Why Teachers Should Lie (to promote critical thinking)
The Overcoming bias blog has a post about the author’s favorite professor, who had a habit of intentionally lying in class. Why? To force people to both pay attention and to think critically about what the professor was saying.
This might have been inspired by a favorite author of mine, Neil Postman. Who in his 1995 essay The error of our ways (and in his book The End of Education: Redefining the value of school) wrote:
“All that is necessary [to promote critical thinking] is that at the beginning of each course, the teacher address students in the following way:
During this term, I will be doing a great deal of talking. I will be giving lectures, answering questions, and conducting discussions. Since I am an imperfect scholar and, even more certainly, a fallible human being, I will inevitably be making factual errors, drawing some unjustifiable conclusions, and perhaps passing along my opinions as facts. I should be very unhappy if you were unaware of these mistakes. To minimize that possibility, I am going to make you all honorary members of Accuracy in Academia. Your task is to make sure that none of my errors goes by unnoticed.
At the beginning of each class, I will, in fact, ask you to reveal whatever errors I made in the previous session. You must, of course, say why these are errors, indicate the source of your authority, and, if possible, suggest a truer or more useful or less biased way of formulating what I said. Your grade in this course will be based to some extent on the rigor with which you pursue my mistakes. And to ensure that you do not fall into the torpor that is so common among students, I will, from time to time, deliberately include some patently untrue statements and some outrageous opinions.
There is no need for you to do this alone. You should consult with your classmates, perhaps even form a study group that can collectively review the things I have said. Nothing would please me more than for one or several of you to ask for class time in which to present a corrected or alternative version of one of my lectures.”
(Hat tip: kottke.org & vitamin briefcase)
I love it! I think I would’ve really enjoyed a class like this.
Pretty freaking smart. I’ll often say something in conversation intentionally false/outrageous to see if people are paying attention.
I agree – but it requires teachers to both create, and manage, a very different dynamic with students.
Instead of being the all knowing authority figure, which the standard approach to teaching grants them, they have to accept a more dynamic and balanced relationship with students, which is downright scary for anyone used to the standard teaching model.
Not only does it require students to pay more attention, it also requires the teacher to be more attentive to what students are asking and to stop depending on the boredom of lectures to maintain control over the room.
I agree. Focusing on the subject and, allowing for the imperfect knowledge of the teacher and the field, somewhat de-emphasizing authority (stopping short of equating teacher with students) leads to a more engaged and dynamic class.
I’d note that this dynamic is not right for every phase or forum.
Authority and received knowledge are very important in early stages, reflected in the myriad variations on “know the rules before you attempt to break/change them”
Intentionally lying to a group without a system to review and correct the record if no one caught the lie (or not everyone hears the correction) is irresponsible.
This technique is used by Reb Saunders in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen, which was published in the late 60’s. And, I doubt that Potok made it up; I’d guess that there’s a Hasidic tradition to this kind of teaching.
Luke: awesome reference, thanks!
There’s actually Talmudic reference for this. If memory serves, there are discussions in the Talmud where a teacher makes an incorrect statement “לחידודי” (literally, to sharpen), to test, engage, or provoke the student.
I’d have to dig for citations if you’d like some.
I’d love to see it. There’s also a term for it in classic rhetoric which I don’t remember.
Here’s one example (only 2 and a half years late). The highlighted sentence explains the misleading statement made by the teacher in the sentence:
“[He] merely acted this way because he wanted to hone [the student]’s intellect. [The teacher] did not make his statement to praise [the incorrect behavior], but simply to test his [student], and to encourage him to articulate what he [knew].
Here’s one example (only 2 and a half years later). The highlighted sentence explains the misleading statement made by the teacher in the sentence:
“[He] merely acted this way because he wanted to hone [the student, his nephew]’s intellect. [The teacher] did not make his statement to praise [the incorrect behavior], but simply to test his [student], and to encourage him to articulate what he [knew].
in The Chosen, though, isn’t it a rabbi talking to his son over dinner, and he includes two mistakes instead of the traditional one mistake, the second for the main character (since it is an arithmetic mistake and he’s supposed to be good at math)? It’s been a good fifteen years since I read the book…