The School for Ethics and Global Leadership

Fall 2019, Week One: Critical Thinking

Date: Sep 1nd, 2019

In our first week we replaced conventional classes with a series of learning adventures.  These adventures encouraged students to focus on critical thinking skills that will serve them at SEGL and beyond. 

SEGL’s basic critical thinking framework is SEE – THINK – ACT – REFLECT.  This four-step process helps students evaluate information and choices in our “fake news,” “snap judgments” era.  We’ll let the students explain each step in detail, but we spent most of this week learning how to see: Through which filters do we see the world, and how do those filters affect how we gather information?  How do we gather information as objectively as possible, without jumping to conclusions?

We began the week with some ethical groundwork: The Infamous Skittles Scenario is the first stage of our “Introduction to Ethical Decision Making” case study (and an early SEGL rite-of-passage!).  The interactive state-of-nature simulation has students chasing after plastic bags of candy and shouting with delight or dismay at 3×5 “Chance” cards.  (What would you do if there were no rules and limited resources?  Would you use that gun you found?  Help out a suddenly-blind friend?  Lie?  Join a makeshift band of marauders?  Form a “collective” that might turn sour if resources are light?)  The conversation that followed was both reflective and energetic.

We then gave the students an introduction to classic Western ethical theory–Aristotle, Kant, and John Stuart Mill–a 30-minute lecture that provides important tools for future ethical decision making.  (If you would like to see a seven-minute video of this lecture that was made for our online class several years ago, click here.)  We also discussed Carol Gilligan’s feminist critique of moral development theory, <em>In A Different Voice</em>, and promised introductions to other ethicists as the semester continues.

After lunch we trekked to Lincoln Park (a few blocks from our residence) where we gathered around a sculpture in the park’s center.  Should it stay?  Be destroyed?  Move to another location?  Add an explanatory plaque?  The session was a fascinating hands-on critical thinking experience, full of twists and turns as students dug beyond their first impressions.  (To read Frederick Douglass’s dedication of the monument–itself a model of critical thinking–click here.  You can read a longer blog post about this exercise by SEGL faculty member Lizzy Kildahl here.)

On Tuesday, we walked to the world-famous Phillips Collection for a remarkable morning: putting our “STAR” model to work in front of classic and contemporary art.  The museum is currently hosting “The Warmth of Other Suns,” a dynamic and poignant exploration of global displacement.  The exhibition forced students to confront difficult personal, political, and ethical questions, and inspired countless discussions.  In the afternoon, we introduced “dialogical thinking,” a concept championed by Richard Paul from the Foundation for Critical Thinking.

On Wednesday, we turned our focus to the media.  Our introduction helped students understand the challenge of modern news production and consumption: after asking each student to write down the news sources she or he used most, we asked all students to arrange those sources on a matrix.  On the “x axis” of that matrix was the liberal-conservative spectrum; on the y-axis how reliable each source was.  The results were fascinating and showed both assumptions and blind spots in our group’s favorite news sources (the most popular quadrant was “liberal and reliable”–but can news be both politically biased and trustworthy?); it also helped create many questions for our guest experts.

We then jumped into three rotating discussion groups, each addressing a different aspect of media literacy.  At one station, students watched raw footage clips of Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke, then imagined how “liberal” and “conservative” news organizations might spin those moments.  Later, they saw actual coverage.  At another station students reviewed coverage of Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s recent “white supremacy is a hoax” moment, then watched the full monologue from Carlson’s show.  Was the media coverage fair, or was something lost in a rush to judgement?  At the final station students reevaluated a peer’s recent Morning Meeting announcement about recycling.  (The student suggested that plastic bottle caps cannot be recycled; this isn’t true in DC but all the students accepted the faulty advice.)  What causes us to trust news that might actually be false?  How can we detect and evaluate such news?

In the afternoon, we discussed our summer reading: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  The book brings together many elements from our first week, and prompted rich and reflective conversation.

On Thursday we put our students’ critical thinking skills to the test: a day-long journalism simulation.  In groups of four, the students traversed the National Gallery of Art, imagining it was a Central Asian autocracy with a breakaway rebel province.  Our faculty played various key leaders in what turned out to be a dramatic series of events.  The catch?  Through shrewd observation, questioning, and research, our students had to figure out which (if any) of the leaders to believe.  What was really going on?  The day culminated in three-minute on-the-scene video presentations in which each group decided what to share, and how.  (What was the truth?  You’ll have to ask a student!)

All of this is preparation for an exciting slate of journalists we will visit with over the next four months.  We hope these visits, sprinkled throughout the semester, will help them keep their critical thinking skills honed and close at hand.  (Our first guest is three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt, who joins us next week!)

On Friday we discussed the latest brain science research about learning, and the students buzzed in rotating discussion groups about listening to music while studying, “iDisorders,” and the dangers of the “fixed intelligence mindset.”  Then Saturday morning brought our first “Saturday Academy” (a twice-monthly visit to a noted DC landmark): a trip to the Newseum, where students saw pieces of the Berlin Wall and World Trade Center, the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photo exhibit, and countless other artifacts.  (The Newseum itself was recently in the news for its own ethical decision making!)

This week brings our first set of traditional classes and our case study on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  More soon!