013 - Avatars for Critical Thinking: Brainstorming the Argument Ninja Academy

In this episode I talk about how the program I'm developing for the Argument Ninja Academy will differ from the Critical Thinker Academy, and outline my instructional design goals for the new program.

I also describe the kinds of personality types, or "avatars", that are most strongly attracted to this kind of material.

I've named these avatars the Scientist, the Philosopher, the Persuader, the Analyst, and the Butterfly. Do you see yourself in any of these descriptions? Let me know!

In This Episode:

  • The difference between what I'm currently offering at the Critical Thinker Academy and what I plan to offer at the Argument Ninja Academy
  • Brainstorming the design of an online teaching and learning experience
  • My objectives for the Argument Ninja program
    • solving the central problem that plagues critical thinking education today
    • providing a resource for critical thinking educators
    • support for professional training as well as independent consumer training
    • adaptive learning
    • gamification and progression feeatures modeled on martial arts progression
  • Five personality types -- "avatars" -- that are attracted to the material at the Critical Thinker Academy, and who I will serve in the new Argument Ninja Academy
    • (1) the Scientist
    • (2) the Philosopher
    • (3) the Persuader
    • (4) the Analyst
    • (5) the Butterfly


" When I’m designing this Argument Ninja Academy program, I need to keep in mind the transformation that users will be looking to get out of it. No one will sign up just to learn the definition of a valid argument, or just to learn about cognitive biases and the science of persuasion. What people will sign up for are the benefits and the transformation that learning this will enable for them." "In the martial arts, belt rankings and belt testing are more than just motivational tools. They’re also a means of maintaining the identity of the school, the martial arts tradition of that school, whether it be WTF taekwondo or IJF judo or Gracie jiu-jitsu, or Shotokan karate, because the belt requirements encode the techniques and the philosophy that are particular to that school. This kind of encoding is important for me too, because there is a core curriculum that I want to implement, and that curriculum is essential to the identity of the Argument Ninja Academy program. It’s what will distinguish it from other critical thinking and persuasion programs."

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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 013.

Hi everyone. This is Kevin deLaplante. I’m the host of this podcast, and the creator of the Critical Thinker Academy, which is an educational website that hosts about 20 hours of video courses on a wide range of topics related to critical thinking. You can go to criticalthinkeracademy.com right now and click on the Support tab in the navigation menu to learn how you can become a Sustaining Member and get access to all of this content for as little as $3 a month.

Now, about these courses that I host at the Critical Thinker Academy. The feedback that I receive about these courses is almost uniformly positive. They’re well organized, they’re well taught, they make clear what can often be confusing …. That’s what people tell me, and I think that’s all true.

However, it’s one thing to make this kind of content accessible and available to a wide audience. It’s quite another thing to present it in an environment where people are actually expected to learn and master a set of skills that applies this content.

That’s always been the component that’s missing in the Critical Thinker Academy. And it’s not because I’m not interested in this.

As a teacher I know very well the difference between the curriculum of a course, which is about the sequence of topics that is going to be taught in the course; and the goals and learning objectives of a course — what skills I want students to be able to demonstrate after having completed the course.

You have to think about teaching differently if learning and skill development are your objectives, rather than just explaining concepts.

The problem is that if you’re like me, just one person working alone, online, with limited time and resources, it’s much harder to set up an environment that really supports learning and skill development.

And when I started creating tutorial videos I wasn’t thinking along these lines at all. I was still a university classroom teacher. I was seeing students face-to-face two or three times a week. I thought of the videos as lecture content that my students could access outside of class time, so that we could focus more time in the classroom on discussion and learning activities. I never intended the video lectures to substitute for a real learning environment, or a real teaching experience.

And for all these reasons, I still don’t describe what I’m currently offering at the Critical Thinker Academy as “teaching”.

What I’m offering there, essentially, is access to a multimedia textbook — a resource for self-directed learning.

When a visitor — let’s call her Mary — signs up at the Academy, what she’s paying for is access to this multimedia textbook.

I know it’s a unique resource, it’s a valuable resource. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else on the web.

But it would be a mistake to think that, just because Mary now has access to this resource that I’ve created, Mary has become my student.

I could buy Richard Dawkins’ latest book on evolutionary theory on Amazon, and I could learn a lot from it. But just doing that wouldn’t make me his student, would it? And it wouldn’t make Richard Dawkins my teacher.

I could buy the DVD set of the Cosmos miniseries, hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, and watch all the episodes. But I wouldn’t tell people, “oh yeah, I’m studying with Neil Degrasse Tyson. He’s my teacher”.

That’s not what a teacher-student relationship looks like.

In a teacher-student relationship, the teacher is committing to actively helping the student progress toward and achieve certain learning outcomes. That implies some degree of interaction and feedback between the teacher and the student.

And ideally, the student also feels a commitment to respect this relationship, and put in the time and effort needed to achieve their goals.

