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Information Behaving Badly

My high school chemistry teacher had a sign by the door that read—Today, light is a … with an arrow pointing to a wheel that rotated between light and particle. The sign was there to remind us that how we understood light and it’s effects was dependent on the situation. I feel sometimes like those of us who teach in the humanities should have a similar sign in our classrooms: Today, information is a ….  fact / proposition.  Because depending on the circumstance and context any bit of information can be a fact that informs conversation or a proposition around which conversation is built.

Students who are just leaving high school might never have thought of information as something to evaluate. They might have seen most of the material they encountered as a collection of facts. And when we’re young it seems like the person who has the most facts is the expert; so why would we ever question what the author of the textbook has to say?  But at the University, we ask students to look at information with fresh eyes, and critically engage with information. This means we want them to ask questions about the texts written by experts, folks with way more facts and degrees behind them. This can be very disorienting for students; it’s why some of them are so nervous about writing in their books, putting their own words alongside the experts’.

Being able to critically examine information at the University also involves understanding that sometimes the same piece of  information behaves like a fact, something you know, and sometimes it behaves like a proposition, something you critically examine.For example, in a Physical Anthropology class the following statement might be a fact: “Physical traits are linked to, and predictors of, human behavior.” This concept is pretty solid, though you might debate a particular example of this: Does the length of your index finger predict your number of mating partners?  But in a Cultural Anthropology class, the link between physical traits and social behaviors is up for debate. In fact, the goal of a cultural anthropology class is to teach students to think critically about statements like that. When we ask students to think critically, we are asking them to evaluate information: Is this a good idea? Is it accurate?Is it true? Is it useful? How is it like other ideas?  I know that when I ask students what they think about a particular reading, film, or presentation, these are the kinds of questions I want them to answer.

But sometimes these questions are confusing for students, especially freshmen who are new to the game and having a hard time distinguishing between facts and ideas. They don’t know what they are supposed to say about something an expert wrote. What could they possibly have to add? They say this because they are thinking of all the materials and information presented in class as facts rather than ideas that are up for debate.  Rather than debating the ideas, they are looking for more facts to add to the collection of facts about the topic. So, when do we teach students the difference between a fact and a debatable proposition?

Remember that every class has it’s own paradigm, and in each class the rules for what is a fact and what is a proposition are different. And most college students take four classes a term, and shuttle back and forth between classes every couple of hours. So, it’s no wonder that when we ask them to be critical thinkers they are a little confused about what that means.

We expect students to be able to look at any piece of information and decide, based on the context, if that piece of information is something they should understand and apply or if it’s something they should critically evaluate. But do we ever speak explicitly about how to make these decisions? When you have spent years practicing a particular way of evaluating information, it’s easy to forget how confused you were in the beginning. How do we get back to where we started and describe how we use information?

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