The Role of Critical Thinking in Giving

April 30, 2020
Leadership studies students apply a critical-thinking lens to charitable giving

At times the virtual debate grew heated, even messy. Students with strongly held opinions made impassioned arguments and counter-arguments about which charity should be awarded their $250 class donation.

As part of Dr. Kristin Bezio's course Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry, the students participated in Giving Games, educational activities designed to introduce participants to effective giving. Students argued for donating to nonprofits dedicated to health care, girls’ empowerment, legal justice reform, veterans’ well-being, and the environment.

In the end, both class sections chose to donate their respective $250 stashes to GiveDirectly and Direct Relief, two nonprofits currently helping people affected by COVID-19.

“The goal of the Critical Thinking course is to introduce students to methods of research inquiry and develop their analytical and evaluative skills,” explained Bezio, an associate professor at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. “Leaders use these critical-thinking skills to assess information about topics, and in situations, they know little about, enabling them to make good judgments.”

To help her students develop these skills, she asked them to evaluate information and locate bias, including their own, she said. They analyzed arguments, anticipated counterarguments, and constructed their own well-researched arguments.

“We spent a good amount of time on argument mapping,” said Sophia McWilliams, ’22. “I found myself constantly examining my claims and arguments to ensure they were formatted properly and supported. I grew more confident in effectively and persuasively backing up my claims with evidence.”

Once the students were familiar with how to construct and deconstruct arguments, Bezio had them apply what they were learning by engaging in Giving Games, she said.

She divided students into groups of three (or in one case, two) charged with researching and conducting data and ethical analyses of their favorite nonprofit. Then each group presented its argument (virtually, this semester) for why the class should choose its charity as the recipient of the $250 class donation—money Bezio obtained through a grant.

Groups offered rebuttals to their classmates’ arguments. Finally, students voted online to select a charity to receive each class’s donation.

“Charities are a good way to get at the tension between emotional and evidence-based reasons to give,” Bezio said. “Most people donate to a charity because they have a personal connection to it. I don’t tell my students that’s bad, but I ask them to evaluate their decision to give to a charity.”

Allowing students to choose the charities they research and argue for incentivizes the Giving Games, Bezio said. “There’s a reason they need to do a good job—it’s not just about a grade, it’s about giving money to a charity you care about. Aside from the class donation, some students make personal donations to the charity of their choice.”

“We unpacked each charity’s financial records, leadership, ethics, and effectiveness,” said McWilliams. “After reading each group’s charity proposal, our class had a better understanding about what constitutes a good charity and where our class donation could make the greatest impact.”

“There was an intense ethical debate about which cause is most important and why we should give money to charities that aren’t addressing COVID-19,” Bezio said. “We discussed system thinking, the idea that donating to COVID-19-related charities considers only the short term.

“While my students understood the long-term goals of saving the planet or addressing social injustices, in the end they believed we needed to focus on short-term triage to be sure we humans are around long enough to work on the other issues.”