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Why Students and Teachers Don’t Reason Well


Paul begins this essay by developing the notion that all human action presupposes the use of humanly created logical systems that model, abridge, and summarize the features of the world about us, and that abstract inferential systems, and the reasoning they make possible, are as natural to us as a species as swimming is to a dolphin or flying is to a bird. As Paul puts it, we are continually “making inferences within a system we have created — about what is going on in our lives.”

Unfortunately, according to Paul, to reason well we must do more than simply engage in it. We must become aware of that engagement and use our knowledge of the nature of that engagement to improve it. Paul compares the good reasoner to the good ballet dancer, the good chess and tennis players. All three must explicitly study the principles and practice the moves involved (with explicit standards of performance in mind).

Having suggested what good reasoning requires, Paul presents evidence to show that most students are not good at it. What is more, he presents evidence to suggest that most teachers are not good at it either — at least not at assessing it when students are called upon to use it in their work. One of the major reasons, combining with ignorance of what reasoning requires, is a systematic confusion between intelligent subjectivity (wit, articulateness, cleverness without substance), and reasoned objectivity (careful, disciplined, reasoning about an issue), between subjective opinion (however “bright”), and reasoned judgment (however mundane).

Paul documents this problem with an analysis of a major mistake in a California Department of Education statewide assessment of reasoned evaluation in writing. He follows up this documentation of a mistake on the part of testing experts with the same mistake made by teachers.....

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