An Aspect of Accessibility

Since “accessibility” has so many different meanings in education, let me start by clarifying that I am referring to students (and general audiences) being able to access the meaning of information they encounter. This seems to be a weak point in the skeptic, atheist, and critical thinking movements, and something I have failed in as well.

There are two main subdivisions of this point: accessibility in terms of having sufficient background knowledge or expertise in a particular subject, and accessibility in terms of the construction and structure of the language.

In struggling to find materials to teach critical thinking to ESL students, I have realized that the majority of the great information and arguments are completely inaccessible on both counts. For example, to explain responsibilities in giving evidence, quite a few sites directed me to this video. For me, the topic is explained clearly in an easy to understandable way. However, I am taking for granted my educational background which makes this accessible to me.

That video begins with this sentence:

“Imagine someone tells you that somewhere beneath the surface of Pluto there’s a tiny werewalrus that sends them psychic messages every midnight while juggling skulls on an indigo plinth.”

Though I teach at a school for very high-level students who specialize in learning foreign languages (and specifically English), the wording of that sentence is extremely inaccessible to them. My students, for example, mostly don’t know words like “psychic” or “indigo,” much less “plinth” or “were-anything.” These just are not everyday terms for most people.

The video also later goes on to address related problems in religious apologetics. Without any prior knowledge of these kinds of arguments, it is extremely difficult to fully grasp what the video is saying.

None of this is to say that the video is bad. I spent a long time trying to figure out how I could find a way to use it in my class because I think it is excellent. However, I just couldn’t find a feasible way to make it accessible for my students. The actual topic is fully within their ability to grasp, but the message is constructed in a way that they cannot get.

Brian Dunning’s video Here Be Dragons also came with similar recommendations. Its description claims:

“Here Be Dragons is a free 40 minute video introduction to critical thinking. It is suitable for general audiences and is licensed for free distribution and public display.”

As above, I found that “general audiences” does not include anyone remotely resembling my students. The video’s third sentence was thus:

“Hypothesized dragons seemed a good enough explanation for what would otherwise be ungraspable.”

Once again, I am not claiming this video is bad, just inaccessible. Not just in terms of vocabulary, but the actual construction of sentences like this are extremely difficult to understand to non-native speakers. Many of my co-workers, who have advanced degrees in English education, often ask me to explain sentences like this. They ask things like “how is ‘seemed a good enough explanation’ different from ‘seemed to be a good enough explanation’?”

These subtle distinctions are barriers in understanding that most students (and in fact, most people) do not cross. They think “Is it worth taking the time to really figure this out? Probably not.”

We have a situation in which there is an abundance of great skeptical material, but a dearth of truly accessible material (of which this post is certainly not).

There is more I have to say on this, but I have a hard time limit so I will have to address the counterarguments in a further post where I talk about the curse of knowledge bias.

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

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