how do we teach students to question what we say?

This is a re-post of something I’ve written for Talking Teaching. I’ve reproduced it here because I think the notion of teaching things like critical thinking & the nature of science are just as relevant here as they are in a discussion about teaching itself.

I’ve just been reading a post by Tim Kreider, over at Science-Based Medicine. Tim’s talking about the learning experiences of medical students, but a particular phrase caught my eye. I”m reproducing it here because I think it can be applied much more widely: students are in the habit of transcribing and commiting to memory everything uttered by the professors who grade them.

I’ve seen this happen myself. I remember talking with a class about fungi & saying that while most fungi are saprophytes (consuming dead material), some are predatory. And they all (well, all those I could see, anyway) wrote this down unquestioningly. ‘Hang on a minute,’ I said; ‘does this sound likely to you?’ They agreed that no, it didn’t really, it didn’t match with what they already knew about fungi. ‘Well then,’ I said; ‘why didn’t any of you call me on it?’ ‘Because,’ they said, ‘you wouldn’t tell us anything incorrect, would you?’ Which showed a touching faith but also a worrying lack of willingness to question things that didn’t sound right.

(Just as an aside: This was amply demonstrated one year when my class was sitting a lab test. One of the questions asked students to label a section of plant tissue, selecting their labels from a list that I provided. It happened to be April 1st – so I included the word ‘aardvark’ in that list. Rather worringly, about 30% of the class used it for a label – & when asked why they said well, it didn’t sound right, but they just knew I wouldn’t have used a word that didn’t belong… And not one of them questioned it at the time.)

Now, in his SBM post, Tim makes the point that med students in their pre-clinical training have to learn so much content that there isn’t a lot of room for rigorous skepticism (but make no mistake, he’s still arguing of the need to teach critical thinking). And I agree, there is factual content that I want my students to be able to remember (& my colleagues teaching at 2nd-year would like it too!) But at some point we must surely also want our students to develop a healthy skepticism: the ability to think critically about what they’re hearing & learning.  And I certainly don’t like the idea that my science students might regard me as infallible. Not least because that’s not a particularly good model for what science is like. They need to know that scientists can & and do make mistakes, get things wrong, interpret data in ways that subsequently (in the light of further data) turn out to be inaccurate. And they need to feel confident that it’s OK to ask questions. The thing is, how best to get this across?

Speaking for myself, I’m a firm believer in modelling this for my students. If I’m asked a question to which I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell them so, up front. But then I’ll say, but I can hypothesise about this – here’s what the answer might be, & here’s my evidence for thinking this. (If the classroom has web access – & most of ours do these days, we’ll often go on to check what I’ve said on the spot.) If it turns out that I’m wrong (which happens quite a lot, then that’s fine, & we’ve all learned something new.

Plus, I actively encourage questioning during my lectures. (Pop quizzes & concept maps are good for encouraging the sort of conversations that lead to this.) Sure, I mightn’t get through as much content as if I didn’t do this, but the students’ learning experience is surely going to be a better one if they can follow up on things on the spot. And hopefully they learn from this that it really is OK to ask questions 🙂

And – I’m all for telling stories. How better to help students learn about the nature of science than to use a narrative approach that lets them see how scientists viewed the world at some past point in time, & how science has led to a change in – or a reaffirmation of – that perspective?

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