In a real teaching environment, like a university course, I wouldn’t just lecture. I would facilitate discussion, answer questions, assign homework and exercises, work with students on larger projects, and evaluate and give feedback on their performance over the duration of the course.

When I taught swimming in my teens and twenties, it was the same thing, but instead I was helping students learn how to swim, how to perform different strokes, how to be safe in the water, how to help people who are drowning or in trouble, and so on. Lots of feedback, lots of evaluation, lots of opportunity to practice.

If you take music lessons from a guitar teacher or a piano teacher, it’s same thing.

If you study martial arts at a martial arts studio, it’s the same thing.

That’s teaching.

What it means to be a student is to be a participant in that kind of teaching.

And that’s clearly not what I’m offering at the Critical Thinker Academy, right now. Not yet, at least.

Now, how does this relate to the Argument Ninja training program that I’ve been talking about over the last few episodes?

In a nutshell, what I want to do with the Argument Ninja Academy program, or whatever it ends up being called, is transition to something that is closer to a genuine teaching and learning environment.

In this episode I want to take a few more steps down the path to making this a reality, by sharing my thoughts on how I’m thinking about this program, how I would like to see the program organized, and how that feeds into the process of instructional design, how you actually design the environment that will support the learning objectives of the program.

So, in this first half of the episode I’m going to talk about my goals for the Argument Ninja Academy and the kind of user experience that I’m aiming for, and this will help to define a set of features that I want the platform to have.

In the second half I’m going to talk about the kinds of personal transformations that I would like the Argument Ninja Academy to enable or facilitate. And this will also feed back into how I structure the curriculum.

When I talk about personal transformations, I’m thinking about different types of ideal users, and what those users hope and expect to get out of the program. I call these ideal users “avatars”, which is a usage that I’m borrowing from business and marketing.

In this episode I’m going to run through five different avatars that I know from personal experience have a strong resonance with the concepts and the skills and the objectives the Critical Thinker Academy, and this podcast, and the Argument Ninja program that I’ll be developing.

I call these the Scientist, the Philosopher, the Persuader, the Analyst, and the Butterfly.I guarantee that most of you, listening to this, will resonate with one or more of these avatar descriptions. They will speak to you. If they do, you’ll know that you’re a good candidate for the Argument Ninja Academy.

Instructional Design Goals

But before we get to that, let’s talk about instructional design for critical thinking.

In any kind of design, you need to have an idea of what you want the design to achieve.

In instructional design, where you’re designing a learning environment and an educational experience, you need to be clear on what your ultimate objectives are, what the transformation is that you want your students to experience as they move through the program.

Once that’s clear, then you can start to work backwards and think about what conditions need to be met for this transformation to occur, what resources are required to enable these conditions, and so on. A first draft of the architecture of the program will emerge as you work backwards in this way.

Solving the Central Problem that Plagues Critical Thinking Education

Let’s start with my goals for this program.

My first goal is to create a critical thinking program that actually addresses, together, in one place, the two most important components of critical thinking.

The first component is principles of logic and argumentation that are the foundation of genuinely good reasoning.

The second component is principles of influence and persuasion that are grounded in our human nature, the very same human nature that makes us systematically prone to errors in how we form beliefs and make decisions.

The basic problem with the way critical thinking is taught in college and university courses — the ones that I used to teach as a philosophy professor —is that the textbooks and the teachers spend most of their time on the first component and very little if any time on the second component.

Consequently, students can finish a critical thinking course and still be oblivious to the many cognitive biases that undermine the quality of their thinking, and still be completely unprepared for how to critically engage with conversations going on in the world outside the classroom, where most people are, to put it mildly, not naturally disposed to respect the rules of rational argumentation.

On the other hand, the problem with programs that focus exclusively on persuasion and the psychology of influence is that you can finish such a program and still have no clue what the difference is between a good argument and a bad argument; and worse, you may come to believe that the difference is irrelevant — good reasoning doesn’t matter, truth and falsity don’t matter, because when it comes to persuasion, all that matters is how effective you are at getting people to believe what you want them to believe and do what you want them to do.

But that’s not critical thinking. That doesn’t help you improve the quality of your own reasoning. That doesn’t help you make up your own mind on real issues that matter to people.

Critical thinking needs both of these components. We need to understand BOTH how we ought to reason, AND how we in fact reason, so we can recognize errors when they occur, and have some strategy in place for reducing or mitigating these errors.

So, my first goal is to create a program where these two components form the core of the curriculum and are taught side-by-side.

Think of them as the trunks of two trees that are pressed together, that wrap around each other as they grow together. Higher up the tree you’ll see these intertwined trunks branch off in different directions — these are applications, or special topics, in critical thinking and persuasion. But you need to work through the core concepts first before you can really appreciate what’s going in these higher branches.

