Black Swans, Distracted Students, and Learning How to Teach using “How To Think Straight About Psychology”

In the spirit of this liveblog of teaching Stanovich’s book, I thought I would share a quick anecdote of class discussion around the issues of Chapter 2 on Falsifiability and Scientific Theories.

We were discussing how science answers testable questions, and how theories make falsifiable predictions, and I gave one well-worn example: “All swans are white.” If someone finds a black swan, then this theory is falsified. It is pretty clear what the conditions are to show this theory to be false.

The students perked up a bit, and one said, “that movie was creepy.” I asked whether it was good, and another said that I should definitely see it “at least once” because it was “very psychological.” Then another chimed in that she (Natalie Portman) married the choreographer, and told an anecdote about how in the movie her character said “I did not sleep with that man” but in real life, at the Oscars, she turned to the side (showing pregnant belly) and said that she clearly did.

At that point, I said “Did you know she was a psychology major?” “And she has a scientific publication?” I went up the computer, used a little google-fu (“Natalie Portman psychology publication”) which led me to the Mind Hacks post that I remember mentioning this. Then I clicked on the link for her paper, which took us to Pub Med. The paper was titled “Frontal lobe activation during object permanence: data from near-infrared spectroscopy.”

After realizing that Natalie Hershlag was her real name, a student asked where she went to school (I said Harvard) then they asked if I knew her and I said no, that I am a little bit older than her.

I then tried to segue into peer review, or whatever next segment there was.

So, in looking back and reflecting, I am a bit torn about this episode. First, I want to say “I am filled with awesome teaching power!” and, as is my fashion, declare that class a success. I engaged my students and leveraged their curiosity about Natalie Portman into the conversation about the philosophy of science.

But part of it bugs me, because the students’ insistence on being interested in topics that were tangential. They tugged first towards the movie, then towards the gossip, and then finally towards Harvard, which seems to be a favorite topic among this group. When I finally succeeded in bringing them back to the topic at hand, they seemed uninterested, merely waiting for the next pop culture reference, instead of being curious about the nature of science.

Of course, I could be wrong, and some of the silent students could have been fascinated. Sometimes they say this on end-of-year evaluations. And they could also just have been tired. This is a fact of life in most college classes.

The whole episode underscored for me the difference between my students, who might be vaguely interested in this sort of thing in the right circumstances, and me, who gets in heated internet discussions about peer review, operationism and essentialism. Teaching can be a confusing combination of remaining in touch with your own interest and enthusiasm (if I don’t show that I am interested, why would students?) but at the same time realizing that my students are not me (not even me 15 years ago), and have many other things on their minds.

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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One Response to Black Swans, Distracted Students, and Learning How to Teach using “How To Think Straight About Psychology”

  1. Cathy Reilly says:

    Cedar, you set a standard I rarely see in education writing. I am sure it is there, but we often write about an approach as a way to defend it and thus don’t get to some of the issues you are able to raise here. You are honest about the challenges and choices and genuinely curious as to how to wrestle with them. You really describe here an interaction between the students and teacher as it is without a frame that glamorizes it. No matter the age, the tension between listening to the students interests and voices in any class and keeping it in the infield of the ball park of the subject is challenging. You also really illustrate and begin to talk about the value of the teacher who may have a passion for the subject and the students who may not yet share that passion. I would be curious as to your take on the current language of “student centered education” in this context.

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