Sunday, August 8, 2010

Toulmin and Howard Zinn

This most recent issue of English Journal is chock full of Toulmin. Many of the articles use Toulmin, others reference his name, but it seems like he is somewhere on every page. With a theme like logic and critical thinking, Toulmin is a natural choice for discussing how we can get our students to approach logical thought. Last year, my colleague and I came up with a great lesson featuring Toulmin and their summer reading, A People's History of the United States by the late Howard Zinn.

There is a bit of deep background on how we came up with the lesson. The year before this past year, a parent in the community raised an objection to the use of Howard Zinn's text as assigned summer reading. This person cited Zinn's wearing-my-Marxism-on-my-sleeve approach to history as offensive. My colleague stated that this attitude is essential for students because it is so very contrary to what they have been taught in the past; or, as Vygotsky would say, the students were being placed in a zone of proximal development. They came back from the summer, primed and looking for an intellectual fight.

The trouble was...what would they fight about? Were they focused on the point-of-view Zinn was putting forward, or were they simply miffed about some of the things Zinn said? More often than not, especially considering our proximity to Washington, D.C. and Quantico, the students just saw Zinn as an "unpatriotic jerk." What about his service to his country? What about his years in the classroom, educating American students? The questions start flowing back at us. the inevitable question is: "Well, who's right?"

That was when we decided to do a lesson called, with apologies to Capital One, "What's in Your Wallet?" Students are broken out into groups of about 4-5. They are given a sheet of paper with details on it, such as:

Brown Leather
Pictures of a woman and two children
Pictures of a Porsche
Pictures of a beach house
Three $100 Bills
Two $50 Bills
Ten $20 Bills
Business Card for Accounting Firm
Three Credit Cards from different companies

They are then asked to interpret the contents of the "wallet" and tell the class about the person who owned it. This is where Toulmin comes in. Students usually want to say something like this guy is a stuck-up business man who cares more about his possessions than his family, or something very similar. We ask them to provide the data that support this claim. Then we ask them to provide the warrant that links the data to the claim. When they do this, they suddenly realize how pre-programmed they are to jump to conclusions rather than look for what they can actually see. Looking at the process of stating a claim, examining the data, and analyzing the warrant helps students to go back to the Zinn book with a critical eye.

We build on the concept after that, but this gets the students thinking in terms of what can be proven to be true with the data, but also what else can be proven true. They begin to view history as the interpretation of a set of data that can be interpreted in radically different ways. This realization increases both their willingness to read history and their ability to read critically.

How do you encourage critical thinking in your classrooms? What connections do you try to emphasize when you teach logic? I look forward to the conversation.

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