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38th Conference Focal Session Descriptions

The 38th Annual International Conference on
Critical Thinking

...The World's Longest-Running Critical Thinking Conference

July 16 - July 20, 2018

at the DoubleTree Hotel in Rohnert Park, CA

Register Now!

Focal Session Descriptions . . .

Focal Sessions are led by Fellows and Visiting Scholars of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, with each session focused on a particular aspect, application, or way of examining critical thinking.

When you register for the conference online, you will be asked to select one Focal Session for each time slot in which this type of session takes place. Therefore, you may wish to leave this page open in a separate tab or window while you are registering, so that you can easily reference the session descriptions below.

Monday, Late Morning

Teaching Students to Think Things Through: Higher Education . . . Dr. Gerald Nosich

Students learn content within any subject only to the extent that they learn to
think through that subject, but they can’t just use their own thinking. They must use skilled, disciplined, reasonable, rational thinking in other words, critical thinking. To do this, they need consistent practice over time in taking important ideas and following out their implications, in integrating ideas, and in questioning them when it makes sense. They need consistent practice in applying intellectual standards to thought as they reason through problems and issues within academic disciplines. They need to start with essential intellectual standards, then apply them over and over again to problems and issues as they think through content. In short, they can’t just learn the theory of critical thinking in an abstract way; they need to learn the theory in relation to practice by applying it (to learning and, ultimately, to every domain of human life.

This session focuses on taking the foundational theory of critical thinking and helping college and university students internalize this foundation through practice in thinking through content.

Tools for Analysis in Business, Government, and Administration . . . Dr. Brian Barnes

Can we deal with incessant, accelerating change and complexity without revolutionizing our thinking? Traditionally, our thinking has been designed for routine, habit, automation, and procedure. Not long ago, we learned how to do our job, and then we used what we learned over and over. But the problems we now face, and will increasingly face, require a radically different form of thinking
thinking that is more complex, more adaptable, and more sensitive to divergent points of view. The world in which we now live requires that we continually relearn, that we routinely rethink our decisions, and that we regularly reevaluate the way we work and live. In short, there is a new world facing us one in which the power of the mind to command itself, to regularly engage in self-analysis, will increasingly determine the quality of our work, the quality of our lives, and perhaps even our very survival.

As you work through this session, you will begin to understand some of the most fundamental concepts critical thinkers use on a daily basis, for it is through analyzing and assessing thinking that critical thinking occurs. To analyze thinking, we must be able to take it apart and scrutinize how we are using each part. Once we have done this, we can then apply to those parts the intellectual standards for thought (standards such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, logicality, fairness, etc.). When we clearly understand the parts of thinking (or elements of reasoning) and the intellectual standards, and we begin to use them explicitly in our thinking on a daily basis, the quality of our work significantly improves.

This session will help business, government, and education leaders:

  • begin to internalize the foundational concepts and principles implicit in a substantive conception of analytic thinking;

  • better use analytic thinking as a tool for thinking deeply about the questions, issues, and challenges they face in their work.

Teaching K-12 Students to Take Command of Their Reasoning . . . Ms. Carmen Polka

Bringing critical thinking into the K-12 classroom entails understanding the
concepts and principles embedded in critical thinking, then applying those concepts throughout the curriculum. It means developing powerful strategies that emerge when we begin to understand critical thinking.

In this session, we will focus on strategies for engaging the intellect at the K-12 level.
These strategies are powerful and useful, because each is a way to routinely engage students in thinking about what they are trying to learn as they are learning. Many of the strategies offer students methods for questioning – and for appropriately analyzing and assessing – the ideas they are exposed to in the schooling process. These strategies suggest ways of teaching students how to do the (often) hard work of learning, with each representing a shift of responsibility for learning from teacher to student.

Advanced Session: Exploring Your Deeper Questions About the Theory and Application of Critical Thinking . . . Dr. Linda Elder

Most people who begin to learn the tools of critical thinking stop learning before they have a chance to really internalize, and therefore use, these intellectual tools. However, a few do go on to take the theory and application of critical thinking to deeper levels. This session is designed for those conference attendees who have worked with us before, at previous conferences or at their institutions in professional development, and are ready to go further through questioning.

