Using exchanges on OpEds in a critical thinking activity (checking evidence, assumptions, reasoning)

This post suggests two revisions to an activity in a graduate-level critical thinking course, in which students used perspectives about Focused Conversations (Stanfield 1997) and the ladder of inference (Ross 1994) to practice checking evidence, assumptions, reasoning.
First the activity, and then the suggested revisions.
Locate a Newspaper OpEd that is accompanied by comments (or use either NY TImes editorial, 3 Aug 15 & comments , or Krugman’s OpEd & commentary, 20 Jul 15 (also in password-protected readings).
Compose a multi-person dialogue between the OpEd author (or Editorial author), one or more commentators, and a special participant whose role is to ask, whenever appropriate, for speaker to move down the ladder of inference (Ross )or to reconstruct earlier steps in the O->R->I->D sequence of a Focused Conversation.
Towards the end, we’ll share our experience writing in that last participant.
Finally, Plus-Delta on the activity

Quite often we find in the comment stream for an OpEd or similar article an exchange between two people. The activity could be the same as before but the special participant would ask, whenever appropriate, for each of the people in the exchange to move down the ladder of inference or to reconstruct earlier steps in the O->R->I->D sequence. The actual OpEd would serve as an Objective reality that could be pointed to. (My sense is that these exchanges are often rehearsing positions [Is and Ds] that were already established and make little reference to the text of the OpEd. An example of such an exchange is between JHC and Socratease2 in comments on Salaita’s article about losing his professorship at U. Illinois, “Why I Was Fired,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, OCTOBER 05, 2015.)

A variant of this activity would be for the special participant to ask the discussants to simulate a focused conversation in the following way:
S.P. Can we pause for a moment? I am reading your exchange and not seeing comments that acknowledge points other than those that support your conclusion, namely, [using the Salaita article] that Salaita lost his job, respectively, justly or unjustly. Would you be willing to partake in an experiment that acknowledges a wider range of points?
Person 1: This sounds like you are on the side of Person 2 and are trying to get me to change my position.
(Simultaneously) Person 2: This sounds like you are on the side of Person 1 and are trying to get me to change my position.
(S.P., Person 1, Person 2 all laugh)
Person 1 (hesitatingly): OK.
Person 2: OK too — it might feel better than flaming someone online and being flamed back.
S.P.: Thanks. There is something called a Focused Conversation, in which a group of people are asked a series of questions. These begin with concrete things you observed and move through feelings and associations, on to interpretations and finally get to the overall implications. The idea is to avoid jumping to conclusions or holding on to preformed opinions. Instead, to stay open to forming new conclusions on the basis of hearing everyone’s responses to the earlier questions—and this includes your own responses.
But there are only two of you, not a diversity of participants, so what I am going to ask is that you follow each statement you make with a point that someone different from you might make.
For example, if you said “Salaita was not fired — his appointment had not yet received the Trustees’ approval,” you might stop to think and eventually come up with the point, “Almost all academic appointees begin their jobs before the formal approval from the Trustees,” “Trustees usually defer to the faculty and academic administration in hiring and promotion decisions,”…
The first challenge then is to create a pool of concrete points, ones that both of you could see even if you react differently to them or interpret them differently. Let’s start then….

Ross, R. (1994). “Ladder of Inference,” in P. Senge (Ed.), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, NY, Currency: 242-246.
Stanfield, B. (Ed.) (1997). The Art of Focused Conversation. Toronto: Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, 6-29, 30-48.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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