Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Skepticism, Trust and a Class Activity


Reading Time: 4 minutes

So Mike Caulfield is on a roll (as he often is, but this roll is so in line with what I’m teaching nowadays so I’m keeping a close eye). The latest blogpost of his laments how students have become so skeptical, they don’t discriminate in their skepticism any more. So he gives examples of how they’ll dismiss some obvious fake science type websites but equally dismiss something considerably more credible like Mayo Clinic. That’s…sad. I think it’s good to question everything, including authority, but to eventually recognize what deserves relatively more trust vs others. Which is what Mike is saying. You gotta put your trust somewhere.

I commented on his blog as follows (exact text)

Yes. This. So this made me think of several things and inspiring me to do a class activity which I’ll blog about in a minute. First reaction is, you’re basically describing Perry’s model of intellectual development. Students get stuck in multiplicity and relativism but haven’t yet moved onto contextual relativism where they can recognize when one thing is more authoritative than another given additional information about context, etc. (roughly speaking). The other important thing, though, is that when we over emphasize skepticism we lead students to that cynicism, but we need to constantly also talk about when to trust (something more in line with feminist approaches to critical thinking). The last thing I’m thinking of is that this is where the far right extremists go wrong in applying criticality. They misuse what we call critical thinking to just call everything fake on their own whim and resist authority for being authority.

i say all this, and Perry’s model of intellectual development is highly problematic (built on mostly white male Harvard students) but hey. Women have built on it with more diverse research participants and they came up with the thing where you infuse connected knowing before constructed knowing and voila – space to build trust and not just skepticism… Now I’ve forgotten the class activity, but it’ll come to me eventually…

On Thursday I invited the wonderful Sherri Spelic to my class. She did a lot of wonderful activities and energized the students in really special ways. Then her closing activity which took up a lot of class time was one on edtech hype. She gave them a list of i think 100 hype words and asked them to make hyperbolic slogans or statements. First individually, then competitively (who could make the longest one) and then in groups writing copy to follow the slogans.

This, to me, was partly an exercise in recognizing how use of hyperbolic phrasing is done around us and that there’s often very little substance behind it, and very little in the way of meeting those promises claimed. One of the things that is highly problematic is how some big edtech or just tech leaders have rhetoric that implies goodwill (Facebook anyone?) but their practices say otherwise… And so of course whenever they claim anything you lose trust in them.

Anyway. So back to the class activity. I’ve still not remembered what I originally wanted to do! But I’m thinking now of the 3 acts of media literacy that Mike had blogged about earlier.. Where first students investigate something to gauge its relative credibility, then we discuss social issues around it, then we discuss actions students can take (immediately or as habits to do in general) about it.

The last time I did one of those activities, we compared the credibility of the Daily Mirror vs Guardian – and that this type of knowledge was contextual, based on a particular student in my class knowing immediately that the Daily Mirror wasn’t a credible source. Perhaps we should have gone further into exploring how we would learn about the credibility of a source if we didn’t know already (since there’s really no reason to assume my students in Egypt read or know about UK newspapers).

In my PhD research, I asked students how much skepticism they held for these authorities: local news sources, international news sources, teachers and religious authorities.

I think for this class, we could discuss and create a map of different sources that purport to be authorities on those things, and possibly create a spectrum and taxonomy of levels of trust. Establishing the source’s trustworthiness is important but only part of the big picture.

We might do this taxonomy with particular fields like medicine – who is an authority in medicine and within each category whom do we trust more? Why do people take a second opinion, and how does that NOT MEAN “anything goes”?

My husband recently shared with me an Arabic language article purporting to report some research. I found the original source in English. There was the original research article, then there was some reporter Summarizing it. The Egyptian article mistakenly thought the reporter was the original researcher, and took the article out of context. The reporter himself also hadn’t described the original research clearly. The research itself, was questionable in terms of its political orientation and how that might have influenced why and how it was done. But it was still, in itself, published in a peer-reviewed journal (in a field I don’t know so couldn’t immediately judge if it’s a good journal). It might be interesting to dig into this one and figure out at which level we trust something. Especially when we’re talking about trusting even the sources that make us skeptical. I mean, one of the ways Caulfield suggests we check credibility of a newspaper is to see what others have written about it, including Wikipedia, so there’s some trust going on somewhere…

At the moment, I’m keeping the topic and links for this article to myself because I want to use it in class and don’t want students to find it on my blog yet. But I’ll post them after the class activity, hopefully.

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