Yin and Yang

When I think about the relationship between these two components, the two trunks of this entwined tree, I’m drawn to another symbol from Chinese philosophy: the yin-yang symbol. You know the symbol. It’s a circle with a diameter that is drawn as an S-curve that separates a light side from a dark side. Yin is the dark side, the shady side. Yang is the light side, the sunny side. But inside the light side there’s a dark circle, and inside the dark side there’s a light circle. Light interpenetrates the dark; dark interpenetrates the light.

The symbol is used to represent how, in the natural world, seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent.How in fact they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.

This is how I think of the relationship between reason and argumentation as tools for persuasion and influence — the dark side; and reason and argumentation as tools for inquiry, the search for truth and wisdom — the light side.

On the surface they appear to be in conflict. There are so many ways that persuasion can be used to undermine reason. This is in many respects the dominant view in Western science and philosophy, that for reason to be a guide to truth and wisdom it needs to be purified, purged of the corrupting influence of rhetoric and persuasion.

This is the view that I’m pushing back on, but I acknowledge the concern and I honor the sentiment behind it.

The alternative view, the one that I’m describing as a yin-yang view, is hard to describe, analytically. I’m sure that as a philosophical project I’ll be working on this for years. But for purposes of teaching, the yin-yang metaphor will do just fine.

My belief is that as you work your way up the tree, with one foot on each stalk, you’ll come to see it this way too. It’ll be obvious to you, that there’s no way to craft a rational argument without simultaneously making choices about rhetorical form and persuasive strategy. And there’s no way to engage in ethical persuasion, at least, without engaging your rational faculties.

So, just to sum up: one of my objectives is to create a critical thinking program that is organized around this complementary duality between reason and persuasion.This fixes a problem that plagues critical thinking education right now, and it provides a foundation for a very wide range of applications.

Training the Trainers

Let’s move on to a second objective that I have with this program.

One of the reasons I’m interested in a program like this is that it would serve as a good training resource for people who are themselves critical thinking educators, or want to serve in this capacity in some way.

I got an email a short while ago from a gentleman in Florida who works with a number of humanist and rationalist organizations in the region, and he asked if I had any plans to teach a course on how to teach critical thinking, something aimed at people like him who are committed to critical thinking and science-based education and have assumed a leadership role in organizing events and meet-ups in their communities.

And I said yes, I certainly have thought about this. But I don’t really know how to design such a course without presenting the foundations of critical thinking as I see it, so my answer is I would like the program that we’re talking about here, the Argument Ninja Academy program, to serve as such a foundation.

And again, I have a martial arts analogy in mind. Yes, anyone can put up a shingle and offer martial arts classes, but in most cases what you expect is that anyone in a leadership position in a martial arts studio has already worked through the program and demonstrated a certain level of proficiency in the skills and concepts themselves.

So you expect to see black belts teaching most of the classes, and senior black belts teaching the black belt classes.

I would say, if you want to be a critical thinking educator, and you’re attracted to the way that I present things, the first step would be to become a student in the program and work your way through it.

In fact, this is how I expect to find people to help me administer and expand the program. Initially I’m sure I’ll need to hit up people from outside who I know would be good, but eventually there’ll be a cohort of students who have reached a certain level in the program, and who have an interest and an aptitude for teaching or mentoring, that will be in a position to take on leadership roles, like moderating forums, or helping me design new exercises for training modules. Or become instructors who develop their own special topic branches for the program.

Like, for example, let’s say there’s a physicist out there, or a philosopher of physics, who wants to produce a module on critical thinking about quantum mechanics, which would focus on ways that quantum theory is used and abused by charlatans and pseudoscientists.

Or there’s an expert on statistics who wants to develop a module on critical thinking about statistics, and how statistics can be used and misused as a tool of persuasion.

Or, maybe there’s someone who is trained in social psychology and wants to develop a module on cognitive biases. I’ll cover some of this in the core program, but there are hundreds of biases that one could talk about it, and no end to the applications one could discuss.

For example, you could do a whole module on cognitive biases as they relate to financial decision-making, or sales and marketing, or scientific reasoning,or personal judgments about what does and doesn’t make make human beings happy. There’s a big literature on all of this, and the key ideas could be distilled and presented as a special module in the program.

Or, you could do a whole module on how to craft a persuasive speech. There’s really no end to the branches that could be spring off from the core program.

And, for those who are interested in leadership and critical thinking education, you could have a whole discussion forum just for people who teach critical thinking or have some kind of role in an educational or public organization.

Looking down the road, these are all options that I would love to see explored and developed. But ideally, as a general rule, anyone who takes on a position like this within the Argument Ninja Academy should also be a student who has worked their way through the core material, and who understands the overall vision.

Use Scenarios and the Learning Experience

I have another set of objectives for the program that I’m going to talk about it, that are related to different use scenarios and the user experience. These are important because they have a big impact on how the training is going to be delivered and the infrastructure that is needed to deliver it.

First, I would like the program to be suitable for both professional training and independent consumer training.

By independent consumer training I mean the sort of training that teaching platforms like Udemy offer, and that the Critical Thinker Academy now offers. Anyone can sign up and start watching videos, there’s no requirement that the training meet any special organizational guidelines, and there’s no requirement to track user completion or performance.

