Critical ThinkingPedagogyPop QuizSecondary Education

Pop Quiz: The Day I Made Someone’s Mom Activate Their Rage-Crystal

I got myself into a little bit of trouble in school recently. It wasn’t my fault though, it was because of the magic crystals.

I was taking a class full of lovely, enthusiastic children aged twelve and thirteen. They’re one of my favourite classes and I genuinely look forward to working with them each day.  We had just read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery (check out DrShell’s excellent Lesson Plan) and we were discussing superstitions. One young man raised his hand and told us that his mum was really into healing crystals. He clearly thought that the whole idea was quite silly and he made a few light jokes at his mum’s expense. Some of the class had never heard of healing crystals before and so we had a bit of a discussion about them. I framed it in a “here’s another example of a superstition” kind of way and I made it clear that while some people believed in it, I didn’t. I’d already told them that I wasn’t a superstitious person at all.

The topic of discussion changed, the lesson moved on, and I didn’t think about it at all. Until the next morning, that is.

Almost as soon as I arrived at work, I was summoned to my department head’s room. The boy had mentioned our class discussion to his mum and she had phoned up to complain about what I’d said. She felt that I’d undermined her beliefs and made her look foolish in front of her son. She argued that I’d had no right to comment upon her beliefs and she wanted an apology. I was shocked and mortified because I hadn’t given the conversation a second thought after the class ended. I had no idea that I’d made someone so angry that they’d want to phone up to complain about me personally.

I offered the apology and walked away from the situation with a slapped wrist and a bit of a bruised ego. I hadn’t been brutally frank in my crystal healing discussion but I hadn’t been overly kind either. As far as I was concerned I’d made the point that I viewed it as something that some people chose to believe but that I didn’t.

Of course, maybe I’m remembering the discussion inaccurately. Many of you with similar sceptical world views will know what it’s like when a topic like this rears its head in discussion; it can be easy to become quite opinionated quite quickly. I don’t think that I acted that way in front of my class, but maybe I did and didn’t realise it.

It made me think, however. In this parent’s view I had undermined one of her closely-held beliefs in front of her son and his peers. She viewed my role as an English teacher as one where I would improve her son’s reading, writing and communication skills but not as one where I would make him question things like this. As a teacher who is heavily interested in scepticism, I don’t quite see it like that. I feel like it is my job to help my pupils to question the world around them, but I also know that educators often walk a fine line when it comes to avoiding parental conflict.

My Pop Quiz questions to you are:

What would you have done in the initial discussion? Would you have dissected the idea of crystal healing more forcefully? Would you have avoided the issue entirely, given that the boy did say that his mum held those beliefs?

Should we, as educators, have the right to questions things like this when they originate from a pupil’s home? Does the promotion of critical thinking become the responsibility of all of us, regardless of subject area? *

Just how stupid IS crystal healing, anyway?

* DrShell’s recent post on morality in teaching kind of touches on this area too. She mentions that she feels quite happy about challenging the beliefs of her university students because that’s what they should expect in that kind of educational setting. I completely agree with her, but I wonder – does the same thing apply in high school? There’s quite a difference between students who are essentially fully-functional adults and children who are still very often highly influenced by their parents.


The Pop Quiz This Pop Quiz is a question for you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for them on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET.

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Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.


  1. May 10, 2013 at 11:15 pm —

    I haven’t run into anything quite to this degree, but I have done the dance a little bit, and it’s tricky. My compulsion is to discuss it, and as a (now former) educator, I also felt it was my responsibility to describe the way the world actually works to the best of my abilities.

    I tend to go a little Socratic during these things. I’ll use a pretty innocuous example. The cafeteria at the middle school where I worked had weekly facts up on the wall students could read while they waited in the lunch line. One of them was “Elephants are the only animals that can’t jump.” Which… I don’t know where they got that. Anyway, a handful of students latched onto it. The first thing I asked was, “how do you define jump?” followed by, “what do you think they mean by animal? Like mammals, bugs, or everything in the kingdom animalia?” After we got the basic definitions out of the way (which varied with each student), I asked what it would take to disprove the statement. For every student, it was pretty easy. Since the statement made is that only one animal can’t jump, naming any other animal that can’t jump means the thing on the wall is wrong. Which was easy enough to do for even the most restrictive definition of animals with the strictest definition of jump. “Sloths. They move too slow to jump.” “Flies (they start flying, they don’t jump), “water strides, they don’t leave the surface of the water,” “rhinos, they’re pachyderms, too, “hippos” and on and on.

    I’ve done it the same way with touchy subjects, too, because the kids are answering the questions. They may need some factual information to help them along, but they’re doing the reasoning. For instance, with crystals, quartz is essentially inert, So, if it’s basically non-reactive, how can it possibly do anything? By definition, it’s not doing anything. Even if you allow for kids to bring up qi or lei lines or whatever, I would ask, “so, if the crystal is changing the qi, it’s got to be reacting with the qi, right? Because change is happening. How can we tell if the crystal changes?”

    By having the students work it out, you can still crush the crazy, but in a way that helps you dodge that bullet.

    I don’t think calling out a specific parent is a good idea, but reframing it to something like, “a lot of people think crystals have the power to do lots of things. One of them is healing, as mentioned. How would that work, do you think?” By broadening it past just the one kid’s mom, it’s a description of the phenomenon as a whole rather than discussing one person’s (demonstrably wrong) ideas.

    The kicker with all this, though, is it can take another couple minutes to roll with it that way, and most times there aren’t those minutes free in the class period to do it. So, you know. That sucks.

    Also, crystals aren’t just silly, they are dumb. And sometimes I find them supremely aggravating ( )

  2. May 11, 2013 at 7:47 pm —

    Thanks for the comment! I agree that the time issue is the biggest problem here. I would have loved to have been able to discuss the issue in far more detail and maybe begin to lead my students down a critical path in the way you described, but that would have messed up my lesson plan to the point where it would have had a knock-on effect into the next lesson. I think this is one of the reasons that I was snarkier than I should have been; I felt like I couldn’t let the issue pass without comment but I didn’t have time to treat it properly. This is one of the reasons that I’m training to be a science teacher (physics in particular) as well as an English teacher. Digressions like this will still be difficult to incorporate into lessons when they occur, but at least they’ll be more subject-relevant.

    Loved the comic, by the way!

    • May 12, 2013 at 3:54 pm —

      Yeah, when pressed for time, I’ve actually said, “And how does that work? It doesn’t. It doesn’t work.” I feel your feels.

      And thank you!

  3. May 12, 2013 at 9:36 am —

    I had something like this happen to me in a college writing class. I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but somehow we got on the topic of herd immunity and vaccinations, and I basically said that people who don’t vaccinate their children are ignorant and selfish. (Probably not those words, but close enough.) Of course a kid raised his hand and said his mom hadn’t vaccinated him. I asked him if he knew why. He said she just decided not to. I told him his mom had her own reasons, but now that he’s grown I would recommend asking his doctor about getting caught up, and we pretty much left it at that. Awkward, indeed. I’m sorry you had to deal with a complaint, Alasdair, but you handled it the best possible way, it seems to me.

    And, yes, I agree that we do have to treat secondary students more carefully. For better or worse, we have a near-fanatical defensiveness in the US when it comes to parental authority over children. The vehemence with which otherwise normal-seeming people will defend their right to beat a child, for example, will amaze you.

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