Thinking is driven by questions. The best thinkers generate and pursue deep questions that lead them to fruitful ways of thinking and higher ways of living. This session, led by one of the leading authorities in critical thinking today, will focus on your deeper questions. To help spark them, Dr. Elder will bring some of her own, and will help you articulate better questions so you can explore, at a more advanced level, the concepts and 
principles embedded in a robust conception of critical thinking.

Monday Afternoon

Fostering Intellectual Empathy as a Fundamental Intellectual Virtue . . . Ms. Carmen Polka and Ms. Rachael Collins

Intellectual empathy is awareness of the need to actively entertain views that differ from our own, and especially those we strongly disagree with. It is to accurately reconstruct the viewpoints and reasoning of our opponents, and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own .

We rarely see examples of intellectual empathy (and therefore of robust critical thinking) in most aspects of our culture. Take “critical” discussions on televised news programs as an example. Frequently, one side argues for a viewpoint while the other argues for an opposing view, each making assertions without acknowledging strengths in the opposing viewpoint. What is missing is intellectual empathy. Neither speaker is honestly attempting to enter the other’s perspective. Each is summarily dismissing the other, sparring through one-sided attacks. Such speakers also lack any sense of intellectual humility – any recognition that they might be wrong on any point whatsoever.

This session will focus on intellectual empathy as an indispensable trait, and will discuss means by which we can foster its development in student thinking.

Intellectual Character as Essential to Development in Any Professional Field or Discipline . . . Dr. Paul Bankes

It is possible to develop as a thinker, and yet not to develop as a fairminded thinker. It is possible to learn to use one’s mental skills in a narrow, self-serving way, and many highly skilled thinkers do just that. Think of politicians, for example, who manipulate people through smooth (fallacious) talk, who promise what they have no intention of delivering, who say whatever they need to maintain their positions of power and prestige. In a sense, these people are skilled thinkers because their thinking enables them to get what they want. But the best thinkers do not pursue selfish goals. They do not seek to manipulate others. They strive to be fairminded, even when it means they have to give something up in the process. They recognize that the mind is not naturally fair, but selfish. And they recognize that to be fairminded, they also must develop specific traits of mind
traits such as intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, intellectual courage, intellectual autonomy, intellectual empathy, intellectual perseverance, and confidence in reason.

In this session, we introduce what “fairminded” means, and we discuss the mental characteristics that accompany fairmindedness. If you are to develop as a fairminded thinker, you will have to practice being fairminded. You will have to catch yourself in acts of selfishness and begin to correct your behavior. You will have to become committed to living a rational, compassionate, contributory life, to look outside yourself and see how your behavior affects other people. You will have to decide, again and again, that being fairminded is crucial to your identity as a person.

This session will enhance your development as a person of character.

Advanced Session for Returning Delegates: Understanding Intellectual Virtues as a Constellation of Interrelated Character Traits . . . Dr. Brian Barnes

The traits of mind essential for critical thinking are interdependent. Consider intellectual humility. To become aware of the limits of our knowledge, we need the intellectual courage to face our own prejudices and ignorance. To discover our own prejudices, in turn, we often must intellectually empathize with and reason within points of view which contradict our own. To achieve this end, we typically must engage in intellectual perseverance (since it takes time and significant effort learning to empathically enter a point of view that we are biased against). That effort will not seem justified unless we have the necessary confidence in reason to believe we won't be taken in by whatever is false or misleading in the opposing viewpoint.Furthermore, merely believing we won’t be harmed by considering “alien” viewpoints is not enough to motivate most of us to consider them seriously. We must
also be motivated by an intellectual sense of justice. We must recognize an intellectual responsibility to be fair to views we oppose. We must feel obliged to hear them in their strongest form to ensure that we are not condemning them out of ignorance or bias. At this point, we come full circle to where we began: the need for intellectual humility.

This is but one example of how intellectual virtues are best understood as a network of mental traits that interconnect in various ways, that sometimes overlap, and that often vary along a continuum (serving a range of purposes). They are established and advanced by disciplined, routine adherence to intellectual standards, and for the most part, they cannot be cultivated selectively: legitimate evolution of one intellectual virtue typically encompasses and promotes the evolution of others, with each acting as a support beam in constructing one's intellectual character.

