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Incorporating Skeptical Thinking in an EAP Classroom

In a previous posting, I mentioned my experiment with teaching science fact and fiction in a reading class for intermediate students. I was connecting two ideas I had about teaching reading. The first idea was one I planned for my second year as a Senior English Language Fellow in Samara, Russia. I was going to demonstrate how to teach content-based instruction using American science-fiction. This never came to be.

My second idea came about last year when my wife and I became increasingly interested in the skeptical movement after becoming avid listeners to the podcast, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. While listening to the show, I was thinking how certain topics would encourage my students to apply critical thinking to their reading. Some of the topics, such as UFOs and psychic ability, would be understandable and entertaining for students at the intermediate level. In addition, I think most topics in the realm of superstition and pseudoscience are of interest to most people around the age of twenty.

The biggest challenge was to find the right text for intermediate readers of English. If reading ability were not an issue, I would have chosen Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, filled with elegant prose. However, I needed a text that was organized more like a textbook to help students learn how to use the table of contents, indexes, and bibliographies. I also wanted a text with some visual aids or graphic organizers. I visited the local library, a used bookstore, and one of the big chain bookstores to find the best text for the class.

I picked up James Randi's Flim-Flam!, Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things and Terence Hines' Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Although I believe James Randi would be the best source for skeptical inquiry, the latter books were published more recently and organized more like a textbook. It was a difficult decision to choose between Shermer and Hines, but I went with Shermer's book because it wasn't as intimidating in appearance to intermediate readers of English.

In my said previous posting, I briefly went over my approach to help students acquire the reading strategies needed to get the gist of the whole text. I stated that I was using language-driven content-based instruction, where the language is more important than the content. Specifically, my primary goal was to develop students' reading strategies. A secondary goal was to encourage their skeptical thinking.

On a personal level, I thought this would be an interesting class to discover my students' beliefs, tolerance for other beliefs, and their ability to think critically. Because the large majority of my class was Chinese, I assumed that many students would hold many superstitious beliefs, especially concerning luck. I was surprised to find this to be true for about half of my Chinese students. I discovered that the more skeptical Chinese students tended to have the Communist party's stance on old Chinese thinking.

As my previous posting on this subject was more about teaching reading, this rest of this posting will focus more on how and what skepticism was taught.

During the first week, I let students read through the table of contents to select the chapters that seemed most interesting to them. Here were the top 5 in order of chapter:
  • Chapter 3 - How Thinking Goes Wrong
  • Chapter 4 - Deviations (about Edgar Cayce)
  • Chapter 5 - Through the Invisible (about near death experiences)
  • Chapter 6 - Abducted! (about alien abudctions)
  • Chapter 12 - Doing Donahue (about free speech and Holocaust deniers)
I thought we would have enough time to cover at least these 5 chapters, but I was wrong. We only had enough time to cover chapters 3 through 5. However, I made it mandatory to read the prologue and Chapter 2, which is about the difference between science and pseudoscience. We would not continue reading the book until all students knew the general purpose and audience of the text and the new the core idea of science versus pseudoscience.

Chapter 3 was covered in my class and in an adjunct course to help develop testing skills. I gave students one week to preview chapter 3 on their own before they would have an open-book exam on chapter 3. After that exam, they would be lectured on how to improve their open-book test-taking skills.

Even though I believe the contents in chapter 3 are important to understand the skeptical movement, I thought the material was too dense to cover in a reading course. Chapter 3 alone could have been one course. So students took only what they got out of chapter 3 for themselves.

When we came to chapter 4, I already assessed that most students were generally able to find the main idea from each chapter well enough for the class, so we worked on getting details. However, getting the details from an i+2 (a modification of Krashen's input hypothesis) text would be quite challenging. So I made most of the tasks simple enough for them to achieve in order to gain confidence. Here are some examples of the tasks I asked them to do when reading chapter 4:
  • What is Edgar Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightment a classical example of?
  • What is the main idea of the last paragraph on page 65?
  • List 3 topics that interest you most from the first paragraph on page 66.
  • List 3 topics that you do not believe in from the first paragraph on page 66.
  • What is the main idea of the second paragraph on page 66?
  • Which paragraph starts to give details about Edgar Cayce?
  • What details about Edgar Cayce are important to support the main idea of this book?
It was around this time that students' reading ability took a huge leap forward and they noticed it themselves.

For chapter 5, I demonstrated to the class how to make an outline as an example of good note-taking techniques. Here's an example:

I. Introduction
A. Jack Schwarz’s seminar, “Voluntary Controls of Internal States”
1. Jack is a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp
2. The seminar teaches mind control through meditation
3. Shermer was impressed by Jack putting a nail through his biceps
B. Organization of his seminar
1. Part 1 is educational – chakras and mind control
2. Part 2 is practical – how to meditate
3. Shermer’s experience of trying but failing
C. Retrospective = the act of thinking about one’s past
1. Some people believe more easily
2. Near-death experience is similar
(the format of this outline cannot be published in the way I would like)

From this example, students could identify that that the Roman numberals represented the section of the chapter, the capital letters represented the main idea of each paragraph, and the numbers represented the supporting details of the main ideas. For the second section of the chapter, I provided the main ideas of each paragraph and they had to provide the details. For the third section of the chapter, I provided the details and they had to provide the main ideas.

During this exercise, the students and I learned a lot about each other concerning our attitudes towards death. Surprisingly many of my students didn't give much thought to death. Even more surprisingly, a large majority of the class were highly skeptical of a life after death. Some students did not know why this chapter was in the book, and I had to point out that many cultures believe in life after death. I proceeded to explain the predominant Christian belief that many Americans hold about this topic.

By the time we finished chapter 5, only a week remained to cover Shermer's text. As stated in the previous posting, we skimmed through the other chapters to find the main ideas. With the little time we had, we discussed our culture's belief towards the topics of aliens, witches, Ayn Rand, evolution, creationism, Holocaust denial, and racism.

The diverse mix in my class provided interesting beliefs towards the religious end. I had a few Christians, a Muslim, and many atheists or agnostics. The idea of creationism seemed preposterous to all of the atheists and agnostics, and at least one Christian who said she interpreted the Bible metaphorically. Those who believed in creationism knew they were in the minority and kept quiet for the most part. I encouraged open-mindedness in my class, but they were still afraid to say too much.

However my students were not afraid to speak their minds about the Holocaust. Nobody in my class denied the Holocaust of World War II, but many students held ideas about the Jews that would seem uninformed to many Americans. I expected this from a few students but not from a good portion of the class. I was not prepared to go into a lengthy debate about Jews, so I let it end quickly, but I kept it in my mind for a later class.

In conclusion, I'm not sure how much skeptical thinking I encouraged in my students, but I am sure that I improved their reading abilities. They did not take my class to become more skeptical although they did take it to develop critical thinking, from which skepticism branches off.

In a future posting, I will address how I would like to apply skeptical thinking in future ESL classes and teacher training workshops and seminars.

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