ll look pretty slow because calling to mind all of the operative facts and skills is a labor-intensive process until we start to chunk some of the ideas together. Second, although we like puzzles we can solve, we get easily frustrated when we encounter a puzzle we can’t solve. In other words, we all have picked up a Rubik’s cube, but it’s likely that unless we made some progress solving it or had some insights, we eventually tossed it aside. Critical thinking involves solving puzzles for which we don’t always possess the right strategies or content knowledge. Acquiring that takes time and students need to expect that it will be hard work, but persistence will pay off.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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