By professional training, I mean the sort of training where some or all of these things are required. If a law firm or a business or a government agency wants to pay for its staff to work through the program, they’re going to need to track completion rates at the very least. And if it’s a work or government agency that is subject to federal laws, on disability access, for example, then the training needs to be compliant with accessibility regulations, so it doesn’t put up barriers to people with disabilities.

That’s not a trivial requirement. But if you can get your course to be compliant with these standards, that makes the content available to a large audience of government and professional workers who may not have to pay for the training themselves, because their employers have human resource or professional development budgets that can be used for this. That would open up the training to a lot of people, and a lot of people who could really benefit and make use of it.

The second item on this list, relating to learning outcomes and the user experience, is that I would like the program to offer individualized training that adapts to how a student performs on exercises and assessments.

Just to give a simple example, if you take a quiz and get two of the five questions wrong, the system might send you back to a section of the course where those concepts were covered, let you review it again, and then jump back to the quiz and do those questions over.

There are other ways that a learning platform can offer a customized experience to the students. Some of these can show up in how progression is handled, and in gamification features, but those really are separate topics. So let’s talk about these.

The third item in this category has to do with how progression works in the program.

I’m imagining a system where a new student starts at a beginner rank, like a white belt, and then over time works their way up the ranks. But how does a student move from white belt to yellow belt, or yellow belt to orange belt, and so on?

Well, my model, as always, is inspired by martial arts training. Training sessions cover a range of skills and techniques, but there’s a certain set of these that are associated with a given belt ranking. You don’t get to test for your yellow belt until you’ve demonstrated a certain level of understanding and performance at the white level skill elements. When you test for your belt, and pass, and move up to yellow, you’re introduced to new concepts and new techniques, and you can’t move to a new belt rank until you’ve mastered those, and so on.

In this context, new concepts and new techniques would correspond to new learning modules within the core program, and maybe new ways of practicing and getting feedback on your understanding and your performance. Leveling-up might also open up new optional learning modules, like elective courses in a degree program.

I also think it’s essential to include some kind of social learning component in this program. I’m still thinking about this, but the goal is for students to feel like they’re part of a learning community, and be able to interact with each other, and where there’s an element of unpredictability in the interactions.

This is a whole big topic of its own, and I’ll come back to it again in later podcast episodes, because it’s so important. But if I’m serious about the martial arts inspiration, then this program needs to offer some equivalent of sparring. It’s one thing to practice a technique against an imaginary opponent, it’s quite another to practice with a real person.

How to implement this is another question. That’ll take some creativity and thinking. A lot depends on the technology that’s available, and how flexible that technology is. Moderated discussion forums, that follow specific sets of rules, can function in this way, but I know there are others.

This leads to the fourth item on my list — gamification.

This is a bit of a buzzword now in business and marketing circles, but the concept is important and increasingly important.

Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.

Gamification taps into basic desires and impulses which revolve around ideas of status, achievement, competition, and community collaboration.

In the early days of arcade games, it was a big deal when game designers started tracking players and scores, so that everyone could see the leaderboard and the rankings of the top players. It offered an incentive for players to keep playing and get better at the game, with the hope of cracking the top ranks and maybe seeing your name at the top of that list.

Today, just about every game implements a level system of some kind, where you complete certain tasks and you earn points, and when you hit certain benchmarks or complete a certain number of tasks, you earn rewards. These can be anything — experience points, spells, badges, new ways to interact with the game, and maybe the most cherished reward, “leveling-up”. Leveling-up is valued not just because it’s a sign of achievement, but because, very often, it’s an achievement that you can publicly share, or that is publicly accessible in the game. In other words, it’s a sign of status.

In martial arts, belt rankings are like game levels, and the belt is a public sign of your level status. In some martial arts traditions, you can earn stripes on your belt to indicate that you’ve demonstrated a certain level of achievement on your way to the next belt level, an intermediate step toward the next rank. Recreational martial arts, and sport martial arts, are highly gamified. And that certainly is part of the explanation for their popularity.

Whatever you think about public displays of status, what’s clear is that gamification is an extremely powerful way of engaging and motivating people. I’ve never once had to force my son to sit down and play Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed.

Now in the martial arts, belt rankings and belt testing are more than just motivational tools. They’re also a means of maintaining the identity of the school, the martial arts tradition of that school, whether it be WTF taekwondo or IJF judo or Gracie jiu-jitsu, or Shotokan karate, because the belt requirements encode the techniques and the philosophy that are particular to that school.

This kind of encoding is important for me too, because there is a core curriculum that I want to implement, and that curriculum is essential to the identity of the Argument Ninja Academy program. It’s what will distinguish it from other critical thinking and persuasion programs.

So, given the nature of what I’m trying to do here, gamification is going to play an important role in how the platform is designed, and how progress through the program is implemented.