In this session, we will explore some ways in which intellectual virtues form a ‘constellation' of interrelated meanings, and will seek to better understand how developing one virtue aids in the development of others. 

Tuesday, Late Morning

Cultivating Evidence-Based Decision Making in Business and Government . . . Dr. Brian Barnes

One of the most important skills in critical thinking is that of evaluating information. However, those in business and government need a rich perspective on evidence-based decision making; this begins with the important recognition that information and fact, or information and verification, are not the same thing. It requires also the important recognition that not everything presented as fact is true. It is essential to comprehend that the prestige or setting in which information is asserted, as well as the prestige of the person or group asserting it, is no guarantee of accuracy or reliability. Consider the following helpful maxim: An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be incomplete at best, and very often is false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious, etc.

Careful professionals, skilled in evidence-based decision making at a high level, use a wide variety of safeguards in making decisions based on actual evidence
not merely on information asserted to be true. It is not possible to learn these safeguards separately from an actual study of the best thinking within the disciplines. It is possible, however, to develop a healthy skepticism about information in general, and especially about information presented in support of a belief that serves the vested interests of a person or group. This skepticism is applied by regularly asking key questions about information presented to us:

  • To what extent could I test the truth of this claim by direct experience?
  • To what extent is this belief consistent with what I know to be true or in which I have justified confidence?
  • How does the person who advances this claim support it?
  • Is there a definite system or procedure for assessing claims of this sort?
  • Does the acceptance of this information advance the vested interest of the person or group asserting it?
  • Is the person asserting this information made uncomfortable by having it questioned?

These questions, both singly and as a group, represent no panacea. They do not prevent us from making mistakes. But, used with good judgment, they help us lower the number of mistakes we make in assessing information.

In this session, we will explore a rich conception of evidence-based decision making, which is highly relevant to your work in business or government.

Teaching Students and Professionals to Value Evidence and Reject False and Distorted Information . . . Dr. Gerald Nosich

In our world today, most people are exposed to far more human-generated information than they can possibly understand or incorporate meaningfully in their thinking. Many people believe information to be true that could not possibly stand the test of reason. Many people have an actual disdain for the truth, given that they themselves are hiding something. We see this now rampant throughout politics. And how often do we, our students, or our colleagues ask questions such as:

  • How does the source know this information to be true? What real evidence is given in this argument (or on this website)?

  • What would I need to do to verify this information?
  • How do I know this information to be true?
  • What information am I leaving out of my argument, and why?
  • Might I have distorted some of my past experiences to fit some agenda I have today?
  • What are the implications of believing this information if it is false, or of not believing it if it is true?

The simple failure to ask such questions can, and often does, have devastating effects on one's life, one's community, or even the world as a whole. In our era of overpopulation and powerful technologies, decisions informed by inaccurate beliefs have the capacity to threaten the survival of many species on the planet, including our own.

This session will explore how human beings naturally, often subconsciously, assimilate faulty information into their world views. We will discuss ways of intervening in this behavior with an aim of overcoming it, and of helping students and colleagues do the same.

How a Rich Conception of Critical Thinking is Essential to the Core Curriculum, or Indeed Any Curriculum, in K-12 Education . . . Ms. Carmen Polka

Students are increasingly assessed on the acquisition of their knowledge in K-12 schooling. But what knowledge should students be acquiring? How do we decide which is most significant, and which can be left behind? Who decides? Who should decide? How do students acquire knowledge? How do critical thinking, the acquisition of knowledge, and the educated person interrelate as powerful concepts? How do the tools of critical thinking lead to the acquisition of knowledge? How does activated knowledge differ from activated ignorance and inert information?

In this session, we will explore these questions as we discuss how a robust conception of critical thinking can best serve as a foundation to K-12 education. We will focus on understanding the importance of cultivating intellectual virtues in the minds of our students, and will briefly explore the analysis of thought and the critical role played by intellectual standards in learning at the K-12 level.

Advanced Session for Returning Delegates: Achieving a Deeper Understanding of Intellectual Standards . . . Dr. Paul Bankes

Intellectual standards are cultivated conceptualizations that result from the proper uses of
intellectual standard words in context. The term ‘intellectual standards’ can be analyzed by carefully considering educated uses of ‘intellectual’ and ‘standards’ as well as what those uses imply.

