A rational thinking curriculum / syllabus

4 Dec
I presented my work at a recent university conference, and it led me to think about how what I do could be developed. I’m a psychologist, and teach psychology students but the more I think about it the more it seems that what I do has a broader relevance. There is a long tradition in British higher education of the generic nature of graduate skills. One of my favourite quotations about the nature of graduates comes from one of John Henry Newman’s lectures in 1852, where he suggested ‘to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant’ were the key characteristics of graduates. One hundred and forty years later Newman’s quotation crops up in another attempt to define ‘graduateness’ in the HEQC’s 1985 paper ’Clarifying The Attributes Of ‘Graduateness

I’ve written elsewhere about my dislike of the traditional critical thinking literature, and thus I’m not convinced that it has much to contribute trying to contruct a rational thinking curriculum. However, psychology’s own empirical literature does offer a number of areas that can offer a start. At the end of his book ‘What is Intelligence ?’, that offers an explanation of the strange phenomena of ever-increasing IQ scores, the brilliant Jim Flynn proposes a list of ten concepts that might result in continuation of IQ growth:

1) Market forces

2) Percentages

3) Natural Selection

4) Control Groups

5) Random Samples

6) Naturalistic fallacy

7) Charisma effect

8) Placebo

9) Falsifiability

10) Tolerance school fallacy

I would add to additional concepts of my own to Jim Flynn’s list :

11) The importance of historical context

12) Heuristics and biases

I’d suggest that you can group these items into three broad areas:

1) The scientific method (4,5,8 & 9)

2) Useful concepts (1,2,3,11 & 12)

3) The structure of logical arguments (6 & 10)

As my rational thinking course has evolved over the last five years I’ve covered many of these concepts, but given that I’ve always taught psychology students I’ve tailored the examples I’ve used towards psychology. However, I’m now thinking that it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to recast those examples to appeal to a generic student audience and the address the basic curriculum I’ve outlined above. Over the next few months I’m going to try to put together generic examples that fit into the framework I’ve detailed above. I’ll post the examples here as I progress.


7 Responses to “A rational thinking curriculum / syllabus”


  1. My rational thinking books of the year (Part 1) « Teaching Rational Thinking - December 30, 2012

    […] Daniel Kahneman is one of the world’s most influential psychologists, who has led research on how we think for nearly forty year. In addition he won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics. ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow” is an accessible summation of the literature on thinking that was spawned by Tversky & Kahneman’s seminal 1974 paper ‘Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases ‘. If you’re interested in teaching rational thinking you really should know about Kahneman’s work, and this book provides a great introduction that doesn’t require any background knowledge of psychology. For me, it provides the material for one of the components of my rational thinking curriculum. […]

  2. Butter is good for your heart !! « Teaching Rational Thinking - February 10, 2013

    […] this story is a lovely example of one of the key points of the rational thinking curriculum/syllabus that I’m trying to assemble. It you read through the reader comments attached to this story you can see the Naturalistic […]

  3. More questionable penis research « Teaching Rational Thinking - February 18, 2013

    […] All in all these ‘penis’ studies look like a really good way to engage students with a couple of components of my rational thinking curriculum / syllabus […]

  4. Assessing rational thinking (How should I do it ?) | Teaching Rational Thinking - August 8, 2013

    […] undergraduate programme, my mind has moved to thinking about how rational thinking can be assessed. I’ve written elsewhere about developing a rational thinking curriculum/syllabus, and the obvious corollary of this is the necessity for a measure to determine whether my teaching […]

  5. Is democracy overrated ?? | Teaching Rational Thinking - August 12, 2013

    […] I’ve just finished reading a fascinating article on the BBC website entitled ‘Is democracy overrated?’, and it seems like excellent source material for the Importance of historical context’ thread of my rational thinking syllabus. […]

  6. What do I need to add to my rational thinking course ? | Teaching Rational Thinking - October 13, 2013

    […] semester to being taught across a whole year, i.e. The amount of teaching time I have will double. I’ve written before about my ideas for a rational thinking syllabus, but a doubling of the length of the course means that I’m going to need additional […]

  7. The start of a new year, and my mind turns to economics (in praise of @TimHarford) | Teaching Rational Thinking - September 17, 2014

    […] for the first time, however the thing that is really interesting me at the moment is economics. One of my great thinking heros, Jim Flynn, has written about the laws of  ‘supply and demand’ being one of the key ideas that […]

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