Monthly Archives: January 2016

On Captive Audiences and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

By Jen

Ah, the halcyon days of elementary school. Cheery greetings at drop-off and pick-up, daily opportunities for parent involvement in the classrooms, chatty, colorful newsletters keeping you up to date about your child’s day, countless social interactions with other school families, and reliably uncontroversial, predictable lesson plans.

By contrast, the journey through secondary school is marked by reduced contact with parents and a shift in focus to the main stakeholder: the student. I quickly became aware of this when my firstborn entered middle school. Suddenly he had six teachers instead of one. He had friends I’d never met. He had homework in subjects I hadn’t given much thought to in 30-odd years (hello, Algebra!), as well as exposure to new perspectives, ideas, curricular materials, and, importantly, an expanded role in his own education.

Although it took a bit of adjusting on my part, I have learned to embrace my diminished role in the day to day school experience, largely because taking ownership of their academic affairs has been a key component of my kids becoming more self-reliant and developing independent critical thinking skills. We converse daily about school, but the onus is on them to be their own advocates whenever possible. If they have a question about an assignment or a grade, they’re fully capable of contacting the teacher directly and resolving the issue.

Now some years into the secondary school routine, both kids are comfortable with their current levels of independence and corresponding accountability. I’m enormously proud of both of them for taking initiative to solve problems when needed, and being truly engaged, committed students. All that said, my comfort in sending them into the wilds of public education unaccompanied is rooted in the trust of the quality of the education they’re receiving. For the most part, this trust is warranted, but there have been rare missteps.

Both of the recent incidents I’m about to relate centered around topics that were completely appropriate fodder for the teen classroom. But the materials chosen to introduce them were so outrageously biased and inaccurate, I felt like I had to intervene. The larger issue that these episodes bring into focus is that there is a significant different between preaching critical thinking and practicing it. ‘Critical Thinking’ is a phrase that many of our secondary school teachers use in describing their classroom dynamics, but, as these incidents show, building critical thinking opportunities into the learning process does not always occur.

The general formula is as follows:

1. Kid comes home and voices concerns about the accuracy of a ‘documentary’ presented in class
2. We do some research together and quickly realize that said ‘documentary’ is indeed rubbish.
3. With the consent of the kid, I formulate a polite email to teacher, endorsing discussion of the topic, but questioning the choice of material and inquiring about future plans to give students a more balanced picture.
4. Teacher replies with generally unsatisfying promise of balanced discussion and critical thinking.
5. I counter that a great opportunity for critical thinking has been presented in the form of discussing the validity of the material in question.
6. The unit wraps up quickly with notable scarcity of critical thinking and is never revisited.

In the first instance, without preamble or context, a middle school Social Studies teacher showed the class the HBO Vice episode entitled “Savior Seeds”, a decidedly biased take on the use of GE traits in agriculture. I’ve never watched VICE, though I’ve heard good things and it’s apparently won some awards, but considering that one of the executive producers is Bill Maher, inaccurate reporting of science-based issues isn’t exactly surprising.

After viewing the GE portion of the program and discussing the content with my kid (step 2) I proceeded to step 3: first contact. The response contained much bloviating about critical thinking and letting kids do their own research. I opined that, while that was a stellar idea in principle, biased introductory materials were detrimental to this process.

The next day, my kid came home with a lengthy printout of websites through which to ‘do his own research’. The printout was from the resource page of ‘The Future of Food’ website, which contains a long list of links to anti-GMO organizations. Sigh. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Johann_Peter_Hasenclever_-_Die_Dorfschule (1)On the final day of the ‘research’ phase, the kids were instructed to go to the Monsanto website during class and look things up for themselves. Finally, while no ‘debate’ was held, students were encouraged to share whatever they wanted about their research. According to my kid, most of the class was either neutral or slightly in favor of GE technology, and it was clear from the teacher’s response that this was not her desired outcome. I couldn’t help but wonder how much the direction of the unit had changed due to my intervention. And it was hard not to think that whatever critical thinking had occurred in the class was in spite of, rather than because of, the way in which the material had been presented.
The second incident occurred a few months later, in a high school Health class. This time, the questionable material came in the form of a film called “Forks over Knives”, which presents an argument for a plant-based diet being superior to all others. On the face of it, that’s not a controversial claim at all. Consuming less animal fat and more fresh fruits & vegetables is one component of the standard recommendations for reducing disease  risks across the board.

