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Critical Thinking in the Classroom
How the annual WA Skeptics Awards have helped

Why have a classroom course in critical thinking? What role can the annual WA Skeptics Awards play? How have they helped? How do teachers and students react? For answers we listen to teachers, Awards judges, parents, and the students themselves. Conclusion: Since 2006 the WA Skeptics Awards have shown that students enjoy learning how to deal with weird beliefs. They have fun, they learn a lot, and the Awards fit in well with classroom activities. Resources are provided online, so the demands on a teacher are minimal. And entry is absolutely free.

Koala

Views of teachers in metro area
The most detailed view is given in "Critical Thinking in the Classroom", the Skeptic 26(4), 12-13, Summer 2006, by Kylie Sturgess, who in 2007 won the $10,000 Australian Skeptics Prize for Critical Thinking. Ms Sturgess was then an English teacher at Methodist Ladies' College in Perth, a non-Government school with about 750 secondary students,

Her interest in critical thinking began in 2003 when she met a student whose favourite book in the school library was on the paranormal. The student had decided the material was true because it was in a book, even though (unknown to her) it was actually false. Such an uncritical approach was not the best way to make decisions. However, in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, the renowned skeptic Dr Michael Shermer had suggested that teaching critical thinking might help students make better decisions. Ms Sturgess found there was plenty of information available at undergraduate level but hardly any at secondary school level. Undaunted, she began giving her high-school English class the occasional assignment on belief in weird things. In 2006 she devoted an entire term to "Science, Fiction and Skepticism". But she needed a project requiring the practical application of thinking skills, and to her delight she discovered the newly-launched WA Skeptics Awards for Young Critical Writers. It turned out to be an ideal focus.

Entering the Awards became a class project. Ideas abounded as the students pondered the challenges. How exactly could one test psychic abilities, horoscopes, ouija boards and feng shui? Could they survey the entire school to find out how popular these beliefs were amongst young women? What was a reasonable sample size? How to best present the results? As everyone looked for useful websites, books and videos, they discovered that skepticism can be a lot of fun. "Where do we draw the line?" was a common question.

Three entries

Two years and a few Awards later, her classes showed a different attitude towards the paranormal than did the student in 2003 who didn't know any better. They could now protest "Can people really think we all believe what Dolly magazine tells us about horoscopes or something?" Not bad for an English class in a all-girls school.

In a follow-up article "Forums for Skepticism" in the Skeptic 27(3), 18-22, Spring 2007, Ms Sturgess points out that blogs, fanzines, and similar forums can be entertaining and maybe enlightening, but the end result is only more talk. They do not encourage young people to apply critical thinking, nor do they encourage classroom exercises where this could happen. In contrast, she says, the WA Awards do exactly that. In her view such outcomes should be available to every student.

Views of teachers in country areas
In country areas the same enthusiastic views prevail. From Newman Senior High School, a state school with about 350 secondary students in WA's remote northwest, a teacher wrote in 2008: "I must thank you for producing such an inspiring critical writing task, which I have been using with academic extension students. The openness of subject choice and choice of individual or group work was extremely well received by both students and parents. It has also highlighted a number of areas in which these students need further guidance and skill development. Thank you."

Abstract page

Views of Awards judges
At undergraduate level the paranormal is known to be an excellent area in which to teach critical thinking, see for example Weed & Montgomery, "Developing critical thinking through the study of paranormal phenomena", Teaching in Psychology 25, 275-278, 1998. The paranormal has two key advantages over competing areas. (1) It is full of weird beliefs ranging from the deluded to the fraudulent, so it has lots for critical thinking to practice on. (2) Students find it fascinating and therefore motivating. But would it work at secondary school level?

Since 2006 the entries to the annual WA Skeptics Awards have shown that the answer is a clear Yes. Secondary students really could apply critical thinking to the weird things that they and others may believe without question. And with much enthusiasm as shown by the length of their entries, which were often many times longer than our nominal requirement of 2000 words, and by their own comments as shown below. The students were clearly motivated, and they learnt a lot.

Views of parents
Parents who attended the Awards ceremonies told us that going in for an Award had engaged their child's interest and enthusiasm rather more than the usual classroom project. Our rules required the student to include their own test or survey, and it was this element of personal mythbusting that had attracted their interest.

Certificate

Views of entrants
Unsurprisingly, the reward for much hard work was invariably negative results. The ouija board didn't work when participants were blindfolded and the board turned upside down. A psychic reading proved to be exactly like a magician's cold reading. Nobody could pick the right horoscope when they were jumbled up with labels removed. Zener cards became less interesting after being tested on a hundred less-than-telepathic students. Chain letters proved to be only scams. Supposed messages in songs played backwards could not be detected. A pyramid did not dehydrate materials as claimed. And so on. Nevertheless the students found it to be fascinating and fun. Here are some comments from their entries:

Year 8
Asking people about the afterlife was "a fun and entertaining experience".
"I surveyed some of my schoolmates, surfed the Web, went to the school library, and visited a planetarium in Perth" (testing horoscopes) from a student in Bunbury nearly 200 km south of Perth.
Year 9
"We learnt a lot and found it very interesting to challenge the existence of psychic abilities."
"If more time was available, we would have loved to expand our survey" (belief in ghosts).
"We have both really enjoyed and found out a lot from this project" (tarot cards).
"We started out skeptical about this belief and are still skeptical" (crystal therapy).
Year 10
"The results are shocking and have proven the belief wrong" (tarot cards).
"These are just stereotypes and don't describe the person at all" (hair colour).
"The legend is just a scary myth for people to have fun with" (Bloody Mary).
Year 11
"Do the research so you know the facts before telling people what you believe" (moon landing hoax).
"We want to investigate the truth simply because we are curious" (voodoo vs astrology).

Noah

Conclusion
Critical thinking in the face of weird beliefs ranging from the deluded to the fraudulent should be as fundamental as writing and reading. But teaching it needs a focus that inspires enthusiasm and requires the practical application of thinking skills. Since 2006 the annual WA Skeptics Awards have shown that students enjoy learning how to deal with weird beliefs. They have fun, they learn a lot, and the Awards fit in well with classroom activities. Resources are provided online, so the demands on a teacher are minimal.

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