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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Critical thinking and mastery of child development concepts, Part 6

This is the sixth section of an unpublished paper on critical thinking and the teaching of child development.

Critical Thinking Problems Related to Topics in Developmental Science
In this section, I will describe some specific problems of critical thinking-- incidents where many thinkers make systematic errors-- and their relevance to some topics and problems of developmental science. It is possible that correction of these types of errors can help students understand material that they otherwise find confusing. It is also possible that the modeling of these errors by lecture or textbook may limit students’ ability to detect them. The types of errors discussed here were chosen from a list put together by Gula (2002), who did not use examples from child development.
Problems of Irrelevance
A major critical thinking issue for most students is their inability to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant information, and their tendency to be distracted or confused by irrelevancies. I would point out again that our well-intentioned efforts to make textbooks and lectures vivid and engaging, through the use of vignettes and illustrations, add to the amount of irrelevant and distracting information presented to students.
The argumentum ad hominem. Forms of argument that focus on personal characteristics of theorists and researchers are appealing to students, but distract attention from the theory or research itself. Weaknesses of the individual or of his or her work are used as ways to evaluate entire systems. For example, a discussion of economics on National Public Radio recently began with some of the less attractive personal characteristics of John Maynard Keynes, and one discussant expressed surprise that the country was turning to such a person for solution of its economic difficulties. In discussions of developmental science, here are some similar situations, where an instructor might offer “gossip” as a way to get interest, and students might then reject the more important information:
Piaget’s observations of his own children are considered a reason to dismiss the entire theory of cognitive development.
J.B. Watson’s questionable treatment of little Albert, and his ill-judged advice about parenting, are seen as arguments against behaviorism.
Kohlberg’s suicide is taken to mean that his work on moral development is worthless.
The non sequitur. The presentation of conclusions that do not logically follow from evidence is distracting to student thought, but usually not recognized by students as causing any problem. An illustration caption in the textbook mentioned earlier reads:“… overstimulating babies with academic training and other lessons can impede brain development and the child’s desire to learn” (the connection between brain development and the desire to learn being the non sequitur).
The Appeal to Irrelevant Authority
Irrelevance can be confounded with other factors, too.
The appeal to the past. Arguments that begin with references to past claims (“Freud said…”, “Parents have long known…”), without presenting further evidence, are distracting and conceal their irrelevance to the cognitive task at hand.
Apriority and the appeal to personal belief or experience: Students like to hear personal stories from their instructors, and publishers certainly believe that vivid personal details add to the desirability of a textbook. However, the use of such details presents two problems: first, the distraction of general irrelevancy, and second, the suggestion that if one individual’s experience is of a certain kind, all or many others have similar experiences, and the vividly described experience can be taken as typical of an entire population. In fact, however, an individual’s experience may be quite atypical and therefore irrelevant to population characteristics.
More generally, the appeal to personal experience involves the problem of apriority, or the building of argument on unexamined a priori assumptions of various kinds.
Confident Speculation
It is a common error of critical thinking to present speculation as if it is reliable evidence that backs up a claim. This error is an easy one to make in teaching about developmental science, as many claims are based on complex research whose details are far beyond what can be handled in a first undergraduate class. In addition, the many aspects of developmental work that are value-laden—for example, questions about physical punishment of children—may have little or no actual evidence basis.
Personal assurances of certainty. Especially when discussing emotionally-laden topics, instructors are often driven to say, “Nobody really knows, but I’ll tell you what I think, for what it’s worth.” Students may attend much more carefully to the personal assurance given in this statement than to the warnings of possible uncertainty that the instructor feels he or she has given. In cases where instructors use the classroom as a bully pulpit, of course, the impact of their assurances may be inappropriately great.
Appeal to personal experience. Because pedagogy for the last 40 years has stressed the need for students to make a personal connection with topics they are studying, most instructors and textbooks make a point of asking students to review their personal experiences. This was apparent in a number of the textbook quotations given earlier. In fact, however, the appeal to personal experience is a matter of confident speculation to the effect that the individual’s experience is typical and representative of members of a group under study.
Developmental science, and development itself, are complex and multifactorial, and in many cases involve nonlinear relationships. Teaching and writing for undergraduates requires us to abstract and simplify some complicated material. The danger in terms of critical thinking is that necessary simplification will become oversimplification, and that we will fail to correct oversimplification by students.