The problem, described in some detail here and here, is that ‘Forks over Knives’ grossly overstates the benefits of their particular plant-based diet based on some notoriously shoddy research. This, combined with the scary implications that all other diets are a fast-track to pain and death, concerned me mightily. Adolescents already have a whole lot of risk factors for disordered eating, so adding these unsubstantiated claims to their pile of things to worry about—again, with no context or balance given, seems like a terrible approach to ‘Health’.

Again, steps 1-6 proceeded. Again, the classroom outcome was underwhelming. No other materials were presented, and there was no discussion of the merits or shortcomings of the film. The teacher announced at the conclusion of the unit that some parts of the film were accurate and some were not, but didn’t give examples of either. Again, a golden opportunity for actual critical thinking was squandered.

Again, I wondered what the outcome would have been had I not raised concerns about the source material.

Part of the underlying issue here is the relative ease in finding misinformation vs. accurate material. The internet is full of outrageous lies, many of them packaged in attractive, professional-looking, plausible formats. Science-based information, by contrast, doesn’t always rise to the top of a Google search. It can be hard to find in the first place, and often inscrutable when located. No wonder the pretty lies can travel so much farther—even as far as our K-12 classrooms.

This makes me wonder how many times this sort of thing plays out in various classrooms everywhere, and how many—or how few–times parents like me speak up. Recognition that a classroom full of kids is the very definition of ‘a captive audience’ is one key reason why action is so unambiguously warranted when a teacher’s religious views influence their curriculum. But there’s no recourse when broader unscientific views are taught as objective truth. Teaching kids how to think critically would go a long way toward minimizing the impact of such sub-par source materials, but in our experience thus far there have been disappointingly few opportunities to develop these skills in any practical sense.

One big positive in all this is the awareness that my kids clearly have excellent BS detectors. One could argue that, since they clearly know not to believe everything they hears without verification, there’s no need for me to intervene. But it’s not just them I’m thinking about. All the promises of critical thinking as a tenet of modern instruction aside, most secondary students still view classroom materials as objectively true and accurate. When inaccurate information enters the classroom, it’s the kids who haven’t been cultivated to think for themselves whom I worry about.

You might disagree with my choice to voice these concerns on the grounds that it doesn’t respect academic freedom and/or disrespects the efforts of already overworked public school teachers. I absolutely do not mean to malign teachers in general, or even these particular teachers. I know how hard they work. I know how challenging the job is. I know how much both my kids have benefitted from the efforts and dedication of their teachers over the years, and I know that much of that benefit has come from the individual passions and personal interests that these teachers have brought into their classrooms. I know that teaching kids how to think is much, much harder in every possible way than telling them what to think.

All that said, I don’t regret my decision to challenge their choices in how these materials were presented. It may not make any difference to the way they teach these topics in the future, but it might. I hope it will, and I think it was worth it to try.

I’m under no illusion that this is the end of classroom controversies for our family. Already I see that ‘Alternative Medicine’ is on the syllabus for one child’s class later this school year, so stay tuned for how that plays out!

Meanwhile, maybe there’s a lesson here in the importance of staying engaged with your child’s education, even as they grow more self-sufficient and autonomous. These experiences are adding to the critical thinking toolkit my kids are currently assembling for themselves. My efforts to foster this are an investment in their futures, just like their extensive orthodontic interventions, or the college plans we’ve been paying into since they were babies. Learning how to sort out good facts from bad will pay dividends, no matter what academic, professional, or personal pursuits lie ahead.

Please like & share:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Just Being a Mommy Stories

New Year, New Job, New Voices

Remember over a year ago when I wrote about how difficult it is for stay-at-home moms to return to the work force? Not because you might want to continue to stay home (please kill me now) but because it’s very hard to overcome the stigma associated with women who voluntarily leave their careers to raise kids? And how I was feeling shocked by the very real possibility of not being able to get a job I thought was worth my time and experience? Well, scratch all that. I got a job.

