August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Ideas at Work // 4IAW2
Point Counterpoint--A Method for Teaching Critical Thinking
Extension clientele deal with multifaceted issues and require assistance that provides multiple perspectives on these issues. In the line of "teaching them how to fish" rather than simple fact-feeding, the example of teaching critical thinking through a Point--Counterpoint technique is described. By demonstrating in classroom and written formats that there is often more than one equally correct answer to a question, the many facets of specific issues are demonstrated in an educational context.
Extension educators are challenged to help clientele grapple with multifaceted issues. Whether the problem is how to achieve maximum crop production or how to preserve foods, clientele often want a single "best" answer when there may be several answers of equal value. The obvious solution to this dilemma would be to provide multifaceted answers to complex questions and let clientele arrive at their own conclusions. However, presentations filled with conflicting information are high risk endeavors if audiences are left with a sense of confusion rather than a sense of empowerment.
Conflicting information can be presented if done within the context of helping clientele develop critical thinking skills. Jones (1992) noted that critical thinking is "an alternative to making decisions by blind acceptance, impulse or whim, tradition or habit that involves the ability to explore and imagine alternatives." "Point Counterpoint" is used by the authors as a teaching technique aimed at achieving this goal. It is loosely patterned after the old "Point Counterpoint" featured on "60 Minutes" and later lampooned on "Saturday Night Live." However, unlike the "60 Minutes" segment which generally followed a debate format, Point Counterpoint does not seek to imply a "winner" or a "loser" (i.e., a "best" answer). Rather, the goal is to present seemingly contradictory statements, which if looked at in depth might both be true (and instructive), given the proper perspective.
For example, a lawncare professional may be asked the question, "What is the most important material in your operation for control of broadleaf weeds?" The most common answer is usually some variation of a broadleaf herbicide, e.g., Trimec. However, a perfectly valid counterpoint to Trimec might be fertilizer.
A proper fertility program that results in a thick turf is essential, maybe most important, to limiting weed pressure by out competing invading weeds. To counter once more, perhaps a properly used mower is most important--mow too low and turf is stressed, making it less competitive with invading weeds. Highlighting the multiple facets of almost any issue lends itself to paradigm-pondering at the very least, and potentially to paradigm shift and true practice changes.
Point Counterpoint was used with two groups: a Turfgrass Management class of 18 students at the University of Cincinnati and an Ohio State University Master Gardener class of 36 where the subject was "Diagnosing Plant Problems." In the interest of promoting student involvement, Point Counterpoint was conducted without giving either class prior knowledge of the technique.
The classroom format involved introducing a guest speaker (one of the authors) who pursued an overall topic using a pre-quiz of questions which (as in the above example) fit in the "multifaceted answers" category. Following a prearranged "script", the other author asked to be recognized and then made the counterpoint(s). Both authors then pursued the various angles to the question. More importantly, students were allowed (and encouraged) to participate. The conclusion to each class involved letting the students know that the exercises were pre-arranged and then spending time carefully examining each question in order to emphasize various critical thinking strategies.
Based upon evaluations, both exercises appeared successful. On a 1-5 scale (5 being highest), the statement: "This form of teaching was very effective in presenting multifaceted issues," scored an average of 4.6 with the university class and 4.4 with the Master Gardeners. The statement: "This exercise was thought provoking," scored an average of 4.5 and 4.9 with the university class and the Master Gardeners, respectively.
Comments made on the evaluations were of equal interest. For example, from the Master Gardeners: "Stimulating, very well done... as a psychologist who does diagnostic work with client psychological-social problems, I know how important these concepts are..." and "...leads to more active participation." From the university class, "Great! The best way to understand pesticide problems and issues."
Success of Point Counterpoint in the classroom caused the authors to develop a modified version for a monthly column titled, "Point Counter Point" which appears in an industry association trade journal (Chatfield & Boggs, 1994). The column has evolved from a format where each author made either a Point or a Counter Point and then both collaborate on an "End Point" to where the point-counterpoints are presented as an on-going discussion, much like the classroom format.
Topics for the monthly Point Counterpoint columns have ranged from, "Computers and the Green Industry" in which the pros and cons of the technology were considered to "Who Do You Work For" where the organizational structure of Extension was described. The authors regularly receive positive comments from readers about the column.
Point Counterpoint, both in the classroom and the written form, embraces many of the points outlined by Jones (1992) relative to fostering critical thinking through creating certain learning environments, including encouraging learners to question assumptions and placing value on creative problem-solving strategies rather than on conformity to 'right' answers. Point Counterpoint also creates a highly interactive learning environment. These features are central to productive Extension teaching and the development of critical thinking by our audiences.
Jones, J. M. (1992). Teaching clientele what or how to think: Strategies to foster critical thinking in clientele. Journal of Extension, 30(Spring).
Chatfield, J. A., & Boggs, J. F. (1994). Computers and the green industry. Buckeye (The Official Publication of the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association), 94-2, p. 15.