Presidential Election 2008: Thinking Critically About a Choice for President

February 27, 2008

The believing game and the doubting game can help students go beyond debate to dialogue and analysis when considering the 2008 presidential candidates.

Teachers often engage students in thinking critically about an election by organizing them to debate about it. The candidates themselves engage in debates, and so do many ordinary Americans, at least informally. But consider the contrast between debate and dialogue.

In debate, one commonly aims to:

  • look for flaws and weaknesses in an opponent's argument
  • oversimplify positions and issues
  • affirm a point of view to the exclusion of others
  • encourage polarization
  • win

In dialogue, one aims to:

  • look for strengths and worthwhile ideas in the other person's argument
  • complicate positions and issues
  • enlarge and possibly change a point of view
  • encourage depolarization
  • seek common ground

The intellectual tradition of critical thinking has a long history. Peter Elbow calls it "methodological doubt"—that is, "the systematic, disciplined, and conscious attempt
to criticize everything no matter how compelling it might seem to find flaws or contradictions we might otherwise miss." More familiarly, he calls this "the doubting game."

Elbow holds that, despite its virtues, this tradition is limited and fails to recognize that "the truth is often complex and that different people often catch different aspects of it."

To complement methodological doubt, Elbow proposes "methodological belief," that is, "the equally systematic, disciplined, and conscious attempt to believe everything, no matter how unlikely or repellent it may seem, to find virtues or strengths we might otherwise miss." He calls this "the believing game."

Together, Elbow proposes, the doubting game and the believing game can help us to avoid rushing to judgment without sacrificing the need for rigorous thinking. He developed the believing game as a university writing teacher who became concerned about students' behavior during small group discussions of other students' papers. He noticed that they almost always emphasized the negative. Students looked for everything that seemed wrong about the paper and ignored anything that might seem right or at least be open to question and dialogue.

Elbow's believing game aims to develop an understanding that "the truth" may better be worded "truths" and that different people may have little pieces of it. The doubting game aims to develop the ability to ask and to answer good questions, for without them, a good inquiry is unlikely. And after engaging in these two games, integrating one's experience can lead to better thinking and understanding, even to wisdom. ("Methodological Doubting and Believing: Contraries in Inquiry," Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching , Oxford University Press, 1986)

Below are descriptions of processes to introduce students to the believing game, the doubting game, and an integration of the two processes through thinking about and examining one's thinking about a presidential choice.

The Elbow approach does not necessarily aim to change that choice. But it might be worth trying at a time of strident, clamorous voices, a time also when many Americans hunger for less partisanship, softer voices, more listening, and more reaching for common ground.

Note: Some of the explanation of methodological belief and methodological doubt described below is quoted from the lesson on "Teaching Critical Thinking." Teachers may find in this lesson and "Thinking Is Questioning," useful additional exercises to help students ask and analyze questions.

1. A writing assignment

This assignment assumes that the class has participated in discussions about the presidential candidates and their positions on some issues. It's up to the teacher to decide whether or not to allow students to bring notes from their reference sources to class when they write their papers.

Tell students:

We have discussed the presidential candidates and considered some of their views on issues and problems the country faces.

You have a choice of one of the following assignments:

a) Write a well-developed paper in class three days from now in which you name the candidate of your choice and offer supporting evidence and reasoning for that choice.

b) Write a well-developed paper in class three days from now in which you discuss your decision not to make a presidential choice right now and offer supporting evidence and reasoning for your decision.

During your three days of preparation you are free to consult any sources you care to—websites, newspapers, magazines, TV—to help you think through your decision.


2. Small group discussion:

The believing game

Once students have written their papers, engage them in small-group discussion about them. Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Each student is to read his or her paper to the group. After all papers have been read, students are to choose the paper they regard as the best based on the effectiveness of its supporting evidence and reasoning.

Tell students:

1. You have probably noticed that when we consider controversial issues like universal healthcare or when we talk with friends or family about a choice of a presidential candidate, what starts as a discussion can quickly become a debate. In a debate we tend to listen to someone else's argument mainly to find flaws, to interrupt with a counter-argument, to be more interested in proving ourselves right and to win the argument than in listening carefully and considering seriously another's opinion.

2. A useful way of entering into critical thinking about a controversial issue or, in this case, a decision to support or not to support a presidential candidate, is to approach it from three perspectives.

3. Today we're going to work on the first of these perspectives, which will probably be unfamiliar to you. It is called "the believing game." We'll begin by forming groups of four to six students, preferably different from the groups we had the other day.