So, those are four different goals or objectives for the program, having to do with different use scenarios and the user experience.

These goals and objectives suggest a list of features. The upshot of all this is that the platform I use to develop this program has to have the resources to support these features — it has to be able to collect information about student activities on the platform, use that information to customize the learning experience, provide an incentive structure for engaging with the content and unlocking different levels of the platform, provide for social learning experiences, and all of the content on the site has to be universally accessible.

You can see now why this isn’t the sort of thing I can throw together all by myself!

That’s why, right now, I’m in talks with various companies that provide end-to-end elearning solutions, to find the right platform that I can partner with, and with whom I can work and develop this program into something that is really special.

As these talks progress I’ll make sure to keep you guys updated on the podcast.

Benefits and Transformations

I’m going to shift gears here and say a few words about the kinds of personal transformations that I want the Argument Ninja Academy to facilitate, to be a resource for.

This is another approach to thinking through the instructional design process, but you can use this when you’re brainstorming any product or service.

The key is to remember that in most cases, people don’t buy a product just for the sake of owning the product. What they’re paying for is the benefit, or the transformation, that owning the product will facilitate.

I won’t buy a new webcam just to own a webcam. I’ll buy a new webcam because I think it will help me make better videos.

Similarly, people don’t sign up for martial arts classes just for the sake of learning the moves. People sign up for martial arts classes because of the transformation that they hope such classes will enable, which can vary from person to person: increased self-confidence, ability to defend yourself, better fitness and flexibility, the feeling of movement and getting in touch with your body, participating in an activity that my friends are doing, emulating the martial arts action heroes I watch in movies, the enjoyment that comes with challenge, improvement and mastery; and so on.

Let me just repeat that, because it’s surprising how often this is forgotten in marketing and business. Even for those who are keen on learning martial arts techniques, no one signs up to learn the techniques. No one signs up for taekwondo classes to learn middle punch in horse stance. No one signs up for jiu-jitsu classes to learn how to pass the guard. You sign up because you value the benefits, the transformation, that you believe that learning these techniques will enable.

So, when I’m designing this Argument Ninja Academy program, I need to keep in mind the transformation that users will be looking to get out of it. No one will sign up just to learn the definition of a valid argument, or just to learn about cognitive biases and the science of persuasion.What people will sign up for are the benefits and the transformation that learning this will enable for them.

So I need to be clear on what those benefits are, and what transformations people are looking for.

Avatars for Critical Thinking

In business, this thought process is sometimes described in terms of identifying your “ideal client” or “ideal customer”. And sometimes they use the language of constructing an “avatar”, a representation of the ideal customer — where they live, what industries they work in, what socio-economic level they belong to, what education they have, what challenges they’re experiencing in their daily life or in their work, what unfulfilled aspirations they have, and so on.

This exercise is helpful because it’s tempting when coming up with a business idea to define your market too broadly. People who want to lose weight is way too broad a demographic to fashion a product around. Mothers who are trying to lose the last 15 lbs of their baby weight while caring for infants and toddlers — that’s a demographic that you can actually develop a product for.

Of course you can have more than one ideal customer. Lots of different kinds of people eat at McDonald’s or shop at Walmart. The one thing they may have in common is that they’re motivated by convenience and lower prices.

And lots of different kinds of people take martial arts classes. But anyone who teaches martial arts knows that there’s really only a handful of different “avatars”. If you go around the room and ask the students why they’re there, you’ll get the same set of answers over and over, and almost everyone who joins is some permutation of this set.

So the question for me is, who are the people who would be keen to sign up for the Argument Ninja Academy? It won’t surprise you to learn that they come from all walks of life, but in terms of motivation, there really is just a handful of distinct motivations, and almost everyone who joins is going to be some permutation of these.

I like to think of these in terms of avatars, idealized types. Most people will share some combination of these underlying motivations, but some will be more dominant than others.

I said a handful, so I’m going to describe five distinct types, or avatars, who would be attracted to what I’ll be offering at the Argument Ninja Academy.

As I go through these, ask yourself whether these descriptions resonate with you, and which resonate most strongly. I’d love to get some feedback on this, actually.

The Scientist

I’m going to start with an avatar I call “The Scientist”, with a capital S.

The Scientist isn’t necessarily someone who works in the sciences or who has a formal background in science.

The Scientist seeks after knowledge, but is more concerned with the methods we use to acquire knowledge than the resulting beliefs.

To use a bit of philosophical jargon, the Scientist is more preoccupied with epistemology than with metaphysics.

The Scientist looks to empirical evidence, wherever possible, to resolve disputes between competing theories or interpretations of the world.

The Scientist seeks after the truth, but wants to proportion their degree of belief to the evidence. If the evidence isn’t strong, the Scientist modulates their degree of belief accordingly.

The Scientist finds it honorable to admit uncertainty and doubt, because that is a precondition for discovering error and improving our knowledge.

The Scientist wants to learn about the many ways that human beings are prone to error, because that, again, is a precondition for improving our knowledge.