No big deal, it only took me two years. Given the fact that Portland is a city full of highly educated hipsters all willing work for pennies just to live in Portland, I’m kind of impressed that I managed to get a job at all. I’m patting myself on the back about that.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how I should write this post, and there are two points I want to make. The first one is easier; it’s the advice I’d give to other stay-at-home moms who want to return to work at some point. Here it is: make certain you’re looking for a career in something you genuinely care about, and keep your toe in the water even if you have to do it for free or even pay out of pocket. Don’t pursue a career in something just because that’s what you did before. If you didn’t like it then, you’re not going to like it any better now. Pick something you feel passionately enough about that you might be willing to do it in your spare time. Because you probably should be doing it in your spare time. There were definitely times my husband said, “What? You’re going to pay your own money to go to a professional conference?” or “Why are you getting up at 6 am on a Saturday to take pictures of a Christmas tree harvest … for free?” or “That’s not worth your time, you’re hardly making any money on that job.” I felt strongly enough about advocating these issues that I kept doing it anyway; so find something you feel that strongly about and make yourself valuable in that industry by continuing to do it in some capacity. Even if that means re-training. Do some soul searching and if you have to go back to night school for a few years, do it.

The next point flows naturally out of the above, but is a little trickier. In the end, I’m a journalist, and I’m guided by those ethics classes I took in journalism school (even though I get the feeling many journalists can’t seem to be bothered with that). I feel compelled to be transparent about any potential conflicts of interest. I don’t want you, readers, to feel like now I’m getting paid to have an opinion and so somehow that lowers my trustworthiness. At the same time, I’m not willing to give up my anonymity for all the very real reasons I’ve written about before. So, I’m not going to tell you where I work. But here’s what I will tell you – I got hired into my job because of my passion, knowledge, and voice of reason on many of the issues I have discussed on this blog. I’m not getting paid to have my opinions, I’m getting paid because I already had those opinions. That’s an important distinction. This blog has always been and continues to be based on my own well-researched opinions. Nonetheless, I’ll promise you that I will not write posts on topics that directly conflict me or would have an immediate impact in my field.

Now, on to some more exciting news: I’m adding three new writers to It’s MomSense! I’m really looking forward to diversifying the number of voices on this blog – we’re coming up on two years since I started this and bringing in more opinions will help transform this blog into something even more valuable. It’s also necessary. There are just not enough hours in the day for me to work a full-time job, exercise, spend time with my family, sleep AND create regular compelling content for this blog. Enter the new writers.

I’ve asked them each to introduce themselves to you below, but all four of us have a few things in common: we’re all moms, we all live in Oregon, and we’re all passionate about evidence-based thought. You’ve also already met all three of them: Jen wrote a guest post on sunscreen last summer, I profiled Tiffany’s farm last fall, and although she’s unnamed in my post, Sarah was part of the March Against Myths campaign I blogged about last May.

Joining me on the new It’s MomSense team:

——– Jen ——–

JenI’m a scientist and mother based in Eugene, Oregon.  My husband and I moved to Eugene for me to attend graduate school at the U of O and loved it here so much we never left.  I had both my kids in grad school, and graduated with my PhD in Biology in 2003.  After completing a postdoctoral fellowship, I was invited to stay on as a non-tenure track research associate. My work focuses mainly the molecular biology of Usher syndrome, a hereditary form of deaf-blindness.  You can read some of my blog posts on this topic on the Usher Syndrome Coalition blog, where I’ve been a contributor for the past eight years.

My children, now teenagers, have taught me a lot about who I am as a parent, an educator, and a person, and some of my contributions here will be about what I’ve learned on that journey so far.  I am the product of a parenting style in which all that I did–every action, accomplishment, and misstep–was evaluated solely by how it reflected on the parent. My own parenting approach is pretty much 180 degrees from that.  My kids are their own people, increasingly accountable to and responsible for themselves as they grow. To facilitate them being the best versions of themselves, I have tried to create the structure and security for them to explore their interests and obligations in the way that feels best to them.  I usually let them figure things out for themselves rather than providing the answers. I encourage them to question the information that comes to them from all sources and form their own opinions.

