A Story of Issue Mapping, Critical Thinking, and Cognitive Diversity

I have a good issue mapping story to share.  It touches on critical thinking and cognitive diversity, and offers yet another view into how a class might use this tool as they engage in the inquiry process.

It’s from my 9:00 class where the topic for the Phase II inquiry-problem is “abortion”.  They picked the topic fully cognizant that it could be contentious, but only vaguely aware of its wicked nature.  Their discussion during the topic selection process was spirited, but it was clear that their frames of reference were limited.

I knew that this was a good time to co-creating an issue map, so I was pleased that it was there – for Wednesday – on their four-week timeline.

I’d introduced the concept of issue mapping the week prior, but after reading the Battersby and Bailin essay (and writing an essay arguing its main thesis) they were primed and fully invested in the need for a rigorous look at context.  (At least most of them were…I still have some who fight hard for invisibility…I’ll be you have some too!)

Given that this was their first time actually doing an issue map, I chose to take an active role in the process.  They did the work, but I stood with them (we were all at the white board) asking questions, offering suggestions, and capturing insights from their banter (insights they often missed).

While in the main I believe a flawed student-developed product is better than a perfect teacher driven product…here I found myself driving the product.  Good grief!

It was conscious decision to accept what I know is a tradeoff between a short-term product and a long-term learning opportunity.  It was a risky decision as I now have to wonder if they learned by watching (and participating) or if they merely watched.

On the other hand, letting them flounder for days just to make a point about autonomy might be counter productive.  There are other opportunities to inculcate self-sufficiency and my guess is that I can safely recuse myself in the coming days and relegate myself once again to being the annoying guy who answers everything with a question.

(It’s questions like this that Betsy Rosenblum, Siggy Nystrom, Richard Kamins, Fred Raudat and I debate endlessly when we huddle!)

Even with me at the board with them, we didn’t get very far.  They remembered a few variables from Monday (Socio-cultural, religious, political, and media) but they struggled with what to capture under each.

They started by trying to make observations about the socio-cultural, but their comments focused more on religion.  They didn’t offer any particular observation or question, rather they offered a set of vague pronouncements about religion and abortion.  I helped them turned their comments into clear observations and questions, namely:

Observation:  There are dozens of popular religions in the US.

Question:  What are their teachings on abortion?

Question:  What are the origins of their teachings?

Question:  Are some religions ‘dominated’ by men?

The last question popped up in response to some subjective indictments, some pointed “conclusions”.  I said we’d have to investigate what we meant by “dominate” as well as refrain from judging this as “in error.”

I also saw an opportunity in this and had them focus again on the social, asking, “as you look around the room, can you form some thoughts about the composition of our society?”

One student immediately saw that I mean the mix of biological sexes.  We recorded this as an observation.  A student who is a native of Korea quickly offered that in some Asian countries the ratio is less balanced.

Another than said, “and men have a different stake in this!”  Indeed they might, I countered, as we turned this into a question.

Another wondered if the different ratio in Asian societies might play a role in this…or how it created the ratio in the first place!

During the give and take, a student asked if we were engaged in inappropriate stereotyping with these observations and questions.  I said no.  Crude and polemical remarks designed to demean were clearly out of bounds (ie: “Are Catholics hateful?”) but asking question that presume a stereotype but are nonjudgmental (“Religious people see the question of when life begins differently”) or hypothesizing (ie: “Religious people object to abortion”) are prudent and rational.

Each of these statements can be turned into a question – a line of investigation – but we shouldn’t be afraid to use reasonable stereotypes when we lack information about individuals (Jussim, L., Crawford, J., & Rubinstein, R., 2015).

Than I circled the question about men in religion and men in society and drew a line between the two variables, asking, “what questions can we form here, between these two variables?”

Lightbulbs started going off as students offered a dozen or more within seconds.  We recorded some, and all at once we went from a “wicked” subject to have several lines of inquiry as our understanding of the wicked problem emerged.

While I’m on this subject, let me add that among the hardest tasks to master when constructing an issue map are that of dispassion and objectivity.  We saw this more than once during the conversation about abortion.

It’s easy to talk about critical thinking strategies, but as Willingham (2008) makes clear, knowing that we have points of view based on hidden assumptions is much easier than countering them.

It’s often the little things that surprise us the most.  I can remember listening to a story on NPR about the Army’s “Warrior Ethos.”  As a veteran who still spends a great deal of time around soldiers, I find its tenets wise and comforting.  But as this soothing NPR voice told quite a different story (and my knuckles grew white on the steering wheel) I realized it had never occurred to me that there might be another side.  In my mind the truth of it was self-evident!

But there was another side, and I listened.  I disagreed, but it taught me (again) to be on guard for confusing a values statements with an objective truth.  Or worse, seeing deviation from this truth as error (Duarte, et al, 2015).

When surrounded by people who are like us (when we lack cognitive diversity) it’s easy to fall into complacency around subjective narratives.

According to Duarte et al. (2015, p. 6) even the questions we ask reflect our worldview.

When you hear someone ask, “Why are conservatives so prejudiced and politically intolerant?” they are not asking a question.  They are making a statement masquerading as a question.

The better question might be, “Which groups are targets of prejudice and intolerance across the political spectrum, and why?”

This line of inquiry will lead to investigating many more sides of an issue than investigating a particularly viewpoint as the problem.

Our role in this process isn’t simply to help our students map a wicked problem using confirming evidence and comfortable narratives.  It’s to help them “to seek, find, and benefit from diversity of thought, experience, and opinion.”  (Yes, that’s an FYS learning objective.)



If you’re curious – my other two classes agreed to different working plans; they aren’t on the same schedule.

My 8:00 read a slate of essays from the Humanities.  Their discussion was adequate, but one could sense their, let’s say, “lack of enthusiasm.”  It was clear they were unsure about the purpose…the reason why we were asking them to read these essays.

As I noted in an earlier blog post, I needed to help them connect this work to their wicked problem.  I modified a technique introduced to my in James Lang’s book, Small Teaching, called the minute thesis.  I wrote the four disciplinary areas on the left side of the white board, the phase “wicked problem” in the center, and “Battersby and Bailin” (they also had this essay assignment) on the right.

Then I asked them them to work in groups to develop a thesis on how the three were connected (than reconcile their ideas as a class).

Adding the Battersby and Bailin piece was the key!  After some discussion, they concluded (as I hoped they would) that the readings were an essential part of developing that necessary context.

They’ll work on issue mapping later in the week.  My 11:00 is behind them both…they only just completed their 14-week plan.



Duarte, J., Crawford, J., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. (2015;2014;). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 1-54. doi:10.1017/S0140525X14000430

Jussim, L., Crawford, J. T., & Rubinstein, R. S. (2015). Stereotype (in)accuracy in perceptions of groups and individuals. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(6), 490-497. doi:10.1177/0963721415605257

Willingham, D. T. (2008). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach? Arts Education Policy Review, 109(4), 21-32. doi:10.3200/AEPR.109.4.21-32


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