Teaching as We’re Taught

The appeal from tradition is one of the logical fallacies that skeptics often reference. So many claims in pseudoscience rely on it, yet it is so easy to refute. People did a lot of really stupid things in the past, the fact that they did them long ago doesn’t mean they are magically good.

Still, in many fields, most of what we do is based entirely on this type of thinking. I have heard from doctors (of the science-based kind) that medicine unfortunately involves a lot of tradition-following. Teachers also frequently teach in the same ways they were taught. Despite the experiences of teacher school, I’ve seen many teachers whose primary justification for their methods was that it was the way they had learned when they were students.

I should point out that the opposite situation isn’t much better. In Korea, as in many places, it is very common for teachers to latch on to a new teaching technique which usually lasts for a few years before another “better” one comes along. (Often, neither has a strong scientific basis.) Fundamentally, both sides have problems, and the false dichotomy between them only complicates things further.

Using our own past experiences as a student as the primary source of teaching methodology clearly falls into the “appeal to tradition” fallacy. However, latching on the to the latest “scientific” teaching method is problematic because such techniques usually have little more than publicity and a few preliminary studies behind them. The question of what to actually do has no clear answer.

However, that assumes one has even reached that point in thinking. The majority of teaching-related conversations I have had involved teachers following some tradition in their approach without realizing it. It turns out that a lot of a teacher’s methods are based on a sense of “what teachers do” that was learned as a student. I find myself challenging those I work with to consider their own approach and whether or not it is just a matter of tradition.

Of course, there is some value in following certain traditions just because they are traditions. Going back to my argument about values, it probably wouldn’t benefit students much to learn how to write a kind of essay that is completely different than what they would probably encounter later in their schooling. As usual, I opt for moderation. Use the latest technique as long as it has a strong scientific basis, but when the the evidence is weak, tradition may be the best we can do, as much as we might hate it.

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

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