Tuesday 1 September 2020

Teaching Big History III - Claim Testing

Today we started up the lessons on Claim Testing in the Big History curiculum being used at Al Qamar Academy. This section is an essential component of the entire 1st Unit where students are introduced to tools they need to critically study history - scale, claims testing, vocabulary, writing skills and measurement.  

I commenced by asking children to explain what they understood by the word "claim". "An explanation or opinion", "sometimes backed by evidence", "something you think to be true" were some of the responses.  I told the students that understanding claims is vital in these days of fake news, polarised viewpoints and violent dissension. 

Since we are still under lockdown, and schools haven't physically reopened, we had to modify the lesson delivery. I could not put up each claim on the walls of the classroom and have them go around with "Agree/Disagree' sticky notes. Instead, I presented each claim on the screen and instructed the students to reflect and jot down whether they agreed or disagreed with the claim. They also had to provide a reason for why they thought so.  In addition to the list of claims in the course material, I added a few of my own. I had assumed that we would take about 10 minutes or so to go through the entire 9 claims - but was plesantly surprised as students asked me for "thinking" time for each slide.

Once we were done, I presented the slide deck again and asked the students to share their votes for each claim. The first one, "Earth is flat" was quickly shot down as most students disagreed with the claim. I explained to them that for years, mankind had thought this claim to be true. After all, the visual evidence was before them. It was only questioned when the Greek, Aristotole, saw a ship on the horizon disappearing slowly.  Magellan's journey around the world also provided evidence that the earth was not flat. Finally in the last century, as human beings went up into space, could mankind get visual evidence that the earth was round.

The second slide claimed that the Universe is 13.8 billion years old.  Interestingly, there was a lone dissenter here. She explained her stance - "How do we really know? Is the scientific evidence perfect?" Good critical thinking here. I explained that even science is "best guessing" this number and there have been variations, but increasingly with more and more evidence, scientists seem to be getting closer. However, there is no way to "absolutely" verify this claim.

"We should believe what we see in the Big History videos."  There were many "Maybe" and "Depends" here.  The students explained that even these videos need to be seen critically and they would need to see logical explanations and evidence for the claims presented in the videos.  I was quite delighted at their stance. 

The next claim "In the Northern Hemisphere it is colder in the winter and hotter in the summer" took a long time as students deconstructed the entire claim. They did not accept this on face value. As one student queried "Comparitive adjectives are used. What are they comparing to? We don't know that."

All students agreed with the claim that the use of differing scales in Big History makes it different from other approaches to history."

We moved on to some of the claims I had made up. The first was "India is a backward country". I was thrilled to see a lot of debate on this. The students asked what was meant by "backwardness" - economic? political? social? cultural? index of happiness? They also argued how the economy was doing well, but recently has taken a hit. Hence, it can't really be said whether India is backward unless the terms are defined clearly.

Another claim which caused a lot of discussion was "Homework hurts learning". The students questioned each word of this statement. What kind of homework? What is meant by "hurts"? What constitutes "learning". It was satisfying to see that the students were delving deeper into the claim, rather than accepting or rejecting it at face value.  Clearly there has been cross pollination in their learning across classes - The concepts imbibed in the "Logic and Fallacies" class were being implemented here.

Just when I was quietly celebrating their depth of thinking, they quickly put paid to my euphoria by unanimously disagreeing with the statement "COVID prevented deaths"? "Oh! Deep reflection, Complexity and Broadbased Thinking - wherefore art thou?" I muttered silently to myself!  But then one student saved the day - "Why is someone making such a claim? Is there a possible basis for this?" I did explain that several people have argued that pollution & traffic related deaths have reduced due to worldwide lockdowns.

We went on to the final claim of the day "I will rain tonight." I used this one to give an example of a claim based on intuition, so the students would be able to identify it as such when applying the four claim testers to be taught in a later class. There was debate on this claim too - "How do you know?" "Maybe." "This is an opinion" I clarified that many claims are just that - opinions, which is why its important to dig deeper and think critically.

These lessons from Big History provide broadbased learning and shape thinking which will hopefully, be carried across and reflected in their work in other classes and in life in general.

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