Tag Archives: Teaching

My first attempt at making video content

6 Mar

I’ve just finished my first attempt at making short video content focused on teaching rational thinking. My intention is that this will be the first of a series, but I’d really value any feedback

Why I dislike ‘Critical Thinking’

27 Feb

You’ll see from the title of this blog that I don’t like the phrase ‘critical thinking’, and think that it activity works against encouraging rational thought in students. Ironically, the only time that I tend to use the phrase ‘critical thinking’ is when I’m talking to other academics, otherwise they don’t know what I’m going on about ! In working on a larger piece of work about my view of developing rational thought I’ve hit upon a great example of what I think is wrong with the current critical thinking literature.

If you grab a select of the critical thinking textbooks that will undoubtedly appear in your nearest library you’ll find that the identification of logical fallacies is a consistently addressed topic. With my ‘teacher’ hat on I’ve always found logical fallacies an appealing topic. There are wonderful on-line resources with many engaging examples that will appeal to students and it’s straightforward to design an assessment to measure whether students recognise logical fallacies. The trouble is that when you delve into the rationale for teaching students to identify logical fallacies things begin to unravel.

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For anyone who spends their life attending meetings with other academics, the rationale for teaching logical fallacies would seem obvious, as phrases like ‘ad hominem attack’ and ‘that’s just a strawman’ are mainstays of academic ‘debate’. However, we can’t really justify curriculum content based on the ability to win an argument in a Faculty meeting. Which leads me to ask what is the utility of understanding logical fallacies for the average undergraduate ? Surely what we want our students to be able to do is to disentangle the evidence for a particular argument from the rhetorical devices being employed to make that argument, after all it would be perfectly possible for a position that has all the evidence behind it to be proposed with an argument entirely riddled with fallacies.

My own view is that the appearance of logical fallacies in so many critical thinking texts is a products of the roots of critical thinking itself, rather than in any belief in it’s utility for students. Critical Thinking was a product of the academic discipline of philosophy, where the understanding of formal logical is a central skill. Thus , we’ve ended up teaching a topic not because it has directly relevance to our students, but because it is a component of a discipline at least once-removed for m that which we are teaching.

In my previous post here I mused on the teaching of rational thought in the new ‘alternate facts’ world, and it occurs to me that in this ‘New world order’, the teaching of logical fallacies might actually be counter-productive. I could see an argument that a book chapter on logical fallacies could easily be read has ‘how to win an argument even if you don’t have any evidence’.

Reflections on teaching rational thinking in 2017

23 Feb

The last year have seen some huge changes in the world, with the arrival of Brexit and President Donald Trump, and it seems to me that these have quite a dramatic impact on how to address rational thinking with students. I’ve long argued to students that the skills of weighing evidence and producing rational argument are the keys to success both in university and in the world beyond, but with the happening of the last year I’m not so sure that that particular argument is going to work
in the coming years. It almost seems like the deployment of irrational argument, and the denial of evidence that doesn’t fit your worldview, is now the route to success.

Last summer, back when Donald Trump was still the candidate we all joked about, the UK’s Brexit referendum produced an extraordinary example of how the world has changed. Throughout the referendum the leaders of the ‘Out’ campaign travel the country is a bus, on which was printed the phrase ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead’ (NHS =National Health Service).Boris Johnson MP  addresses members of the public in Parliament

In the days following the declaration of the referendum result all of the leaders of the ‘Out’ campaign explained that the slogan on the side of their bus didn’t actually mean that the NHS would receive any more money. In a world of rationality you might assume that this ‘interesting’ campaigning technique might have had some consequence for those involved, and yet within days Boris Johnson (pictured above with the bus) was promoted to become the UK’s Foreign Secretary (The UK’s equivalent of the US Secretary of State). So here is a situation where a serious debate has been won by the deployment of an ‘untruth’, and the consequence is promotion for those involved.

If you look at the traditional critical thinking literature, one of it’s central tenets is the teaching of the recognition of logical fallacies, and the understanding that the deployment of logical fallacies is poor argument. Yet, even the briefest of examinations of the Brexit campaign shows the construction of ‘Strawmen’ and the deployment of ‘Ad hominem’ attacks on a daily basis, and those campaigning methods leading to victory.

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Last summer it appeared that Brexit might be a passing threat to rational thinking, but the subsequent arrival of President Trump has raised the threat to a whole new level. Over the last few years I’ve used belief in conspiracy theories, as a mechanism to teach rational thinking and it’s been very successful. One of the earliest attempts an explaining conspiracy belief was what Hofstadter called a ‘paranoid style’ of thinking that was the product of ‘uncommonly angry minds’.  For the last few years I’ve used videos of Alex Jones, the renowned conspiracy theories, to nicely illustrate this idea. Alex Jones broadcasting style looks to an outside observer as ‘paranoia’ i.e. any attempt at gun control by the federal government is a precursor to military dictatorship !! This year’s lecture was rather different, as we now know that the ‘Leader of the free world’ is a fan of Alex Jones, and has appeared on his show. It’s thus rather more difficult to dismiss Alex Jones’s conspiracy theories as the product of paranoia.