Intellectual standard words are found throughout natural languages and are regularly used by disciplined reasoners in every culture. When we study intellectual standard words, we find that many have overlapping meanings and uses, and therefore form clusters. We find that there are various nuances between and among intellectual standards. To fully understand intellectual standard terms, we must have command of their opposites. Furthermore, intellectual standards can be divided into micro and macro intellectual standards. Micro intellectual standards refer to those standards more 'pointed' and specific (as in the standards of ‘relevance’ and ‘accuracy’). Macro intellectual standards refer to those more general (as in the standards of ‘reasonability’ or ‘soundness’), and presuppose one or more micro intellectual standards.

These are some of the deeper understandings we will explore in this session for returning registrants.

Tuesday, Late Afternoon

Using Critical Thinking Tools in Problem-Solving and Decision-Making in Business, Government, and Administration . . . Dr. Brian Barnes

There are multiple dimensions of effective problem-solving and decision-making. For instance, by using one powerful set of critical thinking tools
the elements of thought as our guide, we can identify at least nine dimensions that represent potential problems and opportunities for thought. These dimensions do not define a procedure that can be followed mindlessly or mechanically; rather, they presuppose good judgment and sound thinking in every dimension.

To be an effective and rational decision-maker:

1. Figure out, and regularly articulate, your most fundamental goals, purposes, and needs. Your decisions should help you remove obstacles and create opportunities to reach your goals, achieve your purposes, and satisfy your needs.

2. Whenever possible, take problems and decisions one by one. State the situation and formulate the alternatives as clearly and precisely as you can.

3. Study the circumstances surrounding the alternative possible decisions to make clear the kind of decision you are dealing with. Figure out what implications follow from the various possible alternatives before you. Differentiate decisions over which you have some control from decisions that seem forced on you. Concentrate your efforts on the most important decisions and those on which you can have the most impact.

4. Figure out the information you need, and actively seek that information.

5. Carefully analyze and interpret the information you collect, drawing what reasonable inferences you can.

6. Figure out your options for action. What can you do in the short term? In the long term? Recognize explicitly your limitations in money, time, and power.

7. Evaluate your options in the situation, taking into account their advantages and disadvantages.

8. Adopt a strategic approach to the decision, and follow through on that strategy. This may involve direct action or a carefully thought-through, wait-and-see strategy.

9. When you act, monitor the implications of your actions as they begin to emerge. Be ready to revise your strategy at a moment's notice if the situation requires. Be prepared to shift your strategy, your analysis, your statement of the kind of decision, or all three as more information becomes available to you.

In this session, we will explore these abilities and how they can best be employed for effective problem-solving and decision-making in business, government, and all areas of administration.

Natural Egocentric Pathologies of the Mind that Impede Critical Thinking in Every Professional Field and Throughout Human Life . . . Ms. Carmen Polka and Ms. Rachael Collins

The human mind is at once rational and irrational, reasonable and unreasonable. We naturally see the world from a narrow egocentric perspective, and are also highly vulnerable to influence from group traditions, mores, taboos, and customs. We are naturally selfish, self-deceiving, prejudiced, and biased. We naturally distort reality to fit our vision of it. We naturally distort information to keep from seeing what we would rather avoid. We naturally seek more for ourselves and our group than is rightfully ours. We naturally act without due regard to the rights and needs of others.

In short, humans are naturally egocentric (and sociocentric). At the same time, we are capable of developing as reasonable persons. But to do so requires commitment and some fundamental understandings about the pathological side of the human mind. In this session, we will focus on some of these painful truths about the mind. We will explore egocentric thought as an intrinsic mental phenomenon that gets in the way of cultivating the disciplined mind, and hence in the way of our development as rational human beings. We will also briefly explore its relationship with sociocentric thought, and finally, we will discuss processes for overcoming this pathology.

