Maimon, Elaine P., Barbara F. Nodine, and Finbarr W. O’Connor, eds. Thinking, Reasoning, and Writing. New York: Longman, 1987.
“After worrying . . . that Johnny and Janey can’t read or write, educators in the 1980s concluded that the real problem is that students can’t think” (xv). This is the first sentence of an extremely useful anthology of a dozen original essays written by scholars in the fields of cognitive psychology (such as editor Nodine), composition (Maimon), and informal logic (O’Connor). The editors present a convincing case that these three disciplines can give us valuable tools to address our students’ lack of critical thinking skills.
“Writing is thinking made visible” is very nearly the mantra of the book, and visible thinking, the editors argue, is the most important step toward better thinking. The book finally concerns itself not so much with cognition per se, but with metacognition—the ability to evaluate one’s own thinking processes. The opportunity for students to see their earlier ideas on the written page and to rethink them is perhaps the most important tool toward the development of metacognitive awareness. The book’s authors develop this theme in a rich variety of ways, reflecting not only the points of agreement and disagreement among the three fields, but also within them.
The first section of Thinking, Reasoning, and Writing deals with cognitive psychology, outlining some of the paradigms of the field through a review of Jean Piaget’s germinal work in the stages of intellectual development (in the chapter by Moshman and Franks), and expanding upon Piaget’s ideas. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this section is on “dialectical thinking,” Michael Basseches’s coinage for a type of cognition which goes beyond our usual means of approaching a problem to explore how the problem has changed over the course of time, and thus gain new ways of solving it. (As with several of the essays I’ll consider here, compressing Basseches’s argument makes it seem less accessible and useful in the classroom than it really is.) Also notable in this section is James Voss’s consideration of “weakly defined” problems and the transferability of reasoning skills across subject matter domains.
The section on informal logic begins with several conceptual histories of the field by O’Connor and Johnson and Blair. Those who don’t know the difference between a Venn diagram and a Euler diagram will find these sections extremely helpful, but the highlight of this particular section is Jerry Cederblom’s piece, which confronts a problem all teachers can empathize with—the student’s desire not to change his or her mind. Cederblom’s answer to this quandary is to train his students to identify themselves not with their beliefs, but “as a belief-forming process” (148). All told, Cederblom’s work is the most cogent essay is this particularly useful book.
The composition scholars’ contributions to the book also cover a wide range: James Kinneavy does the nearly impossible by presenting a coherent sketch of the history of rhetoric in a dozen pages; Linda Flower uses the revealing technique of “protocol analysis” to examine the place of conscious thought in a meaning-making; Kenneth Bruffee examines the social dimensions of the writing process; and Janice Haney-Peritz explores some of the implications of post-structuralist semiotics for those who would improve their students’ thinking skills. All of these essays are both theoretically well-grounded and contain practical applications.
But the most important lesson of the book is that we must simply be aware of cognitive styles—our own, our disciplines’, our students’—and be prepared to adjust them to solve different problems. Again, the importance of revision is emphasized; Cederblom in particular argues that we should ask our students to rethink all of their written positions. The use of peer groups in revision can greatly help this process, as can the metacognitive journals that Neimark advocates: she asks her students to describe their own thought processes while they are reading and writing, and to discuss their cognitive processes with her and with each other.
All told, Thinking, Reasoning, and
Writing conveys something of a miniature liberal education in three
extremely important fields for educators. This makes the book not only
extremely useful, but also a particular pleasure to read. Not least
important, the editors supply interchapters which summarize the essays
and draw connections between the fields.
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