This has all left me wondering where teaching rational thinking can go over the next four years, with conspiracy theory belief and ‘alternative facts’ become mainstream in the USA, and UK politicians have no problem with denying their own campaign slogans with days of a vote. I was driven back to looking at what originally inspired me to start teaching rational thinking, and came across a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt :

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

This alone seems to be a good reason to plough on with rational thought, in the face of a changed world, but I then came across a quotation from Carl Sagan’s book ‘The Demon-haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark’ that truly sums up why it’s vital to continue teaching rational thinking.

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Astonishingly, Sagan wrote this over 20 years ago for me it’s a call to continue doing what I’m doing. I just need to figure out how to adjust my teaching materials to the ‘New World Order’ :;

 

My two biggest drivers of web traffic: Jeremy Clarkson and ‘The Flipped Classroom’ !

12 Nov

SOME MORE CONSIDERED THOUGHTS ON THE FLIPPED CLASSROOM – THE NORMAL BLOG MATERIAL WILL RESUME SHORTLY !

In the three years that I’ve been using social media to further my teaching two things have driven more web traffic that any other. About a year ago I innocently replied to a tweet from an ex-student suggesting that Jeremy Clarkson might not be ‘a paragon of journalistic virtue’, and was deluged with some fairly abusive replies, and two weeks ago a blog post on ‘the flipped classroom’ produced a week and a half’s worth of web traffic in one day ! For those who have not come across it before, the flipped classroom is the fairly simple idea of asking students to consume material in advance of a particular class such that class time can be used for something more productive than the transmission of information.

I should confess at this point that I have always used blogging as a ‘quick and dirty’ means or recording what’s going on in my head at any particular moment, and thus what I write isn’t that deeply considered before it’s published. However, the responses to my post about the flipped classroom have made me think rather more deeply about the topic, and I’ve set these out below:

1) The first thing I’ve learnt is to be very careful with the language I use. I have the habit of referring to any session in which I am in a classroom with 200+ students as ‘a lecture’. However, having now read the literature than many correspondents sent me (including a huge meta-analysis of studies of ‘flipping’) ‘a lecture’ seems to be defines as ‘continuous exposition’ by an academic. I’ve always attempted to break up my teaching with material designed to encourage students to think about what I’ve said, and employ the skills I’m trying to impart, so I guess I don’t ‘lecture’. I’ll thus try to stick to ‘class’ and ‘teaching’ to replace ‘lecture’ and ‘lecturing’.

2) I maybe overly naive, but I find it depressing that any academic is still indulging in ‘continuous exposition’ as a teaching method, surely we’re all established by now that ‘deep’ processing of information is necessary for learning, and that’s hardly likely to happening if all that occurs in a class is the academic imparting information and the students writing it down frantically. That said, this seems to be to be more of an issue of ‘poor practice’ than necessarily a reason for ‘flipping’ a class.

3) Leading on from this is a point that was made by more than one correspondent, that learning is about ‘the construction of knowledge not the transmission of knowledge’, and by flipping the classroom you free up time for working on the ‘construction of knowledge’. Now, being a pedantic psychologist I’d argue that learning is about BOTH ‘the construction and the transmission of knowledge’, in that one would have little to construct if something first hadn’t been ‘transmitted’. One can, of course, argue about the weighting of these two components. Having thought about it a lot this week, I think that my real worry about the ‘flipped classroom’ is that whilst it seems an excellent method for facilitating the ‘construction of knowledge’ it may have neglected the idea that ‘transmission of knowledge’ needs to take place somewhere, and that the quality of that ‘transmission’ is important for the subsequent ‘construction’. Indeed, I wonder if in ‘flipping’ we aren’t, in some cases, abdicating responsibility for ‘transmission’ to textbook publishers. At a ‘Lecture Capture’ conference I attended recently the ‘Keynote’ speaker on ‘flipping’ had used lecture recordings from previous years as his vehicle for ‘transmission’. This suggests either that ‘lecturing’ IS a good vehicle for transmission or transmission is of vastly secondary importance.

It’s clear from the literature that, at least in STEM disciplines, flipping does improve academic performance but I wonder a little more focus was put on how best to facilitate ‘transmission’ this improvement might be even bigger.

My resolution for the next academic year is to try out ‘flipping’ a class, but to focus on how transmission will take place before I do so.