Teaching Students How to Study and Learn Using the Tools of Critical Thinking . . . Dr. Paul Bankes

All thinking occurs within, and across, disciplines and domains of knowledge and experience. Yet, few students learn how to think well within those domains. Despite having taken many classes, few are able to think biologically, chemically, geographically, sociologically, anthropologically, historically, artistically, ethically, philosophically, and so on. Students study literature, but do not think in a literary way as a result. They study poetry, but do not think poetically. They do not know how to think like a reader when reading, nor how to think like a writer while writing, nor how to think like a listener while listening. Consequently they are poor readers, writers, and listeners. They use words and ideas, but do not know how to think ideas through and internalize foundational meanings. They take classes, but cannot make connections between the logic of a discipline and what is important in life. Even the best students often have these deficiencies.

To study well and learn any subject is to learn how to think with discipline within that subject. It is to learn to think within its logic, to:

  • raise vital questions and problems within it, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gather and assess information, using ideas to interpret that information insightfully;
  • come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • adopt the point of view of the discipline, recognizing and assessing, as need be, its assumptions, implications, and practical consequences;
  • communicate effectively with others using the language of the discipline and that of educated public discourse;
  • relate what one is learning in the subject to other subjects, and to what is significant in human life.

To become a skilled learner is to become a self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinker who has given assent to rigorous standards of thought and mindful command of their use. Skilled learning of a discipline requires that one respects the power of it, as well as its – and one’s own – historical and human limitations.

How Political Correctness is Impeding the Cultivation of Critical Thinking in Academia and in Human Societies . . . Dr. Linda Elder

In many parts of human societies, we are bombarded with directives on how we should behave in terms of political correctness. These emerging principles for how we should live can negatively affect our ability to think critically and develop as liberally-minded intellectuals. For instance, in the classroom today, many students regularly complain that they are being harmed by words used by faculty
words such as 'violate' and 'rape,' which have been used by educated persons for ages of recorded history. These complaints are based on the notion that if a student, for instance, has been previously violated, or perceives him or herself to have been violated, the very use of the term 'violate' will cause the person to suffer further. Therefore, the argument goes, the student should not be subjected to the word in college courses, for fear of upsetting him or her. Hence, faculty must tread very carefully in using any words that students may find offensive .

Many students now complain that faculty members are violating their rights when they feel at all "uncomfortable" in the 
teaching and learning process. But the very process of developing the mind is and always will be to some degree uncomfortable to the mind. This discomfort comes from both the intensive work involved in cultivating one's intellect, as well as one's own personal experiences, including one's misperceptions and blind spots.

According to Dr. Linda Elder, "to remove intellectual discomfort and confusion from the classroom is to remove education itself from the classroom," which is largely where we are headed with political correctness. In this session, these and other related realities will be discussed and explored as barriers to fostering the educated mind and in advancing academia itself.

Wednesday, Late Morning

Teaching for Fundamental and Powerful Concepts in Your Discipline . . . Dr. Gerald Nosich

Concepts are ideas we use in thinking. They enable us to group things in our experience in different categories, classes, or divisions. They are the bases for the labels we give things in our minds. They represent the mental map (and meanings) we construct of the world, the map that tells us the way the world is. Through our concepts we define situations, events, relationships, and all other objects of our experience. All our decisions depend on how we conceptualize things. All subjects or disciplines are defined by their foundational concepts. 'Cell' versus 'mitochondria' is an example. A cell is a much more fundamental and powerful concept in biology than is a mitochondrion. Students who achieve a deep understanding of the concept of a cell will be able to think through and gain insight into a very large number of topics in biology. It will give them a powerful entrance into thinking biologically. Not only that, but a good grasp of the concept of a cell will enable students to think critically about a range of topics they will encounter outside the course. By contrast, a student who achieves a good grasp of the concept 'mitochondria' will not, thereby, gain insight into nearly as large a range of other biological topics.

When students master foundational concepts at a deep level, they are able to use them to understand and function better within the world. Can you identify the fundamental concepts in your discipline? Can you explain their role in thinking within your discipline? How can you help students take command of these concepts? These are some of the questions to be explored in this session.

