Over and over again reference is made (but briefly, without ever going into detail!) To the possession of critical thinking skills – and to its effective application, with repeated exercises, to acquire, maintain and improve the quality standards of the set of reasons brought to support an idea, an action or a theory – as a desired result of the acquisition of skills through study.
A young student, immature and inexperienced, writes significantly more effective and appropriate argumentative texts if, before composing the text for delivery or publication, he is officially, institutionally obliged (!) To build and to elaborate a general description or a plan that shows the structure fundamental, not detail, of the text. It is possible to instruct and encourage the young student to plan ahead (or at least make him / her less inclined not to). Learning, assimilating unconsciously, the need for preventive planning qualifies as a way in which the young student comes to make the attitude to control his own thought as an essential part of his own nature as a subject that is in the world.
However, developing effective and appropriate texts is not the same thing as composing a text and then making improvements to it in the course of work or at a later time. It requires a definitely greater effort to instruct the student to improve the text after its composition.
Without the assistance, encouragement, approval of the teacher and peer group, the student, in fact, would not examine or reconsider or even make corrections or changes to the text. He wouldn’t do it, that is, without an external stimulus. To improve the text, it is necessary, therefore, mandatory for the teacher to give the student directives, orders, detailed information on how the review should be conducted. And encourage him to go beyond the external part of the text – the level of words – to come to deal with what those words, woven together, mean, and the disposition and the relationship between the parts of the text. And often, despite external interventions, improvements are not achieved in the ex post revision of the work.
But what are the obstacles that prevent the development of reflection and reasoning that corrects itself, in this case applied to the production of argumentative texts? And why is it so difficult to overcome them?
1- The lack of an action plan
First of all, it may be the case that the student, trivially, does not know how to reconsider or correct the essential structure of the text. The student can experience as less stressful to replace words and sentences with other words and sentences, because he does not have an action plan designed to manage the entire text, because he does not have a more or less established way that makes it easier to arrange the logical sequences of thought differently.
If the main problem consists in not having an action plan to manage the entire paper, in the fact that the student does not know how to evaluate the quality of the topics he builds and reconstructs, that the student does not know how to improve his arguments, the solution should consist in giving him clear and detailed directives and information on “how” to do it. Students must be given explanations that illustrate action plans for drawing up both the outline of the topic and the outline of the revision for the preparation of argumentative texts.
2- Excessive confidence in the quality of one’s arguments
Secondly, another obstacle that prevents the development of reflection and reasoning that corrects itself is the generally widespread sentiment for which one’s arguments are of high quality, powerful, difficult to oppose. From this perspective, confrontation and dialectical competition with others is a useful means to dampen the excessive confidence that the student places in the strength of his own arguments.
3- Confirmation bias
Thirdly, people’s reluctance to reconsider and correct their arguments may depend on their inclination to evaluate the arguments on the basis of their personal beliefs. And this inclination does not depend on the cognitive abilities of the subjects. No one can feel excluded.
Fourthly, people have nothing but the reasons to develop their own argumentative skills, whether they presuppose or that knowledge is something certain and cumulative (such as how to teach so-called scientific subjects seems to suggest) or totally subjective, arbitrary, personal (increasingly widespread post-modern conviction), because in both cases there is no room for questioning. If, on the contrary, people recognize in advance that they can make mistakes and that every argument can be improved, then they would be more willing to reconsider and significantly correct their reasoning.
5- Difficulty managing the cognitive load
Finally, the main obstacle that prevents the development of reflection and reasoning that corrects itself is the inability or difficulty of managing the cognitive load.
The reconsideration and correction of the fundamental structure of one’s reasoning is a cognitive task that requires a lot of effort. And that could overload that part of the short-term memory that deals with processing the immediate and conscious perceptive and linguistic information, above all in the case in which the novice student does not have those cognitive schemes and the routine necessary to make the analysis of the argument. (The learning process should be organized in such a way as to allow the information to be deposited without limits in cognitive schemes and routines that are activated with the memory, automatic and unconscious, of long duration – the method of spaced repetitions has a certain success on this point!).
Certainly, it is advisable to start students learning the automatisms necessary for the development of the analysis skills of the topic using graded exercises, which break down complex procedures into simpler units, both with regard to the analysis of the arguments, and to their construction and revision.
Topics display software
The arguments visualization software are a powerful teaching tool because they help to download the effort of short-term working memory to the extent that they allow us to study the components of the topic and its relationships through their graphic representation. Furthermore, the visualization software of the topics guide the student step by step to the construction of the topics and stimulate their revision.
In conclusion: seriously thinking is an activity that requires a great deal of cognitive energy. And the software for displaying topics helps us make the most of it. And perhaps, institutions should introduce mandatory courses in critical thinking (including document mapping) within the Italian (and philosophy) curriculum from as early as two years if they seriously intend to bet on the importance of enhancing pupils’ argumentative skills.