Lectures aren’t as bad as people say

5 Jan
Debconf5_lecture
I’ve been teaching in higher education for over ten years, and in that period the one point I’ve seen made about teaching more than any other is that lectures are not a good means of teaching. Indeed, the phrase ‘ chalk and talk’ has almost become a synonym for ‘poor teaching’. For someone like myself who is interested in good teaching it is therefore more than a little ironic that my teaching now consists entirely of lectures delivered to 200+ students at a time.
This paradox came to mind recently when I read an excellent article in praise of lectures, that chimed with many of my opinions. I’ve always been of the opinion that the best examples of ‘teaching’ that one sees are invariably ‘lectures’, from the Xmas Lecture Series of the Royal Institution to Richard Feynman’s celebrated lectures on Physics. Indeed, even in the world of television, work from documentary makers like Ken Burns or naturalists like David Attenborough are essentially just very well-illustrated lectures. Against this it seems very odd that educationists will advocate almost any teaching method above lectures.
It’s interesting to contemplate how we might have arrived at this paradoxical situation. My own view is that when educationists talk about lectures being the worst way of ‘teaching’ in higher education what they are actually talking about are ‘poor lectures’. Anyone who has spent any time in higher education will know the sense of depression that sets in when you are trapped in a classroom with a lecturer who doesn’t seem interested in the material, is reading reams of text direct from the Powerpoint slides and is barely audible as they fail to use microphones correctly.
Now, or course I’m not saying that there aren’t teaching situations where a small-group tutorial wouldn’t be a much better solution than 200+ lecture, but I am saying that the ‘anything but lectures’ approach is just ridiculous. So one of my new years resolutions for 2014 is to interrupt anyone who ‘chalk and talk’ is bad, and ask them for their evidence.

Rational Thinking Books of the Year Part 1

30 Dec
sagan
I recently attended one of Robin’s Ince‘s great secular Christmas Shows ‘Nine lessons and carols for godless people’. The particular show I attended fell on the anniversary of the death Carl Sagan, the great American scientist and sceptic. As a tribute to Sagan, Robin Ince read an excerpt from Sagan’s book ‘The Demon-haunted world’. As a child I can remember watching Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, and like many others I enjoyed his novel ‘Contact’, and its subsequent film but I have to confess that as an adult who teaches rational thinking I have never read any of his non-fiction word. The excerpt Robin Ince read is from the first few paragraphs of the chapter on psychics, and is a beautifully written and move account for why however comforting the idea of life after death maybe, it is eventually facts that provide use with a solid basis for genuine comfort. (I’d recommend that you stop reading me immediately, click this link and read the first seven paragraphs now !)
On my way home from the Christmas show I ordered two of Sagan’s books from Amazon, and read them very rapidly. Thus my first rational thinking book of the year was actually published over a decade ago and is Sagan’s ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark‘. It is one of the most beautifully written explanations of why rational thinking is vital in a modern society that I have ever read. Sagan’s writing style makes the book accessible for most readers, but I’s strongly recommend it to anyone who is attempting to teach rational thinking (or indeed critical thinking), as it will cement the importance of the work they are doing.
Interestingly, Sagan pops up again in the second of my books of the year @

 

Reflecting on religion and psychology

24 Nov

800px-Book_of_Genesis_Chapter_7-2_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)

I delivered my annual lecture on Darwin and Evolution this week, and almost inevitable it led me to think again about psychology and religion. I’ve written before about the strange absence of ‘religious belief’ from most UK undergraduate psychology degrees, and delivering my lecture of evolution main me think about what a fascinating it would be for psychologists.

As part of my evolution lecture I look at why ‘anti-science’ might be so focused on a theory that is over 150 years old, and so heavily supported by the weight of evidence. As part of the lecture I played a Youtube video of Ken Ham, a young-earth creationist who advocates a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. I also looked at Ham’s web site ‘Answers in Genesis’, which provide scholarly explanations for the content of the first book of the Bible. I was particularly drawn to a very detailed exposition of how Noah’s Ark would have worked, including an apparently serious consideration of the necessity of rounding in young dinosaurs as adults would be so difficult to accommodate. If one discounts the terrifying sight, for a rationalist, of young children being told that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time I was drawn to the question of why a literal belief in Genesis might be necessary in order to be a ‘good’ Christian.

For me, as a fully paid up atheist, I can see that much of the New Testament provides a perfectly good guide to how to lead one’s lift, and the spirit of community engendered by organised religion surely ought to be positively viewed by a psychologist of any background. Yet, the insistence on rabid opposition to ‘Science’, and the extraordinary efforts to ‘prove’ the contents of genesis would seem to have no connection to all of the positives of Christianity (or indeed any other religion). All of this led me to wonder (aloud in the middle of my lecture), what drives apparently sincere religious people to focus on what appear to be details irrelevant to their core beliefs. The best I could come up with at the time was ‘cognitive dissonance’. In the same way that some American politicians have made seemingly bizarre statements about abortion I wondered if what might be driving ‘anti-evolution’ was a need to reconcile the dissonant beliefs in the literal truth of Genesis and the weight of evidence for evolution.

One might expect such a thought to provoke concern from religious students, but in fact it produced an entirely rational and very interesting discussion with a group of students after the lecture. All of which leads further down the line that teaching ‘controversial’ topics is a really useful way to get students involved in rational debate. I wouldn’t advocate it unless you have the environment to develop students’ skills in advance, but it you have that it does really seem to work. I’m definitely going to work-up a ‘Psychology of Religion’ lecture for next year

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