Living an evidence-based, grounded life in Eugene, Ore. has its challenges, given that the culture here tends to skew more toward fairies than facts. The community vibe as a whole is often in stark contrast to my work and home life, but it definitely makes for some interesting conversations!  I strongly believe that effectively communicating science—and debunking pseudoscience—requires respect and genuine acknowledgement of different points of view.  No matter how clear cut the facts are, science can only speak for itself if people are willing to listen.

You can follow me on Twitter @ClutchScience, and soon on Facebook, as soon as I get around to activating my professional page.

——– Tiffany ——–

TiffanyFarming in real life; that’s what my family does. Not what the media says, not what the latest issue of Natural News says, and certainly not how that meme that your BFF shared from the Food Babe says. We farm in the real world. The everyday, not-so-exciting, get-your-hands-dirty, sweat-in-your-eyes real world of farming.

Keith and I are 4th generation family farmers working alongside his parents in the Willamette Valley, right next to the state capital of Salem. Our farm focuses on seed crops like wheat, grass seed, barley, oats, turnip seed, and field peas. In the last few years we started to plant hazelnuts (It’s MomSense blog post) and that has added a lot of excitement to our lives.

I work off the farm right now in the corporate world as an assistant for agricultural appraisers in a small but growing company. Balancing being a working mom after being a SAHM has been an adjustment for the whole family. I am sure that there are many of you that could relate and maybe even give me a few tips!

We have two funny/smart/awesome/infuriating/charming daughters from my previous marriage who are initiating us into parenting the teen years. Go US! Also we have a scattering of pets that seem to show up in my social media channels often because, well, pets are fun.

I grew up “in town” so when I married Keith, I was not only marrying him but this way of life. Culture shock is the best way to describe it.  Several years later, I am still adjusting but I’d like to think I am getting the hang of it.

If you want to know more about me or our farm, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter. I also started a Facebook page recently, where I will be focusing on farming posts. A couple of years ago I did a spot for KATU Channel 2 for the Celebrate Agriculture campaign. Check out the video!

——– Sarah ——–

sarahI’m a twenty-something vegan mom of a rambunctious three- year-old boy and full-time student working toward a B.S. in Biology at Portland State University. When not busy with school and child-rearing, I enjoy spending my time communicating and advocating for science and biotech as well as completing the occasional craft project and eating copious amounts of soy ice cream.

As a young vegan growing up in Portland, I once fell prey to many myths associated with health and nutrition. I believed that organic food was safer and more sustainable than conventionally-farmed foods, that it was important to avoid “toxins” and processed foods and that genetically-modified crops were a science fiction horror story waiting to happen. Although I considered myself a skeptic and science enthusiast, I subscribed to these views because of how pervasive they were and continue to be. Becoming a mother further compounded these beliefs, as I was surrounded by misinformation from both the internet and well-intentioned friends and family members who had me believing that unmedicated birth, long-term breastfeeding, “clean” eating and attachment parenting were the only ways to ensure that my child would have a healthy and happy upbringing.

Once I realized that many of the views I held were not supported by empirical evidence, I immediately felt compelled to learn more and to educate others. I now understand that genetic engineering is not only as safe as traditional breeding methods but that it also holds many advantages for the environment, for global economy and for human and animal welfare. My current focus is educating other vegans about crop biotech, as I believe vegans especially should acknowledge and embrace the benefits this technology has for animals and the environment. In May 2015 I helped co-organize the Portland chapter of the international March Against Myths movement and have since become involved in pro-science activism both online and in person.

As a mom, I want my son to live in a society that values education, rationality and human progress. When parents decline to vaccinate their children, citizens vote against water fluoridation and misguided activists fight to oppose new breeding technologies I believe that human health suffers and progress is hindered.

————-

That’s the new team. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what this next year brings and how this blog will grow and change. Thanks for coming along with us for the ride.

 

 

Please like & share:

5 Comments

Filed under Just Being a Mommy Stories