The Three Cs
In assessing students for philosophical skills I generally consider
three criteria – comprehension, critical ability and creative insight.
These constitute what I characterise as the three Cs of evaluation. I
suspect my approach is applicable to most subjects in the humanities and,
to an extent, can also be extended to scientific disciplines.
Comprehension involves the ability of a student to faithfully present
an argument or a philosophical position . However, comprehension should
not be confused with regurgitation. Regurgitation reproduces without understanding
and can easily be eliminated by properly designed questions in which scope
for such imitation is disallowed. By contrast, comprehension indicates
the student’s mastery of an established body of knowledge and, being
central to the proper deployment of other skills like critical and creative
thinking, it has to be an important criterion of assessment.
Moreover, comprehension itself can be exhibited in two different ways.
Deep comprehension occurs when a student is able to focus
on the central principles of a position without conflating them with other
peripheral assumptions required to articulate a particular version of
it. Students with shallow comprehension tend to confuse
central and peripheral assumptions. Without deep comprehension a student
cannot engage in effective critical thinking because criticism tends to
focus on the limitations of auxiliary assumptions built into a particular
version of a position – assumptions which can be easily modified
or relinquished without serious threat to the position being criticised.
This brings us to the assessment of student critical skills.
Here the student is judged on the ability to identify both the scope
and the limits of the position being entertained. What is important is
not the position taken but the arguments deployed by the student. Indeed
the student may display critical skills by extending the range of application
of a given theory in new directions. Such constructive critical
thinking can occur only if the student comprehends the position
concerned with sufficient depth to separate its deep and shallow assumptions.
Critical skill can also be displayed through exposing the limits of
a position. Such deconstructive critical thinking also
requires deep comprehension. Weaker students who cannot distinguish peripheral
and central assumptions tend to criticise the former. Their overall critical
strategy often fails because the position attacked is easily defended
by amending its less central claims. By contrast, students with deep comprehension
are more likely to make adequate deconstructions. This would often motivate
them to proceed to the third stage of thinking – creative thinking.
Just as good critical skills depend on deep comprehension, so do good
creative skills depend on deconstructive critical thinking. In addition
creative thinking requires highly developed imaginative skills to generate
a new viewpoint. Since such a viewpoint often emerges through trial and
error in which different alternative positions have been tested it requires
the interplay of both imaginative and critical powers.
As with critical thinking there are two types of creativity –
combinatorial creativity and de novo
creativity. In the former students combine insights from two
different positions so as to articulate and defend a new synthetic position.
More rare is de novo creativity which occurs when a student arrives
at a completely novel, but defensible, position. Such de novo
creativity can be threatening to teachers since it may tend to subvert
their own laboriously elaborated positions. This imposes a moral burden
on teachers who are required to both welcome and reward such innovations
The tricriterial approach I have proposed assumes that thinking –
especially philosophical thinking – moves through three successive
stages. The first involves comprehension – either shallow or deep.
Deep comprehension opens the arena to constructive and deconstructive
critical thinking. Deconstructive critical thinking motivates either combinatorial
or de novo creative thinking. In evaluating students’ capacity
for philosophical thinking – and possibly thinking in general –
we should attend both to the level they have reached and the degree of
knowledge and skill they display therein.