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Pseudoscience in the Non-science Classroom

Skeptics tend to focus on the science classroom, especially with Intelligent Design in the United States always trying to wedge its way in. Even if we succeed in getting all the evidentially unsupported claims out of the science classes, students are still hearing many of those claims presented credulously in other classes, such as in Language Arts.

I was idea mining for an upcoming lesson on predictions and, quite predictably, ran into a lot of woo. Though I wasn’t particularly surprised, it was still disappointing to see how many ESL lessons were based on palm reading, tarot, astrology, and other forms of unscientific “future-telling.”

My lesson was going to be about the future tense and using certain and uncertain language (might vs. will). As an English teacher I am primarily concerned with the language itself, but in order to teach anything in a language we need some kind of content. Words require context to create meaning, so in order to get my students to use predictive language I need something for them to predict. The most readily available ideas I could find were all woo-based.

In the past, I have seen first hand how teachers used such things to teach English in their classrooms. I’ve also seen how many observing teachers and administrators showered praise to such teachers for the “brilliant and innovative idea” to teach personality traits through astrology.

I find this to be overwhelmingly irresponsible. As teachers, we should be teaching things that are actually true. Including pseudoscience as a means to teach another subject with not even a hint of skepticism does nothing for the critical thinking skills we are meant to be emphasizing. It does a tremendous disservice to our students to include these things.

Yet this was never even mentioned to me in teacher school. My professors lectured long about “critical thinking” and “cultural bias,” but there was no warning about picking themes based in reality. I talk to a lot of busy teachers who source and share lessons through teaching websites. While idea sharing is great, I’ve found pseudoscience to be rampant among shared lessons in non-scientific subjects. The sheer amount of woo-based ESL lessons is disheartening, to say the least.

While the science classroom is a good one to be front and center on the skeptic’s radar, let’s not get so focused on it that we ignore the other school battles we need to fight.

Want specific examples?
Here is a popular worksheet website
This was linked on a number of forums
Another ESL worksheet site
Lesson ideas with woo mixed in

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Jay

Jay

Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

2 Comments

  1. June 28, 2015 at 1:42 pm —

    Nice post. I’ve been in ESL for a few decades and have found that most ESL/EFL reading coursebooks average at least 1 wooish article. I was happy to use those chapters as it enabled me to bring in some material with counterarguments. Still, it’s always gnawed at me that even ESL often propagates bad ideas.

    I authored an EFL reading coursebook (Essential Reading 3) through Macmillan and sneaked in a chapter that is mostly critical of the idea that blood types determines personality, and a follow-up reading on astrology, but presented in a way that students can test its accuracy. A small counterattack against an onslaught of nonsense, but hey, we all do what we can, right?

    • June 28, 2015 at 11:44 pm —

      Yes, it is unfortunate that ESL/EFL teachers don’t need to know science to teach English. There is so much English content in textbooks that teachers often do not bother to check whether the words are actually true. Students absorb a lot unknowingly, and then bad ideas continue to propagate.

      The blood typing thing is very popular here (in Korea and East Asia in general), and I keep seeing it taught directly in classes as a “fact” despite it completely lacking evidence. I think it’s great that you could provide some counter-evidence against pseudoscientific claims in your textbook.

      I especially agree with your last statement: yes, we do all we can. (At least, some of us do.)

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