Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Importance of Skepticism in Education

James "the Amazing" Randi

Teaching is a profession with heavy responsibility. Students, especially younger ones, are all too eager to believe or accept what you say as fact. They want to know that what you say is true. They want to know that what they see is true. Most of us are generally willing to join in that mode of thought.  The only problem with thinking this way is that it gets to be too easy. Without an attitude of skepticism we risk believing in mistakes or outright lies. In our eagerness to accept the truths that are being given, we lose our responsibility to be demanding of the information being presented to us. 

Consider in your own circle of influence how many well-meaning people have shared information in social media without checking in any way for verification. Is this a problem? It should be. In addition to wasting time and energy, you announce to your friends, coworkers, and associates that you're lazy at best, and a gullible chump at worst. In the same time it takes to share the article, you could easily run the topic through a fact-checking site such as snopes, and then you'd at least know that you're possibly about to perpetuate and carry on a hoax. 

In the classroom I can always count on getting everyone's attention by showing them a video clip of something interesting and seemingly impossible. The reaction is predictable. There is a lot of noise from the camp of disbelievers, and an equal amount of talk from those who express their disbelief yet clearly have accepted what they just saw. When David Blaine had produced his first big tv special, he included an illusion that he was levitating. In those first shows he had taken on this tv persona of the authentic mystic. He later, thankfully, abandoned that role for the more honest and effective fully exposed illusionist and street magician. But back to levitation. 

I remember talking with my students at that time about their reactions to the claim of levitation and then to the apparent visual proof of it. Some students were angry with me that I made the suggestion that it was anything other than what it seemed to be. They wanted to believe it. So I asked them why. Why do you believe that this man, a man who is promoting and selling his own tv show, actually has the impossible ability to defy gravity? You don't know him. He is not even claiming to have these abilities via any supernatural means. He just arrives and performs the trick. What happened to questioning or investigation? I talked with them about the dubious camera work and the overproduced quality of something that was supposed to be a live recording. We learned about post production editing tricks. Still, there were some who struggled with the idea that they had been duped. 

The Amazing Randi has had a standing offer for many years that offers a million dollars to anyone who claims to have paranormal or supernatural abilities and is willing to undergo scientific testing to have them verified and proven.  No one has collected on that offer. James Randi is a magician himself as well as a skeptic. It is because of his skeptical nature that have often used him as an example in teaching. I try to teach about what it is to be a skeptic. It does not mean you believe nothing, trust nothing, or accept nothing. It does mean that you should learn to question and investigate rather than blindly accepting everything. You should  especially investigate or question things that seem to be untrue, unlikely, or impossible. 

Skepticism is really about having a profound concern for truth. This search for truth extends into daily life. Advertising of products is a constant game of truth and lies. Teaching people to question is not the same as teaching them not to trust. What we should teach is that trust is something that should be earned.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Banging Coconuts Together Again

"You've got two empty halves of coconut, and you're bangin' 'em together." - Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I have spent some time recently trying to compose something on the topic of standardized testing in our public schools.  The time to begin these tests is nearly here again in Indiana.  It has been a divisive topic in the media thanks in large part to our state's political machinations in regard to public education. There simply doesn't seem to be anything fresh to report.  Oddly this strange condition has not burdened many others who are writing daily on the topic.

I investigated the political opinions being aired and decided they needed to keep hanging on the line.  I dug into the past of educational testing, found the research that others freely and selectively borrow from without citing their sources, and gradually came to a surprising conclusion of my own.  The debate is always the same.

There are a few points I can be sure of after my recent efforts.  No one is changing the dialogue of the debate.  No one is making significant progress toward meaningful change.  And no one who tries to introduce enlightened dialogue into the debate will go unpunished.  With that theme in mind, and in honor of standardized testing throughout our great land, please consider what might need to be done if you discover you are riding a dead horse. 

The Official and Expertly Researched Public Education Response

  1. Upgrade the whip. This is a best practice, and is, therefore, non-negotiable. Upgrade may include reclassification as riding crop.
  2. Change the rider.  This can be achieved easily by revising the by-laws regulating riders.
  3. Remind everyone that this is the data-driven technique.  We always ride dead horses.
  4. Form a committee to analyze the horse.
  5. Investigate how other school districts manage their dead horses.
  6. Rewrite the protocols for proclaiming horses dead.
  7. Pilot programs, spearhead taskforces, form committees, and poll stakeholders for the purpose of reviving the dead horse.
  8. Design workshops, schedule trainings, and lead professional development meetings to instruct in the riding of dead horses.
  9. Analyze the data available on dead horses in order to create a benchmark.
  10. Hire experts to determine how best to ride a dead horse.
  11. Increase the length of the track the horse is on to gain more comprehensive data.
  12. Reduce the length of the track the horse is on to be compassionate and reasonable.
  13. Declare that progress is being made in the science of dead horse management.
  14. Overhaul the service requirements for horses.
  15. Publicize the gains made since last year's ride.
  16. If no improvements are evident, refer back to response one.
Outstanding educators everywhere, do what you do.  That hollow thumping sound you keep hearing should stop in about a month. Until then, carry on.

*Adapted from "Business Wit" ,These Strange German Ways; Susan Stern, Atlantik-Bruecke, 2000