Category Archives: Lesson 4. Thinking about Art & Myths

Lesson 4: Critically Thinking about Art and Myths

Dear Students,

let’s start today’s lesson with some group work.

Artwork group exercises (A and B)


  1. Select one of your friend’s artworks

1.Tell them what you see.

2.Tell them what you think.

3.Tell them what you wonder.

Did your friends see what you saw/think what you think/wonder what you wonder?


  1. Select one of your own artworks to show to and explain to your group.
  2. Tell them what’s going on

Others in the group should then:

  1. Ask what makes them say that?

Follow up by discussing each other’s interpretation and reasoning.

Critical thinking standards and dispositions

Now, let’s look at those thinking dispositions (Ritchhart et al.,) and standards (Paul & Elder). First let’s talk about the standards a little, then we’ll talk about how they (dispositions and standards) relate to each other.


If a statement is unclear (or not clear enough), we cannot tell anything about it because we don’t yet know what it is saying. That also means we cannot determine whether it is accurate or relevant.

For example, the question What can be done about the education system in America? is unclear.

In order to adequately address the question, we would need to have a clearer understanding of what the person asking the question is considering the “problem” to be.

Discussion Question:

Let’s suppose we want to frame an essay title about American education, and we started with this unclear question:

What can be done about the education system in America?

How could we make it clear enough to form a useful essay topic?

Professors Paul and Elder came up with this clear question “What can educators do to ensure that students learn the skills and abilities which help them function successfully on the job and in their daily decision-making?”

When a question is too broad, you might do what Richard Paul and Linda Elder did with the above question. They might have used the following questions to refine the unclear question What can be done about the education system in America?

  • Could you specify the actor/s?
  • Could you limit the range of actions?
  • Could you specify the subject’s characteristics?
  • Could you refine/include a goal or purpose?

Questions that help clarify an unclear statement or question or proposition:

  • Could you elaborate further on that point?
  • Could you express that point in another way?
  • Could you give me an illustration?
  • Could you give me an example?

We can ask ourselves these kinds of questions when formulating our own points, questions, statements, arguments for essays.


A statement can be clear but not accurate, as in:

When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists … (Donald Trump, 2016)

Global warming is fake news (Donald Trump talking about climate change, 2016).

Questions that support greater accuracy include:

  • Is that really true?
  • How could we check that?
  • How could we find out if that is true (or to what extent it is true)?
  • What if the evidence is mixed? How can we represent mixed evidence in a fair/balanced way?


A statement can be both clear and accurate, but not precise, as in “Jack is overweight.”

(We don’t know how overweight Jack is, one pound or 500 pounds.)

Or, “America is an inequitable society”. We don’t know how unequal, or whether the inequality applies to particular groups, nor how inequality is being measured.

We might aid precision by asking …

  • Could you give me more details?
  • Could you be more specific?
  • Could you give some context?


A statement can be clear, accurate, and precise, but not relevant to the question at issue.

Let’s look at Professor Paul and Elders’ example:

Students often think that the amount of effort they put into a course should be used in raising their grade in a course. Often, however, “effort” does not measure the quality of student learning, and when that is so, effort is irrelevant to their appropriate grade.

Questions that help us identify what is relevant include:

  • How is that connected to the question?
  • How does that bear on the issue?


A statement can be clear, accurate, precise, and relevant, but superficial (that is, lack depth).

Let’s look at the professor’s (American) example.


The statement “Just Say No”, which is often used to discourage children and teens from using drugs, is clear, accurate, precise, and relevant. Nevertheless, it lacks depth because it treats an extremely complex issue, the pervasive problem of drug use among young people, superficially. It fails to deal with the complexities of the issue.

Questions that help us engage with matters in depth include:

  • How does your answer address the complexities in the question?
  • How are you taking into account the problems in the question?
  • Are you dealing with the most significant factors?


A line of reasoning may be clear, accurate, precise, relevant, and deep, but lack breadth (as in an argument from either an authoritarian or democratic standpoint which gets deeply into an issue, but only recognizes the insights of one side of the question).


For example:

Cantonese youth rioting about police brutality and political repression are only hurting themselves and their cause, as their vandalism and  violence upsets other citizens and their illegal actions must result in punishment.

This is what we might call a logically expressed authoritarian point of view. However, it does not engage with other perspectives (most relevantly, the democratic perspective), so it lacks breadth.

[optional: follow up reading for context]

Questions that encourage breadth include:

  • Is there another way to look at this question? Do we need to consider another point of view?
  • What would this look like from the point of view of…?


When we think, we bring a variety of thoughts together into some order.

When the combination of thoughts are mutually supporting and make sense in combination, the thinking is “logical.”

When the combination is not mutually supporting, is contradictory in some sense, or does not “make sense,” the combination is “not logical.”

Questions that support logic include:

  • Does this really make sense?
  • Does that follow from what you said?
  • How does that follow?
  • Before you implied this and now you are saying that, I don’t see how both can be true.


Significance means attending to central concerns, and not allowing ourselves to be distracted or digress, giving to much attention to peripheral issues.

For example, in a seminar we might be discussing regional inequality in China, and focus on the marginalisation of the north-east.

If I then contribute to the discussion by talking about how Beijinren think all Tianjinren are Baozi, and go onto describe how my family are really fit healthy people, I might be saying something that is accurate, but am definitely saying something that is not really significant.

In comparison, the difficulty people from Harbin experience in the job market in other first tier cities, and their lack of access to hukou would be a significant theme of discussion.

Questions that help us keep our focus on what is significant include:

  • Is this the most important problem to consider?
  • Is this the central idea to focus on? Is that focus maintained?
  • Which of these facts are most important?
  • Have we gotten to the heart of the matter?


We naturally think from our own perspective, from a point of view which tends to privilege our position.

Fairness implies the treating of all relevant viewpoints alike without reference to one’s own feelings or interests. Because we tend to be biased in favor of our own viewpoint, it is important to keep the standard of fairness at the forefront of our thinking. This is especially important when the situation may call on us to see things we don’t want to see, or give something up that we want to hold onto.

Questions that help us maintain fairness in our thinking include:

  • Are we considering all relevant viewpoints in good faith?
  • Are we distorting some information to maintain our biased perspective?
  • Are we more concerned about our vested interests than the common good?

Thinking Dispositions and Standards: how do they relate?

Which dispositions relate to which standards? Why/how?


Dispositions Standards
Observing and describing Clarity
reasoning Accuracy Precision Relevance
Questioning +investigating Depth
Comparing + Connecting Breadth
Exploring Viewpoints logic
Finding Complexity significance


Thinking about artworks (again)

Class discussion: The mythology of chairman Mao.

Zeng Fangzhi
Xie Qi

Let’s have a look at these artworks together, use it to practice the what’s routine, and see how many of the dispositions and standards we can engage in doing so.

Group discussion: In your small groups:

  1. As a group, select two artworks from your group’s images
  2. Compare and/or connect them.
  3. If asked, share them with the class and tell us about them (give us a brief critical comparison, discussion of how they connect)

A little on the reading Cal Jillson reading (The American Dream in History, Politics and Fiction, 1-8).

The American Creed is closely related to the American Dream. They are not the same thing, but are closely related. 


Readings.  Paul & Elder, 4-6, 11; Colombo et al., 652-662; Putnam, R.D. ‘The American Dream: Myths & Realities’.

While reading, apply Paul & Elder’s checklist (points 1 to 8) to your reading of Putnam’s chapter.