Learning Critical Thinking Through Astronomy, Week 1

This is the first post of a series of sixteen in which I will attempt to describe the weekly goings on in my introductory astronomy course. As many of you already know, I don’t use a traditional textbook and, instead, use my own activities based on the critical thinking model of Richard Paul and Linda Elder. In 2007 when I first announced this project at the summer AAPT meeting in Greensboro, I anticipated completing the activities and having them in publishable form by 2012. Four years after that expected deadline, I have learned that this was a far more involved undertaking that I imagined. I found I spent a lot of time refining the activities and most of that refining came, and continues to come, directly from student feedback. Of the five broad chapters in the LCTTA Project, I have activities for the first three. I have ideas or draft activities in mind for the remaining two chapters, but nothing that I’m willing to share just yet.

My course typically has three sections in the fall and two in the spring. I generally think of my weekly teaching schedule has being three “cycles” each week: a Monday/Wednesday cycle, a Tuesday/Thursday cycle, and a Friday cycle. With the exception of the evening section (section 200), which meets on Monday and Wednesday evenings, each of the other two sections meets once during each cycle. In the past, the MW and TuTh cycles have been identical for the two day sections, but this semester the second day section (section 101) only meets on Tu and Th whereas the first day section (section 100) has a schedule that is inverted compared to past years. In case this makes no sense, here is each section’s schedule. Note that all sections meet for five contact hours per week.

  • Section 100: MF 12:00-13:50, W 13:00-13:50
  • Section 101: TuTh 12:30-14:50
  • Section 200: MW 18:00-20:20

I try very hard to keep all three sections synchronized, but the nature of evening class is that they are sometimes behind or ahead of their day counterparts.

Week 1 was, this semester, devoted to tech setup and an introduction to the Elder/Paul critical thinking framework. Students purchase The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools and the College Astronomoy Kit (which had its origin in the old Harvard Project STAR materials) from the bookstore. Students will not need the kit until we get to the third unit, and that usually takes three or four weeks. I remind them that they should purchase it immediately because the bookstore always runs out for some reason.

So, on the first class day, I let students set up their WebAssign accounts. This is usually painless, although there are always a few students who have difficultiies that stem from having to use WebAssign in a math class, in which case they access it through Blackboard. I avoid Blackboard like the plague that it is, and we eventually get everything sorted out. While I used to “go over” the course syllabus in excruciating detail, I no longer do so becuase it takes too much time and is mostly institutional policy anyway. I do, however, emphasize the attendance policy and the importance of regular attendance.

I tell students that one of my goals is to establish the classroom as a barrier-free learning environment where they are free, perhaps for the first time in their academic careers, to fully engage in their education and to immerse themselves in intellectual development within the contect of an introductory science course. I don’t want them coming into the room with anything that might distract them. They need not be afraid of intimidation from me or from classmates (although their definition of “intimidation” is frequently different from mine in that being held accountable for engaging in their work is, to some of them, a form of intimidation) and they need not be afraid of being wrong.

Rather than bore with a bunch of school policies that they can (or cannot) read for themselves, I instead present for discussion the definitions of teaching, learning, and taking a class that will be used in the course. I emphasize that these are the operational definitions I will use and model for them, and that at the end of the semester or at any other time if they lodge a complaint that “Joe isn’t teaching us anything” I will present them and any other administrators (our policy states that administrators are not to get involved unless the student has first addressed the issue with the instructor, but alas this is rarely enforced in this day of students as paying customers) who have been brought into the non-situation these very same definitions and ask for the precise sentence(s) I have failed to uphold. We discuss these operational definition in detail. I have found that most students readily accept them despite having been exposed mostly to traditional lecture-based instruction before. Perhaps they are hungry for something better. I hope that’s the case anyway.

I spent the remainder of the time this week discussing standards-based grading and the growth mindset concept. Many students seem confused by standards-based grading at first and this prompts much excellent discussion.

On the second class day, we begin a detailed discussion of the Elder/Paul critical thinking framework and the elements of thought. I begin by discussing the simplest (ostensibly) of the eight elements, namely the element of purpose. What is the purpose of _________, where most anything can be put into the blank. We specifically discuss the purpose of this class, astronomy, science in general, and education in general. The idea is to demonstrate that the elements of thought can be used very broadly and very narrowly. Then I ask students to discuss, in groups of four (my class seats twenty-four student organized into six pods of four students each), the remaining seven elements and to write the one they find the most difficult to understand on their whiteboards (one per group). I then ask students to photograph the boards with their smartphone cameras (may as well put them to good use, right?) and then to circulate around the room and discuss each group’s whiteboard. I tell them this is close to what professional scientists call a “poster session” at a conference and is a frequently used format for professionals to talk with each other. They like this and buy into it immediately. This lasts until I sense no productive discussion, which usually means about twenty minutes or so. I give everyone a chance to revise their boards based on the feedback they got from each other.

They then discuss the findings in what I call “checkpoint format.” This means the entire class forms a circle around the room’s center and everyone takes a turn speaking. The current speaker holds a large, red stuffed Angry Bird and then “gives the bird” to someone else of their choice. This continues for as long as the discussion is productive, which can be as long as a half hour or so. This almost always takes the rest of the class time this day.

For the third class day, students apply the elements of thought to an article. This semester, I used the article Too Smart to Fail? from the Inside Higher Ed website. I assign a random element to each of the six groups. I try to focus on the more difficult ones in the hopes that during the “poster session” a lot of meaningful discussion will ensue, and it always does. Once again, students photograph the whiteboards, revise them based on feedback and discussion, and photograph them once again.

So this is what we did in the first week. Next week, we begin the LCTTA activities proper and thus the first chapter of the course, critical thinking and reasoning.

I welcome comments, feedback, and constructive criticism.

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