Ersatz learning & inauthentic teaching

Been spending a lot of time lately on the long drive to & from school thinking about how to better teach my non-majors introductory courses.  How to engage students who don’t appear to be reading the book.  How to shift the focus in class away from what I am saying to what they are thinking.  How to write exam questions that test their ability to think, not to recite memorized facts.  How to *prepare* them for that kind of exam when their expectation is that they will be tested with multiple choice questions that address lower levels of Bloom’s.  Came across an interesting article from the 80s that, while fairly dense, summarizes the problem nicely and actually makes me hopeful.

I regularly hear people (teachers mostly, but others too) who bemoan that the quality of student critical thinking is going down.  This is generally linked to poor K-12 teaching and standardized testing.  Since I have been teaching for a whole 3 years total, and 2 of those years in San Diego, I don’t have the experience to comment on this. I am shocked at the average level of my students coming into my class,(I initially wrote that, but its not accurate.  Sometimes I am shocked, but within the past few months I have been realizing that sometimes they are able to think critically but are not motivated to do so.  Its one thing if they simply can not do it or do it poorly, its quite another thing if they can but are not motivated to do so – I actually see evidence for both.) but were they really that much better in the past?    I wonder if something else is going on.

Several years ago I found a book in a thrift store with the title “The idea of decline in western history”.  I never got to read it, and at some point we culled it on a move, but I remember from scanning it that the jist was that humans have always shown a tendency to complain about the present and think that things were better in the past.  Its almost passe to describe a parent complaining that “back when I was in school we actually had to…”.  Teachers do this a lot.  But is it really true? 

I try to get my students to understand that science is all about not making up your mind 100% about anything, its about assigning probablities to each explanation to a question.  For instance:

The most beautiful girl in the school just said “hello” to me, why did she do that? 

(1) She thinks I am hot, I should ask her out

(2) She doesn’t think anything about me and just said “hello” to a fellow human being, I should not ask her out.

(3) Somebody paid her $20 to say “hello” to me, I should have stayed at the punchbowl and not danced by myself to  Lionel Richie’s awesome “Say You, Say Me” at the dance last weekend even though he is speaking directly to me.

You have to go out and get some data to test these possible explanations, talk to other people about her & her motivations, observe her behaviors etc etc. But all along you have to keep all the possibilities in your head lest you make the wrong move and complete your ongoing involuntary social-suicide.  You must rule out #2 and #3 before you ask her out.  Practically speaking, you can’t rule out  #2 as popular girls are not the most reliable sources of information in your experience.  You may never be able to rule out #3 either if she or the other person doesn’t tell you… she might have been put up to it but then discovered how hot you are..eventually she embraces your fetish for Lionel Richie and sees you as a Conan the Barbarian type figure who disguises himself as a smart, quirky D&D dungeon master.  In that case there would be 2 hypotheses that might explain that initial “hello” and she might love you so much yet be so insecure that she will never ever tell you about that initial reason she said hello. 

I use this example with my students to point out that they are doing science *all the time*.

So, practicing what I preach: why are teachers complaining that students are coming in less prepared for critical thinking?

(1) Students really are less able to think critically. 

(2) Humans have a natural tendency to complain about the present state of any affair

(3) Students aren’t getting worse, the complaining teachers are getting better.

I know that the second part of #3 is happening.  But what about #1 – I don’t doubt my colleagues observations.    They have given the same sorts of questions to students for years and years.  Their complaining is valid data.  BUT, is #2 going on too?  We all know how much our parents went on about how better behaved kids were and all that, could this explain things?

Evidence: the paper I reference above was published in 1992 and the data for his conclusions where obtained in 1986-1989.  His description of student’s inability to critically think over 20 years ago sounds like our complaints now.  Granted, this isn’t back in the 1930s and 1940s, when, apparently kids were able to read a book while walking uphill through the snow and then write a 3 page essay in Latin, using cursive writing that was legible.  I don’t think we can rule out #2.

So I am hopeful.  Kids these days might not measure up, but probably kids never ever have.


About SubOptimist

I am an Associate Professor in the Science Department at Georgia Perimeter College, Clarkston. I teach introductory biology courses at both the majors and non-majors level in addition to microbiology. Previous to that I spent 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher on different viruses. While I don't miss being on the "grant treadmill", I think better when I write and miss writing up data for papers and grants; this blog helps me with that a little. And sometimes my kids' insanely funny and cute antics need to be shared with the world. Any view expressed in this blog is that of me personally and not Georgia Perimeter College or the GPC Clarkston Science Department.
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