Posing complex questions that contain apriority. The textbook question quoted earlier, “Cite a difference between******” addresses complex issues of variability and its causes. However, it oversimplifies by implying that generational differences are larger than individual differences within a generation, an a priori assumption that may or may not be correct.
The excluded middle, or categorical thinking. It is an error of critical thinking to assume, without evidence, that an idea is either completely correct or completely incorrect, or that phenomena belong to clearly dichotomous categories. This type of error is common in textbook statements and questions (“Do you believe…?”), but historically speaking, it is also a characteristic of the study of development, with its long discussion of a dichotomized Nature vs. Nurture. The love of typology is one of the more problematic aspects of the study of development, although the existence of cases of three rather than two categories may obscure this issue. For example, note the many decades of acceptance of categories of attachment security (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978), and the minor interest displayed in attempts to examine attachment phenomena in terms of continuous variables (Roisman, Fraley, & Belsky, 2007). Students for whom critical thinking is difficult may be drawn to categorical descriptions which require memorization of a short list of categories and provide easy applications to real-world events.
The fallacy of the beard. This problem of critical thinking has to do with the understanding of overlapping categories. If a person has no whiskers, he doesn’t have a beard; if he has hundreds of whiskers, he does have a beard. If he has two whiskers, or three, he has no beard, but the addition of more whiskers will eventually mean that there is a beard. Problems of this kind challenge critical thinking abilities because they require systematic discrimination of evidence and the recognition that definitions may be arbitrary. For the weak critical thinker, it is much easier to assume that if the phenomena overlap, there is no difference between them, or that, if the overlap is small, there are no similarities between them. To avoid this kind of error, it is essential to work through and agree upon definitions of terms.
The beard error is especially problematic for the understanding of gender differences and other population differences, like those associated with culture. Even more importantly for the teaching of developmental science, the fallacy of the beard interferes with the understanding of developmentally appropriate practice. Students prone to this fallacy may confuse the characteristics of toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children, and adolescents as they group all these ages under the rubric “children”. Alternatively, and even alternately, they may exaggerate differences between adolescents and people of other ages, blurring the resemblances between adolescents and younger children. Students who ask practical questions in class (I know a boy who… what should I do?”) rarely indicate the age of the child in question and must be asked before an answer can be given. Similarly, both students and parents tend to prefer preschool child care that resembles elementary school, and exaggerate the resemblances between older and younger children rather than the developmental differences.
The fallacy of determination. An oversimplified view of behavior concentrates on an individual’s wish to carry out an action, claiming that if a person, particularly a child, wants to do something, he or she will do it, and that if he or she does not act, the reason is a lack of motivation. From this critical thinking error follows the assumption that behavioral or cognitive change results solely from the manipulation of motivation by means of reward or punishment. Such assumptions interfere with understanding of cognitive development and indeed of all development based on maturational change.
Analogies and Metaphors
Analogies and metaphors are useful thinking techniques that compare two different things by showing the ways in which they are similar. These techniques are helpful in teaching about development, as many developmental events are difficult to observe directly or occur over long periods of time. The problem with analogies and metaphors is that although they may be used to convey ideas, they cannot in themselves establish an argument or support an inference. To attempt to use them in that way is to risk the error called “abusing an analogy.”
Common analogies. Here are some common analogies and metaphors used in the teaching of developmental science: 1) “stages” or “milestones” of development; 2) the term “attachment” or “bond” to describe an attitude toward another person; 3) brain/cortical/ hand/ gene “dominance” (this metaphor may be one reason why it is so difficult for students to define dominant and recessive genes); 4) “regression” (not the statistical kind); 5) the term “sexual” in the description of psychosexual stages of development. These comparisons may be extremely valuable for teaching purposes, but their downside is the student’s assumption that phenomena that have some things in common will have everything in common.
