An Activity to Introduce Critical Thinking for Throwback Thursday

This is a write-up I did for a presentation back in the early 90’s.  I was sharing this activity that I did for several years with some KABT folks this evening and  I was sure they would find it on the KABT site but I can’t find it.  So, here it is.  I think it speaks for itself….and it is a lot of fun, if you can keep your poker-face.

Science teachers are working hard to respond to our needs for a scientifically literate citizenry. It could be just the crowd I hang around, perhaps it’s just our increased ability to communicate or it could be my occupational bias but I am certain that more science teachers provide more effective laboratory experiences more often than in the past. Without addressing the limitation of standardized testing, why do we (the U.S.) fair so poorly when compared to other countries achievement in science education?

I do not wish to provide an extensive analysis here, it’s neither the time nor the place but I would propose that a fundamental problem exits today that must be countered before the goal of “science for all Americans” can be attained. That problem is our society’s propensity for the acceptance of the weird and supernatural as viable models of the natural world. For want of a better way of describing this problem I am referring to it as a lack of critical thinking skills. The following activity brings home to you and your students an important message–the importance of skepticism when encountering and explaining weird phenomena.

Background InformationThis activity is based on an experience that I had at an NSF funded teacher enhancement project at Benedictine College in the 1980’s. Jim Teller, a teacher from Iowa, and I essentially conned the rest of the participants into believing that I had some sort of paranormal talents. Of course, I didn’t have any such abilities but I was struck by how easy it was to fool almost all of the other teachers into believing that I did. I am convinced that we all received a valuable lesson from Jim, one that you can share with your students.

This type of activity is difficult to standardize so that it works everywhere. I’ll simply provide a narrative of what I did with my classes this year. Hopefully, you’ll have enough detail so that you can repeat the experience for your students if you wish. Also, I hope that the broad concepts of what is involved will be clear enough that you can design your own experience.

Every year, at the beginning of the school year, something in the media really disturbs me. It might be a report on “crop circles” or a discussion of Nancy Reagan’s reliance of astrological consultation for scheduling former President Reagan’s social calendar. This year, it was the prevalence of network shows that are based on the presumption of alien life forms here on this planet or the ability to “profile” a murder. I wait until something that reeks of paranormal or pseudoscience occurs in the media. Unfortunately, you can count on the near ubiquity of this kind of material in the media. In response, without student foreknowledge, I arrange a paranormal experience in our classroom that fits seamlessly with whatever topic that we are covering.

The gist of the experience is to set up a situation in which the students discover that one of their classmates has ESP. I’ve pre-selected this student as an accomplice–no one is suspicious. The discovery is by accident. Once the claim is made then a series of tests or experiments are performed. I set the parameters for the first set of tests, all the while being openly skeptical. Students have input by modifying the experiment within the parameters. The students want to believe in ESP so badly that they will usually not suspect that the ESP student and I are working together. Basically, I provide various clues to the ESP student about the solution to various experiments. The ESP student “proves” they have special abilities. This year my students were either particularly gullible or we are getting pretty good at pulling off a con since most of the classes were so convinced that they wanted exploit the ESP student for money. One of my students said to me with his mom present, “Mr. Williamson, what you did in Biology today was absolutely horrible!” His mom naturally was interested at this point. He then went on to say, “Today was the best science class he had ever had!” Hopefully, at least one student is skeptical enough to figure out that I am part of the trick but if they don’t, we let them in on it towards the end of the hour. After this experience I have little trouble convincing them of importance of critical thinking.

Specific details of the “con”

  1. I selected a student accomplice at the beginning of each hour making sure to not draw any special attention to what I am doing. I select carefully. You need someone who can think on their feet but that no one will suspect. I tell them that today they are going to have ESP. Their interest is peaked at this point.
  2. I inform the student accomplice that sometime during class discussion the topic will get around to ESP and when it does be sure to volunteer.

It is important that this discussion seem to be spontaneous and unplanned. Bring the students into the discussion. Eventually what I actually do is that I ask for a show of hands for those who think that they have experienced some kind of ESP-type of event. Several, including the accomplice always volunteer.

  1. The student accomplice and I quickly agree upon a set of signals before class. Since I set the parameters for the test, this is easy. I tell the accomplice that six objects will be on a table and one will be selected while he/she is out of the room. When they return they will “know” which object is selected because I’ll tell them. I tell them that I’ll be holding a clipboard for taking data on the experiment. They should visualize the clipboard as the table holding the six objects. Where I am holding my hand on the clipboard will indicate the location of the chosen object on the table. That’s all there is to it. However, since any good con has to have a back up we also establish a set of clues in case something goes wrong. One set of clues is the manner that I call them back into the room. For instance, if I say “Ready, now” then that means that something has gone wrong. They are to feign difficulty and say that something is not right this time. Another set of backup clues is my own position around another table in the room or my position in the room. There are lots of ways of doing this once you have an accomplice. Be creative and make sure that you have signals for when things aren’t quite right.

During class discussion when the students volunteer that they have suspect they have some form of ESP I suggest that we take six random objects and place them on a table. I carefully arrange the objects on the table. The suspected ESP students leave the room. A students volunteer selects one of the objects. This is done so that all of us remaining in the classroom know which is the selected object. The students come back into the classroom. The class is asked to concentrate on the object that was selected but don’t give any clues. Each of the returning students takes a guess at which object was selected. There’s a one out of six chance the correct object will be selected by any one student so we have to repeat the experiment several times. I inform the class of the odds at each trial. Naturally, usually after a couple of trials only the accomplice is correctly “detecting” the object selected. At this point I let the students in the room select 2 objects at once or none. When the accomplice returns I signal that something is changed and they can usually read any new signal that I make. It’s important that when the accomplice returns to the room that you (the teacher) is talking so that the accomplice has a legitimate reason for looking in your direction.

Within a short time nearly the entire class will be convinced that this person has ESP. Hopefully there will be a few that are skeptical and will want to try other forms of tests. Ask why, use this skepticism as a starting point for experimental design. Let them find you out–if possible. If not, be sure to expose the charade with enough time to discuss the purpose. This activity is not designed to make fools or teach con games. It’s purpose is to let students know how easy to accept rather outlandish claims.

To complete the lesson, the next day I show the NOVA video, “The Power of Psychics.” This video features the “Amazing Randi” debunking various psychic phenomena. Try it you’ll be “amazed”.



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