“How should I answer these questions—according to what you taught me, or how I usually think about these things?” That’s what a student asked a professor who was trying to assess their understanding of some basic concepts in a physics course. As chronicled in an article titled “Twilight of the Lecture,” (http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture) the students did not have a good understanding of the basic concepts taught in the course though they were passing all the exams.
The point of the article was that this reveals a huge gap between what professors think they are teaching by lecture and what students really learn. I think there is another important point to glean from this not-so-isolated phenomenon.
Let’s consider that question again from the student: “How should I answer these questions—according to what you taught me, or how I usually think about these things?” I think this question reveals another gap worth addressing. The gap between what students think they already know and what they must tolerate from professors in order to pass courses. I suspect this question reveals a deep distrust of what is being taught in the classroom. What are the possible sources of this distrust and what can be done to address it? I’m not sure I have an answer but I will share some thoughts on the question.
I have noticed a growing skepticism among students in my courses for several years now. The best example of this happened to me in an Introduction to Philosophy course. I was talking to a student before class began. She was describing her lack of interest in what we were covering in the course and I asked her what she was interested in. I was hoping to show her a connection between what we were covering in the course and what she was already interested in. She replied that her major was psychology. I responded by pointing out that psychology was really an outgrowth of philosophy and many of the first psychologists were, in fact, also philosophers to which she replied “so you say.”
Naturally I was taken aback by this response! Could I have just made up the connection between philosophy and psychology? Perhaps I did this from an unacknowledged bias for philosophy. Perhaps I would have claimed such spurious connections between philosophy and anything she mentioned. While I have not encountered such overt distrust in what I say in the classroom often I have noticed a growing trend towards subtle distrust.
I’m not saying that this distrust is always misplaced and should be replaced by a blind acceptance of whatever is said in the classroom by professors. Goodness knows academics have made mistakes in the past and will continue to do so. But, what is troubling is the ease with which consensus expert knowledge is being rejected out of hand before even being learned. Michael Specter writes about this in his book titled Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.
There is so much knowledge that we have gained even in the past few decades that provides useful insights into many areas of life and while it’s not possible to keep up with the production of this knowledge, as an academic and educator it is quite disheartening to see students who lack even a basic curiosity about this knowledge and do not even see that it might be beneficial to them to reach out and learn about these new insights.
What are your thoughts on this? What can be done to inspire both curiosity and critical thinking regarding what is being taught in the classroom?
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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