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Pattern Recognition - 1

Updated: Mar 7, 2019


Recognizing patterns plays a dual role in critical thinking.


Since humans are pattern-recognizing and pattern-seeking animals, finding a pattern where none exists is one of the most common sources of human error. Our craving to find a pattern that impose order on a seemingly chaotic world also leads to a tendency to fit new information into pre-existing systems of belief, leading to cognitive errors such as Confirmation Bias.


But the discovery of patterns also underlies our best thinking. Consider science which has helped us better understand the universe by searching – and often finding – order in it. Similarly, anyone practicing critical-thinking skills should be able to connect-the-dots in similarly productive ways.


I thought about this while attending last week’s American Philosophical Association conference in Denver where I gave a talk on critical-thinking as a cure for Post Truth. Days spent among professional philosophers helped me better understand some of the issues they struggle with, while also providing the opportunity to discuss my concerns, specifically how to better integrate critical-thinking instruction into traditional K-12 education.


Taking the dots I’d like to connect in turn:


(1) Philosophy suffers from an overproduction of practitioners (in the form of those completing a PhD in the subject – a little more than 400 per year) coupled with limited opportunities to practice their craft by teaching philosophy at the college level (there are only professor jobs for about a quarter of those freshly minted PhDs).


This dynamic creates a number of distortions and knock-on negative impacts both on the profession and people’s lives. For example, many surplus PhDs end up working as adjuncts, teaching courses (often at multiple colleges and universities) and living at or below the poverty line as they apply to every tenure-track position that pops up.


Those with limited means may not have the resources or wherewithal to stick with such a grueling, multi-year job search, leading to philosophy increasingly becoming a program for the well off, limiting both financial and demographic diversity among the professoriate.


Now philosophy turns out to be a terrific subject to study if you want a high-paying job doing something other than teaching philosophy. For example, philosophy majors top the list of LSAT performers, making the major good preparation for studying and practicing law. Similarly, grounding in logic primes the mind for another high-demand profession: computer programming.


Unfortunately, lack of clear-cut professional trajectory (illustrated by the aforementioned number of unemployed or underemployed PhDs) has made philosophy synonymous with a major with limited practical benefits, meaning fewer people are studying it at the undergraduate level, preferring instead professional tracks such as business, pre-med and (ironically given what I just mentioned about the LSAT) pre-law.


(2) As I mentioned in my talk at APA, one of the most effective ways to teach critical thinking is to include explicit instruction in critical-thinking skills in the context of teaching traditional subject matter such as English, science and civics. This is good news since it means we may be able to include more critical-thinking instruction in the classroom without turning the traditional curriculum upside down.


In order to achieve this, however, we need teachers to better understand the critical-thinker’s tool set, such as logic and argumentation. While most education majors and teaching degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate level fail to include material on these subjects, they are the cornerstone of another major: philosophy.


(3) The number of young people at any stage of their education going into the teaching profession is going down, represented by decreased enrollments in graduate programs in education.


Reasons behind this decline are multifaceted. Low pay and lack of respect for the profession play roles, as do restrictions on what teachers can cover due to increasing emphasis on standards. Within this context, I suspect that many young people feel they can no longer bring ideas they hold dear, including ideas they a have spent years studying, into the classroom to improve students’ lives.


How do these three points relate? And can they be connected in a way that points to potential solutions to one, two or all three challenges?


Tune in next time for a possible answer.


Continued >>

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