Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Encouraging Skeptical Minds

I know some of you have read this already, but it's such a great story I couldn't help but put it up. In this week's Swift, Randi posts an article about a great teacher. I hope neither he nor Life minds me reproducing it in full.

From reader Ted Smith comes this excellent article written by David Owen and published in Life Magazine, in October, 1990:
The Best Teacher I Ever Had

Mr. Whitson taught sixth-grade science. On the first day of class, he gave us a lecture about a creature called the cattywampus, an ill-adapted nocturnal animal that was wiped out during the Ice Age. He passed around a skull as he talked. We all took notes and later had a quiz.

When he returned my paper, I was shocked. There was a big red X through each of my answers. I had failed. There had to be some mistake! I had written down exactly what Mr. Whitson said. Then I realized that everyone in the class had failed. What had happened?

Very simple, Mr. Whitson explained. He had made up all that stuff about the cattywampus. There had never been such an animal. The information in our notes was, therefore, incorrect. Did we expect credit for incorrect answers?

Needless to say, we were outraged. What kind of test was this? And what kind of teacher?

We should have figured it out, Mr. Whitson said. After all, at the very moment he was passing around the Cattywampus skull (in truth, a cat’s), hadn’t he been telling us that no trace of the animal remained? He had described its amazing night vision, the color of its fur and any number of other facts he couldn’t have known. He had given the animal a ridiculous name, and we still hadn’t been suspicious. The zeroes on our papers would be recorded in his grade book, he said. And they were.

Mr. Whitson said he hoped we would learn something from this experience: teachers and textbooks are not infallible. In fact, no one is. He told us not to let our minds go to sleep, and to speak up if we ever thought he or the textbook was wrong.

Every class was an adventure with Mr. Whitson. I can still remember some science periods almost from beginning to end. One day he told us that his Volkswagen was a living organism. It took us two full days to put together a refutation he would accept. He didn’t let us off the hook until we had proved not only that we knew what an organism was but also that we had the fortitude to stand up for the truth.

We carried our brand-new skepticism into all our classes. This caused problems for the other teachers, who weren’t used to being challenged. Our history teacher would be lecturing about something, and then there would be clearings of the throat and someone would say, "Cattywampus."

If I’m ever asked to propose a solution to the crisis in our schools, it will be Mr. Whitson. I haven’t made any great scientific discoveries, but Mr. Whitson’s class gave me and my classmates something just as important: the courage to look people in the eye and tell them they are wrong. He also showed us that you can have fun doing it.

Not everyone sees the value in this. I once told an elementary school teacher about Mr. Whitson. The teacher was appalled. "He shouldn’t have tricked you like that," he said. I looked the teacher right in the eye and told him he was wrong.
Ted – and David Owen, if he’s still around – I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several Mr. Whitsons in my life. Mr. Henderson – I don’t think any of us knew his first name, and we students were always similarly addressed by him, as by all of our teachers, as "Mr. Zwinge," or whatever was called for – was one of those teachers. He delighted in giving us mathematical puzzles just before he dismissed a class, and thoroughly expected us to have an answer when we sat down to class the following day. Mr. Tovell, who taught us physics, would mischievously sketch out a somewhat plausible perpetual-motion machine on the blackboard, then ask us to return the next day to explain why we thought the machine would – or would not – work. These were problems that stimulated our imaginations, made us eager to get to the next class, and I feel sure are not the sort of thing that modern teachers become involved with. Our history teacher was a Mr. Grow, who would occasionally drop in an obviously false comment or two while giving us an account of some event with which he hoped we’d become familiar. And, occasionally he fooled us all and then was able to show us how he had done this to our young minds.

Those were teachers…!

I wish I had been taught by teachers like that. If any of us go on to teach (anything more than labs), we should use this lesson.


Ben said...

I thought that was amazing when I read it. Not only does it teach a valuable lesson, but it would let me have some fun at the students' expenses. All for the sake of education. I swear.