4. Now I am going to read to you one of the papers selected as best in your group session the other day. Listen carefully. As you listen, work at believing as much of what you hear as you can, even if your choice is a different one. Try to stop yourself from arguing mentally with views different from your own. Ask yourself: What does the writer see about the candidate that I don't? What reasons for his or her choice can I agree with, even if only in part?

5. (After you've read the paper to the class): In your groups, discuss what you have heard by making only comments that support the writer's opinion. You are not pretending or role-playing. You are responding honestly to the arguments that you can really connect with. Ask yourself: What does the writer say that I hadn't thought about before? What makes some kind of sense? In what possible way might a point made by the writer be something I can agree with, at least in part? Do not challenge anything in the paper, and to not make any negative statements about it. Work at it.

The teacher's role during this group session is first to circulate from group to group and to remind students who are challenging the paper or making negative statements that they need to focus only on the positive.

After five minutes or so, students may have run out of things to say, especially if this is the first time they are playing the believing game.

Now ask students in each group to try to formulate questions in the believing mode. These questions must aim at clarification or invite fuller understanding. Some students in the group might be able to answer a question, such as: "I don't understand why the writer thinks that giving undocumented immigrants a chance to become American citizens makes sense. Can someone explain the logic of his argument?" Or: "It might help me to believe that universal health insurance is a good idea if I had an example of how it might work. Does anyone have one?" Negatively-phrased questions are unacceptable. For example: "Isn't the writer just offering undocumented immigrants amnesty?" "The writer is living in a dream world. "What makes the writer think that a government-run plan is going to work?"

Conclude the session by reconvening the whole class. Give students a chance to discuss their experience with the believing game. How much success did they have in believing? What problems did they encounter? How did they deal with them? How did they feel during the process? What did they notice about other students' statements and behavior? Did playing the believing game make any difference in their thinking? Why or why not?

3.  The doubting game

The doubting game is more familiar to students, though perhaps not in the form described here. Played rigorously, it demands that students formulate questions and analyze each question for:

  • clarity
  • answerability
  • words requiring definition
  • assumptions, especially unwarranted assumptions
  • what type of answer it calls for (yes/no, strictly factual, opinion)
  • its potential usefulness in further inquiry

Begin this class session by rereading the same paper read at the previous session and inviting students, as they listen, to bring to bear their skepticism, their logic, their reasoning ability. Afterwards, invite them to ask questions whose purpose is to probe the view expressed, to subject it to close analysis.

As students ask questions, list them on the chalkboard without comment. After a dozen or so have been asked, begin the analysis. Ask students to examine the questions slowly and carefully. You might begin by asking if there is a particularly good question on the board—"good," in this context, meaning a question that, if answered well, would test the reasoning, the logic, the accuracy or truth of something in the paper. Continue with such questions as:

  • Is any question unclear? If so, how might it be reworded?
  • Is any question unanswerable as it now stands? If so, why? Can it be reworded? How?
  • If a question requires a factual answer, what might be sources for the facts?
  • How would you determine the reliability of each source?
  • If a question requires someone's opinion, whose opinion? Yours? An expert's?
  • What makes a person on expert on this subject?

The object is to arrive at a list of questions whose answers would subject the paper to a demanding, but fair, analysis. You might choose at this point to have students seek answers through independent or small-group investigation. If so, they'll need time to pursue their investigation and report their results back to the class.

Conclude the session by inviting students to discuss their experience with the doubting game. How useful is it as an approach to thinking critically? What problems did they experience? How did they deal with them? What did they notice about other students' statements and behavior? Did playing the doubting game make any difference in their thinking? Why or why not?


4. Integrating your thinking

After students have engaged in believing, doubting and analyzing, and perhaps investigating, they can work on integrating their thinking. Small-group discussions and self-analytical papers addressing additional questions can be useful to both student and teacher.

Distribute copies of the paper used for the believing and doubting games. Ask students to study it. Then discuss such questions as:

1. Do you feel and/or think at all differently than you did when you first heard this paper read? If so, how and why? If not, why not? Do you find any common ground that you did not find earlier? If so, how would you express it? If not, why not? How would you evaluate your overall experience with believing and doubting?

2. Can you think of any examples from political history that demonstrate the complexity of truth? (How about President Lincoln's second inaugural?) Can you think of political events that demonstrate the dangers of being absolutely certain that one is right? (How about male resistance to the feminist movement to win the right to vote?) Can you think of any examples from the current political news? And can you think of any examples from your own personal experience that demonstrate how complex "the truth" is? As Elbow writes, there is a "likelihood of getting things wrong if we succumb to the hunger for certainty."

5. Reexamine

Ask students to reexamine the paper in which they discussed their choice for president or decision not to make a choice. Ask them to rewrite this paper after thinking about their experience in the believing game, the doubting game, and integrating thinking.



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: