As a teacher, what was the most effective lesson plan you ever taught? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Every year I begin my chemistry classes with a very short reading assignment. Students have to read a paragraph and answer four short questions about it. I tell students they have to do this silently, and without looking at anyone else’s paper. Then, we’ll have a classroom discussion.
So the kids set to work. They read and write and within about 10 minutes, we’re ready to have our classroom discussion.
What they don’t know is that their identical looking papers are not identical. They’re very similar, but not quite the same.
Half of them have a paragraph talking about the dangers of argon. It causes cancer. It’s extremely poisonous. People can be seriously harmed by the stuff.
The other half of them have a paragraph talking about the benefits of argon. It helps fight cancer. It’s beneficial to breathe it. People can be helped by the stuff.
One of the questions students are asked is “What three words would you use to describe a person who gives free argon to children?”
Half of them use words like murderer and monster and evil. The other half use saint, healer, and kind.
The arguments erupt pretty quickly. I sit back and watch, smiling the whole time.
After a bit, they figure out they’ve been had. Some students are upset, but most find it somewhat funny.
But then I ask them about the last question on their sheet: “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is not very confident and 10 is incredibly confident, how confident are you about the dangers (benefits) of argon?”
Almost everyone used a big number here. There are plenty of 10s. I poll the class.
There is a moment of pause. I ask them who is right? Is argon dangerous or helpful?
More arguing. More frustration. I sit back and watch again. This one doesn’t take as long, usually. In short order, they want to know the truth. Which is it? Is it helpful or harmful? Tell us, Mr. C!
It’s neither. Argon is inert. It makes up 1% of the air and you have been breathing it since the moment you were born. I have created a false dichotomy — and my students have fallen into the trap, each and every one of them.
The ease with which a person can be convinced of something without any evidence at all becomes the theme for the year. The class motto?
No Data, No Truth.
And it is from this point that we proceed. We know nothing without data, without experiment, without evidence, without repetition and confirmation.
It doesn’t always work — some students are still convinced, even after the assignment is over, that Argon is dangerous. Or helpful.
But for the most part, it changes student perspectives in one very important way: They become skeptical.
And skepticism is the foundation upon which science is built. Question everything. Have faith in nothing. Slowly increase your confidence in a thing, if the evidence supports that, but never ever plant your feet in certainty.
And above all: No Data, No Truth
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