The greatest sin, for the Scientist, is dogmatism — unshakeable faith in one’s convictions that will not bend to reason or evidence. To indulge in dogmatism is to abandon our human capacity for rational thought, and to abdicate our responsibility to think and make decisions for ourselves. Dogmatism is the root of many of the evils that afflict humanity.

Okay, that’s my first “avatar”. Anyone who identifies with this description is going to be attracted to the motto of the Critical Thinker Academy — “learn how to think, not what to think” — and they’re going to be attracted to the content I’ll be developing for the Argument Ninja Academy, because it will only reinforce these themes of uncovering sources of error, and exploring the limits and fallibility of our knowledge, all in the service of bringing us closer to the truth.

The Philosopher

Okay, let’s move on.

The second avatar I call “The Philosopher”.

Again, you don’t need any formal training in philosopher to fit the description I’m going to give.

The Philosopher is someone whose mind is naturally attracted to deeper, more foundational questions, that aren’t easily answered by standard empirical methods.

For example, you and I may agree that human beings have a right to life. The Philosopher may agree as well, but is also interested in the deeper question, what is a right? And pushes ahead: Where do rights come from? What grounds them? What’s the difference, if any, between having rights, and society treating you as though you had rights? Can non-humans have rights? We talk about animal rights, but if animals have rights, do they have them in the same sense that human beings do? If we ever encounter intelligent aliens, would they have rights like ours? Could robots have rights?

Or let’s jump to politics. You and I might agree that freedom is an important moral and political value. But why is it valuable, exactly? Is it good in and of itself, or is it good because it enables other things that are good in themselves? When is it okay to limit another person’s freedom? Is freedom the only political value worth caring about, or are there other values that are important too, that may come into conflict with freedom under certain circumstances?

The Philosopher is naturally attracted to these sorts of foundational questions, and is interested in coming up with reasons to support or reject different positions on these questions.

There’s almost always something of the Scientist in the Philosopher. That’s one way of defining Western-style philosophy — it’s the pursuit of answers to deep questions like these, by means of rational argumentation in a public, social setting.

This sort of Philosopher is attracted to the Critical Thinker Academy because it teaches principles of logic and argumentation and critical reasoning that have been part of the toolset of western philosophy for over 2500 years.

The person who fits this description will be interested in the Argument Ninja program for all the same reasons, and because the program will go deep on a handful of philosophical issues that are important to the core mission.

These include the nature of reason and rationality; how the human mind and brain works, and how it generates behaviors; how human beings make moral judgments and reason about moral issues; and the ethical issues surrounding the use of persuasion techniques.

The Persuader

The third avatar that I want to talk about is an obvious one for us — "the Persuader".

The Persuader wants to assert their will upon the world.

I don’t mean this in a negative sense. I’m talking about the natural drive to be an agent of change for yourself and for others, in a world that naturally puts up barriers against this.

The Persuader isn’t comfortable being a passive object, pushed and pulled in different directions, a pawn in games being played by other people, or institutions.

The Persuader wants to take charge of their own life, decide for themselves what they care about and how they want to live, and push back against the forces that would otherwise undermine our autonomy and our agency.

The Persuader doesn’t just want to push back against these forces. The Persuader wants to become one of these forces — a force that can transform the landscape of our shared experience, that can “shape the Matrix”, so to speak.

That’s what all Persuaders have in common. They differ in the scope and range of the influence they want to have, in the methods they’re willing to use to achieve this influence, and in the ultimate ends that drive them.

Dictators and cult leaders are very effective Persuaders. Politicians are required to be Persuaders, though some are obviously more effective than others. Advertisers and marketers are Persuaders.

But we all aspire to be Persuaders in some form or another.

Anyone who runs a business needs to be a Persuader, or their business will die.

Anyone who wants to promote progressive social change, or any form of advocacy, needs to be a Persuader.

Anyone who aspires to a position of leadership in any organization, needs to be a Persuader.

Every parent needs to be a Persuader.

Every child and every teenager, as they grow up and become more independent, needs to become a Persuader.

Every one of us, at any given time, is both a subject and an object of influence and persuasion.

What makes a person a ‘capital p’ Persuader is the choice they’ve made to embrace this role in a self-conscious way, and to make a commitment to becoming more effective in that role.

I’ve talked a lot about persuasion on the podcast, and you know that persuasion methods are part of the core curriculum of the Argument Ninja program. This is certainly one of the reasons why many people are anticipating this program and why many have pledged support for it, because they want to see it become a reality.

The Analyst

Let’s move on. Here’s a fourth avatar. I call it "The Analyst".

The Analyst is, well, someone who performs analysis. What is analysis? It’s the process of breaking a complex phenomenon or topic into smaller parts in order to gain a better understanding of it, to help understand its nature, how it came about, how it functions, and so on.

The kind of analysis I’m thinking of, for this avatar, is analysis of human behavior and human social phenomena. There are physical science analysts, but that’s not the avatar I’m thinking of.