Abusing analogies. As Gula (2002) has suggested, analogies are abused when the terms of one element are used (and assumed) to predict the terms of another element. In order to avoid such abuse, several steps in evaluation are needed. 1) The thinker needs to ask whether all the properties of X and Y—the two elements or phenomena—have been cited. Concentrating on similarities alone is potentially problematic. 2) The thinker needs to ask what proportion of the characteristics show similarities. 3) The thinker needs to ask what proportion of the similarities are actually relevant to the issue under study; for example, the fact that many mice and many human beings have brown eyes is irrelevant to the use of mouse developmental information to draw conclusions about human beings. 4) The thinker needs to ask to what extent X is actually different from Y—that is, what proportion of the characteristics of the two are different. No clear rule exists for accepting or rejecting an analogy on the basis of these questions, but questioning the analogy can help prevent misuse of this type of reasoning.
Easily abused analogies. In the study of development, one common instance of abuse of analogies involves reasoning from aspects of non-human development to aspects of human development. For example, John Bowlby’s application of ethological concepts of imprinting in birds to human attachment abused an analogy, and was fortunately rejected after some consideration by developmental scientists. But this type of critical thinking error is still with us, and not in textbooks alone. For example, a recent article in the APA Monitor on Psychology (Price, 2009), entitled “Programmed for life?” has a subhead stating that “Your developmental environment can undercut your memory, give it a boost, or possibly even predict how you’ll treat your children.” Examining this article, one sees that the only information relevant to “how you’ll treat your children” is a study of factors influencing how much mice lick and groom their pups. A comparison of the characteristics of mouse and human infant care suggests that this author has abused an analogy in order to conclude that the factors being discussed “may” predict how humans will treat their children.
A bad example: Attachment as a “tie”. A particularly questionable use of analogy occurs when a comparison is presented as if it were a definition. For example, many textbooks and other sources define attachment as “an emotional tie between parent and child.” In fact, attachment is only somewhat comparable to a tie of a physical nature. It keeps the individuals close together, but being tied is different from attachment in that attachment changes with age, is not directly measurable but is implied by behavior, and influences the two partners differently. If the tie in question is a social relationship rather than a physical tie (using an analogy to create another analogy), the definition and the comparison become circular, and the only meaningful part of the definition is “between parent and child”; even this is deceptive, as it implies that the emotions of parent and child are similar, which they are not.
Affirming the Consequent and Other Forms of Transductive Reasoning
Piaget’s discussion of preoperational cognition included a description of transductive reasoning, a form of primitive logic in which a child assumes that when two events share some characteristics, they are likely to share others, including a cause-and-effect relationship which may work in either direction. Piaget’s famous example of this was a situation in which his daughter, given a cup of orange-colored chamomile tea, insisted that a green orange she wanted must have become ripe and attained the color that meant she could eat it. Similar examples involve the wind being made to blow by trees waving their branches, and fire engines causing (“putting out”) fires. The adult version is the belief that correlated events are causally related. Other specific forms of this error may be highly relevant to the teaching of developmental science.
Affirming the consequent: This fallacy or error in critical thinking involves the practice of assuming that the converse, or reverse order, of a claimed condition is true. For example, let’s take the statement that
If a child has Reactive Attachment Disorder, she has lived in an orphanage or under similar conditions. [this is true, as the DSM list of criteria for the RAD diagnosis includes the etiology.]
The converse of this statement is the following:
If a child has lived in an orphanage (or under similar conditions), she has Reactive Attachment Disorder. [this claim is available to students on a number of Internet sites.] To assume that this converse statement is true without requiring other evidence is to affirm the consequent.
Similarly, here is a correct claim:
Children who are developing normally have gone through many repetitions of infant reflex movements.
The converse of this statement is the following:
Children who have gone through many repetitions of infant reflex movements develop normally. [Affirmation of the consequent in this case argues support for the CAM treatment “patterning”.]
Denying the antecedent. This critical thinking error involves the assumption that if a positively-stated claim is true, a negative statement (the obverse) can also be assumed to be true, without further evidence. For an example, here is a common (although questionable) claim:
If a toddler carries a blanket around, it means he feels insecure without it.
Here is the obverse of the claim:
A toddler does not feel insecure [without a blanket], if he does not carry a blanket around. [The problem, once again, is in the assumption that manipulating the words of the claim permits an accurate conclusion, whereas in fact additional evidence would be needed to support the obverse statement. In its present form, the statement suggests that insecurity can be cured by taking away a toddler’s blanket, and this view is sometimes taken by students.]

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