Arguing with your students

Arguing with your students

“Critical reasoning is to be demonstrated”. We see this phrase in our assessment criteria and it is a favourite of our external examiners. Generally, the level of critical reasoning required increases as the student proceeds through their studies so we are expected to teach it.

“Critical” does not imply negativity. It is all about academic engagement and judgment. It includes the right use of evidence, the construction of a logical argument which holds water, the discussion of relative values of different points of view, the clear expression of careful judgment and sometimes the balancing of probabilities, amongst other skills. Why should we be so concerned about this?

  1. Fundamentally, it is all about the rules of using your mind correctly, of thinking in the right way on issues. For the Christian, it is especially important because we wish to love the Lord our God with all our mind, which surely means using it properly.
  2. More than ever before, we are in an era of fake news, un-true truth, the slipperiness of those who wish to avoid critically correct scrutiny in argument, deliberate bias in the use of evidence and the appeal to fuzzy (or discriminatory) emotions as a way to bypass reason. This is made worse by social media which lends itself to un-filtered lies. Our students need the tools to deal with this.
  3. Students come to us like most people, not well understanding or applying the basic principles of critical reasoning. Probably our simply declaratory teaching in church does not help.
  4. It is important for our service. As Elton Trueblood once said “There are many duties of the missionary but the first one is to think”.

How then should we teach this required and fundamental skill? We can show our students essays, books and articles which are built on this. However, nothing is nearly effective as an argument with a teacher committed to critical reasoning. This can occur in many forms in the classrooms, seminars and tutorials.

For instance, we can take an unpopular position, argue for it and make the semi-shocked student come back to us on it. We can accept an answer from a student and then lead them forward “up the garden path” into the un-palatable consequences of their expressed position. We can challenge them with the arguments for one of the disputed Christian positions which they have probably never heard in power before (such as on baptism). We can present an argument or exegesis from a scholar winsomely enough for them to agree and then unpick it and re-form it in a better way. There are many other ways to force a student to engage in this way with issues and so learn the skill. And, of course, all this is to be taught within the context of our basic task to declare and defend the fundamentals of the faith.

And we must do this with the right style and attitudes, for we are teaching this also; politely and gently, as befits a humble scholar. Precision in the gentle questioning, the rapier in the velvet glove, is more effective than bombastic declarations that they are wrong and you are right.

It is easy to be afraid of such a classroom activity, we are more exposed than when we simply declare truth from a dominant position, we can ignore the fact our ideas could also need adjustment and we can learn from our students. There is nothing wrong with a bit of blood on the floor, even if occasionally it is ours.

And anyway, arguing with your students is fun.

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One Comment on “Arguing with your students”

  1. Donald Wayne Dickman Says:

    Thank you for the practical insights into critical thinking.As usual greatly blessed by your article.Blessings to you Graham Cheesman


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