Think of the Trump election, and the current flurry of blog posts and newspaper articles. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of analysis have been written, trying to get a handle on how it occurred, why his campaign was successful, how a Trump presidency might play out, why he’s chosen the people he has in his cabinet, what effect they’ll have on domestic and foreign affairs, and so on.

This is people trying to do analysis.

There are hundreds of professions where conducting analysis is part of the job. There are accounting analysts, business analysts, financial analysts, marketing analysts, news analysts, public policy analysts, political analysts, internet analysts, military analysts, and on and on.

What I’m calling the Analyst, with a capital A, is the kind of person who is naturally interested in understanding, interpreting, explaining and predicting human behavior and human social phenomena.

The Analyst is interested in models and conceptual frameworks that can be used to improve their understanding of the subject they’re investigating.

Why would such a person be interested in the Argument Ninja Academy program? Because a central aim of the program is present a variety of different models for understanding and predicting human behavior.

Think of Scott Adams’ analysis of the Trump campaign. Scott made a number of bold predictions which were subsequently confirmed. He chalks up this success to the analytic framework that he applied, what he called the “master persuader filter”.

If you’re trained in cognitive biases, you can explain and predict a great deal of consumer choice behavior.

If you’re trained in social biases, you can gain insight into how people behave differently in groups than when they’re alone.

You get the idea.

Now, the Argument Ninja program is going to focus on models of cognition and behavior that are relevant to understanding how we form beliefs and make decisions, and how these bear on the phenomena of persuasion and influence, but many of these models are so fundamental, and so general, that the range of potential applications is enormous.

And when you combine that with the clarity and rigour that comes from some exposure to logic and argumentation, then you’ve got a powerful set of tools, not just for analysis, but for communicating your understanding in a way that is clear and effective.

So there’s a lot here that will be attractive to the Analyst.

The Butterfly

I’ve got one more avatar to share with you.

This is one that I’ve come to appreciate through many discussions with fans of the Critical Thinker Academy and the podcast.

I’m calling it The Butterfly. It’ll become clear why in a minute.

I talk to a lot of people who come out of backgrounds that areauthoritarian and repressive in some way. People born and raised in strongly religious communities, or cult-like environments, or political environments where dissent isn’t allowed. Places where educational opportunities are limited, ideological conformity is the rule, and deviations from family beliefs, or community norms, or the party line, are punished.

In these environments, if a person does have doubts, or wants to learn about the world beyond what is socially sanctioned and taught, you can’t be open about it. Even within your own family. You keep it to yourself. You read things online, if you have access. You struggle with your own conflicted beliefs, and you feel torn between the people and the community you love and your desire for freedom. Freedom to associate with others like you, freedom to think for yourself, and freedom to create an identity that expresses who you truly are, and who you want to be.

A significant number of people who are registered with the Critical Thinker Academy have stories like this.

In their former life, they were like a larva or caterpillar trapped in a cocoon.Then something happens. They have an awakening. They’re introduced to a book or a video or a website or a person that speaks to their doubts and shakes them up. Maybe they choose to leave their community. Maybe they’re ostracized from it.

You know who you are.

You’re like a butterfly, newly emerged from your cocoon. Your legs are shaky. It’s disorienting.

You suddenly find yourself in a new world where you’re free to create a new identity as a free thinker.

And it can be a painful process, full of self-doubt and anxiety. Because no one creates a new identity overnight. It takes time to discover who you are, what you believe, and what communities you want to belong to.

What I’m calling “the Butterfly” is a person who has experienced this transition, or is still experiencing it, or who wants to experience it.

I would like to think that the videos I’ve shared on YouTube and the courses at the Critical Thinker Academy have been a valuable resource for the Butterfly.

What I do know is that Butterflies are the most passionate advocates for critical thinking I have ever met.

They also tend to be more militant in their critical thinking advocacy. They’re more likely to think of themselves as soldiers in an ongoing war between the forces of science and reason and the forces of dogma and irrationality.

The Butterflies will value the Argument Ninja Academy program because it will give them new resources for shaping the identity that they’re continuing to build for themselves.

The more militant Butterflies will value the Argument Ninja program because it will give them new tools for “engaging the enemy”, so to speak.

Ironically, of course, there are also quite a few religious apologists within the membership of the Critical Thinker Academy who feel exactly the same way, that their study of argumentation and persuasion is preparing them for battle against the forces of secularism.

The Upshot for Instructional Design

So, those are descriptions of five “avatars”, five idealized types who have found something of value in the material I’ve produced over the years, and who I believe will find more to value in the new material I’ll be producing for the Argument Ninja program.

Getting back to instructional design issues, the value of this exercise for me is that it helps me to keep in mind what each of these different types of student is looking to get out of any new training program that I produce. What benefits they can expect to enjoy from the tools I’m offering, what transformation do they want to experience?

Let’s review:

The Scientist wants to uncover error and progress toward the truth.

