- Teacher Background Knowledge
- Leveraging the Power of Doubt
- Channeling Doubt Productively
The second of the eight high-leverage critical-thinking teaching practices I began to detail in a previous post talks about how teachers can make use of an element of the human makeup that might be the primary reason human beings think in the first place: a fervent need to eliminate doubt.
As I describe in a summary of Practice #2 from this list of all eight practices:
In studying the ways curiosity can motivate learning, some philosophers have proposed that thinking of any sort is driven by the human desire to dispel doubt. For doubt makes every one of us uncomfortable, which is why we will go to almost any length to eliminate it by finding explanations that help us make sense of contradictions and surprises or explain the unknown.
This provides teachers a powerful way to motivate students to learn, by introducing them to situations that generate motivating doubt in their minds. This can involve showing them strange natural or physical phenomenon, asking open-ended questions without obvious answers, or providing them puzzles that require both content knowledge and reasoning skills to solve.
Beginning the teaching process by triggering doubt in students’ minds can create an environment where they are eager to learn in order to understand the phenomenon, answer the question, or solve the puzzle and thus eliminate troubling doubt.
Unpacking that summary, the philosophical tradition that proposes doubt as the motivator for thinking is called Pragmatism, the only major school of Western philosophy to originate in the United States.
Like other philosophical schools that trace their origin to a single person (such as Husserl for Phenomenology or Sartre for Existentialism), the origin point for American Pragmatism is the 19th century philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce.
You can read about the role Peirce and Pragmatism played in the origins of critical thinking, either in Critical Thinking Essentials or in this paper on The Pragmatic Origins of Critical Thinking. For purposes of this discussion, however, one of Peirce’s insights is that thinking is not some metaphysical property of mind or soul, but rather a means to an end. And the end towards which thinking is applied is the elimination of doubt.
For doubt, at least according to Peirce, is something that human beings instinctively loath, a disturbance that causes us discomfort we are all eager to dispel. Thinking thus serves as the means to rid ourselves of the pain of doubt, which we do through the generation of beliefs.
Having proposed an end that thinking serves, Peirce goes on to describe four different ways doubt-eliminating beliefs we think up become fixed in our minds.
First is an a priori method that involves believing or continuing to believe things that make one comfortable, possibly because they already fit within one’s world view. Beliefs can also be established and fixed by authority which involves turning to political or religious leaders, or general societal norms, to determine which beliefs are allowable and which are not. Iconoclasts who bristle at having their beliefs fixed by authority figures can turn to another method – tenacity – which involves proposing an alternative set of beliefs and holding on to those beliefs tightly, regardless of the cost.
All of these methods can manage the task of dispelling doubt, although none of them are necessarily the best choice if one wants to get closer to truth. Today’s epidemic of confirmation bias, information bubbles and tribalism can be seen as the result of the popularity of a priori thinking, which can hardly be described as dedicated to objectively separating truth from falsehood. Similarly, authority and tenacity may have their places in certain aspects of life and society (including teaching and child-rearing), but neither lends itself to the kind of questioning, objective weighting of evidence, or willingness to change one’s mind considered important to truth-seeking.
To eliminate doubt productively, i.e., in ways likely to replace false beliefs with true ones, Peirce proposes science as a model, given the ability of systematic, scientific methodologies to eliminate (or at least minimize) doubt while also getting us asymptotically closer to beliefs likely to be true.
With regard to motivating doubt as a teaching practice, many teachers are well aware of the power curiosity plays in motivating students to learn. Introducing students to strange phenomena or challenging them with difficult puzzles can pique their curiosity, but what is actually happening in a student’s head when curiosity is engaged? A Pragmatist would argue that you have instilled doubt in their mind, doubt about how the world works, or doubt over established routines they may use to solve conventional problems that don’t work with unconventional ones.
If the Pragmatic view of human motivation to dispel doubt is true, students will go to any length to eliminate the nagging doubt created by introducing them to something unusual or non-intuitive, and this desire to get rid of that doubt can be a powerful force in getting them to learn.
But, as Peirce pointed out, there are all kinds of ways to dispel doubt without learning anything new. Which is why the next high-leverage practice focuses on channeling student doubt in productive ways that get them to not just think, but to think critically, about the world.
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