Close Reading as Essential to Deep Learning . . . Dr. Paul Bankes

Educated persons are skilled at, and routinely engage in, close reading.
When reading, they seek to learn from texts. They generate questions as they read, and they seek answers to those questions by reading widely and skillfully. In short, they seek to become better educated through reading. They do this through the process of intellectually interacting with the texts they read, while they are reading. They come to understand what they read by paraphrasing, elaborating, exemplifying, and illustrating it. They make connections as they read. They evaluate as they read. They bring important ideas into their thinking as they read.

Many of our students have never read a text closely. Instead, they have developed the habit of skirting by with superficial and impressionistic reading. This session will therefore explore basic, foundational processes for developing student skills in close reading. The aim is for these processes to become internalized and used throughout life as powerful tools for continual development.

Internalizing Critical Thinking Terms and Concepts as a Web of Understandings . . . Dr. Brian Barnes

The concept of critical thinking, comprehensively viewed, is a rich, variegated, and, to some extent, open-ended concept. There is no way to encompass it completely and inexhaustibly. There is no way to encompass it in a one-sentence “definition.” Nevertheless, at its base is a foundational set of meanings presupposed in all of its varied uses. Its multiplicity is shown by the fact that one can pursue the improvement of thinking by somewhat different studies, with somewhat different scope, and trained on different foci.

Further, critical thinking concepts encompass a large network of interrelated ideas. To understand one such idea often entails understanding other ideas. As such, critical thinking concepts are best understood in relationship to each other and in contrast to their opposites. Critical thinking concepts should be non-technical (and thus available in any well-researched dictionary).

In this session, we focus on critical thinking terms in connection with one another. We will explore a conception of critical thinking that is explicit, global, Socratic, and systematic with returning registrants seeking to go deeper into the theory of critical thinking.

Wednesday, Late Afternoon

Substantive Writing as Primary Vehicle for Deep Learning . . . Dr. Paul Bankes

Educated persons skillfully, routinely engage in substantive writing. Substantive writing consists of focusing on a subject worth writing about, and then saying something worth saying about it. It also enhances our reading: whenever we read to acquire knowledge, we should write to take ownership of what we are reading. Furthermore, just as we must write to gain an initial understanding of a subject's primary ideas, so also must we write to begin thinking within the subject as a whole and making connections between ideas within and beyond it. Quite remarkably, many of our students have never written in a substantive way. Instead, they have developed the habit of getting by with superficial and impressionistic reading, writing, and listening.

This session will explore ways and means for developing student skills in substantive writing as a major strategy for learning content.

Teaching Students to Distinguish Between Questions of Fact, Preference, and Judgment: Essential Tools in Learning . . . Dr. Brian Barnes

Many pseudo critical thinking approaches present all judgments as falling into two exclusive, exhaustive categories: “fact and opinion
.” In fact, the kind of judgment most important to educated people and falls into a third, very important, and now almost totally ignored category: that of reasoned judgment.

Unlike answers to questions of preference (such as 'the best flavor of ice cream'), answers to questions of reasoned judgment (like 'how to best address the most significant economic problems in the nation') can be rationally evaluated using universal intellectual standards like clarity, depth, consistency, and so forth. Such answers can therefore be better or worse – well-reasoned or poorly reasoned. Hence, when questions that require better or worse answers are treated as matters of mere “opinion,” pseudo critical thinking occurs. Students come, then, to uncritically assume that every judgment is of equal value. Their capacity to appreciate the importance of intellectual standards diminishes; they fail to see the difference between views supported with legitimate reasons and evidence, and those merely asserted to be true.

This session offers tools for teaching students to distinguish between the three types of questions, which is crucial to their understanding of how to go about answering any given question or resolve any problem.

Advanced Session: How Richard Paul Transformed Our Conception of Critical Thinking – Going Deeper
. . . Dr. Linda Elder and Ms. Rachael Collins

Richard Paul is widely considered to
be a seminal thinker in the emerging field of Critical Thinking Studies. In this session, we will consider some of Paul’s important contributions to the substantive conception of critical thinking that has been cultivated over the past 40 (or more) years. We will view and discuss video footage of Paul articulating the theory of critical thinking and how to foster it throughout instruction. We will also read and discuss excerpts from Paul’s anthology, Critical Thinking: What Everyone Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World – a collection of texts which laid the groundwork for what has come to be known as the Paulian Approach to Critical Thinking or Paul-Elder Framework .