The Philosopher wants to investigate and think critically about deeper, more foundational questions.

The Persuader wants to assert their will upon the world, to “shape the Matrix”, to be an agent of change for themselves and the causes they care about.

The Analyst wants to understand, interpret and predict human behavior and human social phenomena.

The Butterfly wants to create a new identity as a free thinker, and to advocate for freedom from indoctrination and authoritarian control of our minds.

When I design the curriculum and the assessment tools and the progression mechanics for the Argument Ninja program, I need to ask myself, is the learning experience helping to facilitate these goals? Are the students getting what they want and value from the experience?

Some Comments

Now, of course there are some obvious comments that need to be made here about this avatar business.

First, I could go on creating different avatars, based on my experiences with different kinds of students. The five I’ve chosen are important for me, but that number is arbitrary.

There’s a whole group of people who use the Academy materials who are teachers, for example. There’s a Teacher avatar I could have done.

There’s a group of you who are interested in using these persuasion and communication tools for team management, conflict resolution, negotiation, collaboration, peace-making. I could have done an avatar on that.

There are professional persuaders who you might think of as Fighters. Courtroom lawyers, lobbyists, political spokespersons, stock traders, high pressure salespeople … people whose job involves strategic persuasion in a fundamental way. I could have done an avatar called “the Fighter”.

But I didn’t, because you have to stop somewhere. And because at some point you just start repeating yourself.

I’m happy with these five avatars.

The second obvious point to make is the one that most of you have been thinking to yourself the whole time you’ve been listening to this.

Most of us are some combination of these avatars.

Speaking for myself, I resonate strongly with each of the first four: the Scientist, the Philosopher, the Persuader and the Analyst.

I don’t think of myself as a Butterfly.

I had a very open childhood. I was encouraged to learn what I wanted, how I wanted, and I felt no pressure to conform ideologically. I felt like a scientist, and a philosopher, from a relatively early age. I also felt like an artist, and I spent a lot of time imagining a future in which I created art for a living.

I went straight from high school to studying science and philosophy in university, and continued on that track through graduate school and into my academic career.

So, I never had the butterfly transformation experience myself.

I’ve learned how common this experience is from being a member of different critical thinking communities over the years, seeing the kind of people who join and take leadership roles in those communities, and interacting with my own students.

I’ve never been militant on ideological issues. I’ve always been more of an observer, an analyst, and a teacher — not a foot solder.

But the rest of it, if you take those first four avatars and toss them in a salad, and sprinkle in a nerdy obsession with movies, comics, science fiction and fantasy, horror, and stand-up comedy — that’s me. That’s who I am.

So, I guess you could also say that, in creating the Critical Thinker Academy, and the Argument Ninja program, I’m creating these resources with a single avatar in mind — the younger version of myself who would felt he’d died and gone to heaven if he’d stumbled upon this twenty years ago.

I’m happy to accept that, guilty as charged. Why else would I spend thousands of hours creating content, on my own time, if it didn’t reflect who I am and what I care about?

Wrapping Up

Now, as a closing assignment for you, I’d love to get your feedback on this episode.

Do you see yourself in any of these avatar descriptions? If you had to describe yourself in terms like these, how would you do that?

Does the Butterfly story resonate with you? I’d love to hear more stories from listeners about how you came to care about critical thinking issues as much as you do.

Why do you think they matter to you, more than it does for many of the people around you?

What’s the difference between you and the people who don’t seem to care as much about these things?

You can leave comments on YouTube if you’re watching this there, or over at our Facebook page at Facebook.com/criticalthinkeracademy, or in the comments section for this episode at Argumentninja.com, or just email me at [email protected].

Next episode I’ll update you on how my Sustaining Members campaign is going.

If you’d like to become a Sustaining Member and help support this podcast and my work, including the development of the Argument Ninja Academy program that I’ve been talking about here, you can visit the support page at Argumentninja.com or Critical Thinker Academy.com — there’s menu link called “Support” for both of these.

Just to remind you, a sustaining membership, starting as low as $3 per month, will get you access to the whole catalogue at the Critical Thinker Academy, and reserve at spot for you in the Argument Ninja Academy, locked in at the same low monthly rate.

I do need to increase my sustaining memberships if I’m going to have the resources to create this thing, so you’re not just reserving a seat for yourself, you’re making it possible to create it in the first place.

Also, if you’re enjoying this podcast and want to help spread the word, it would really help if you left a starred review on iTunes.

I’ve only got, like, 8 reviews on iTunes at the moment, and that’s just way too few to get any traction on the New and Noteworthy section, so if you like the show, please, you’ll be doing me and the show a solid by adding a rating and a review note.

Also, next episode I’m going to walk you through some of the Core Curriculum material for the Argument Ninja program, and I’m going to show you an example of a persuasion technique that integrates argumentation and persuasion.

It’ll be really exciting, I guarantee it.

Thank you for listening, take care, and I’ll talk to you again soon.