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Critical Thinking in the Classroom and Beyond

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

March 10, 2011

An Interview with Michael Blanford of the James Randi Educational Foundation

With an academic background in zoology, Michael Blanford began his career as a field biologist, studying amphibians and reptiles in the United States and Costa Rica. While Blanford enjoys doing research, he has spent much of the past fifteen years promoting science literacy and appreciation. He has developed science curricula, programs, and informal content for a number of institutions, including schools, community centers, and museums. Most recently, he was coordinator for the St. Louis Science Center’s Life Science Lab, an innovative space with the mission of exposing the public to the tools and methods of scientific research.

Blanford lives with his family in St. Louis, Missouri, where he spends much of his spare time promoting grassroots skepticism through a number of organizations. Blanford is founder of the St. Louis Skeptics Meetup, founder and president of the Skeptical Society of St. Louis, co-founder of St. Louis Skeptics in the Pub, and has served as vice president of the Rationalist Society of St. Louis, America’s oldest continuously meeting freethought organization. The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) appointed Michael Blanford as its new director of educational programs in March 2010.

That same year, the TAM8 Teachers’ Workshop gave tips, tricks, and practical advice for teaching critical thinking through classroom demonstrations, lessons and exercises, and mind-opening mini lessons. The Education Advisory Panel, formulated in November 2010, has been working on creating and improving resources for a range of ages.

Michael Blanford: I first stumbled across the skeptical community through the evolution and intelligent design wars, something I was very engaged in. [They] led me to Skeptic magazine and Skeptical Inquirer. It’s something I’ve been very engaged with ever since. My background is in biology. I started out by doing science; it’s part of what interested me and still does. But I also thought I was more interested in talking about science. Modern scientists are so hyper-specialized, and you work in this narrow-knit field—it’s not something that is especially good or bad, it’s just the way it is.

I always wanted to talk about the broader aspects of science, and [I] started moving more into the education/outreach side of it. I’ve been really lucky, having a lot of opportunities to do many things in many different contexts [such as] working for the Center for Inquiry with their Camp Inquiry and as a lead science facilitator. I’d never been to camp before, and I didn’t even know camp culture [and] here I was coming up with science and skepticism content that you do for five hours a day with kids ranging from seven to seventeen.

Kylie Sturgess: That’s a tremendous challenge!

Blanford: Yes, and I came away from it having learned a great deal, even just after one week. It was a fantastic, if exhausting, experience. [I] learned a lot and just loved it. I’ve done curriculum design in a bunch of different settings; I had a really great experience maybe eight or ten years ago where I had a teaching friend who asked if I wanted to collaborate with [her on a project funded through] a grant. She was interested in developing this curriculum … for talking about amphibians with fourth and fifth graders.

It turned out to be a huge project, a three- or four-year project funded by the department of education to develop these modules and lesson plans with supporting materials. It was a conduit for teaching these kids how to develop and undertake legitimate scientific studies. We’d be in the classroom during the day studying reproductive biology and then out in the ponds at night, breeding wood frogs and sharing our data with graduate students who were working on related projects. You really see [that for] these kids, who had been science-faired to death at this point, … there was something to the authenticity of really getting out there and collecting data that could show up in the literature. [It] had a profound impact on them.

I’ve also been involved in skepticism on the grassroots level for a while: I was vice president of the Rational Society of St. Louis, which is the oldest Freethought organization in the United States. I’m also the founder of the Skeptical Society of St. Louis and co-founder of the St. Louis Skeptics in the Pub. So I’ve come to this position with the JREF from a number of different directions.

Sturgess: Camp Inquiry, Skeptics in the Pub, St. Louis Science Center. Why JREF?

Blanford: Well, I’ve been interested in talking about critical thinking and skepticism in education. The organized skeptical groups have been talking about education forever and it appears to be the center of all these organizations’ missions, but we haven’t had too much to show for it. So it’s good timing and something that I have a passion for. [I think] I have a diverse background … [in both] grassroots skeptical communities and education—and it appears that the JREF agrees!

Sturgess: So what do you think the focus will be in terms of audience for the resources that will be produced?

Blanford: Certainly the broad educational program that I’m overseeing—skepticism in the classroom is one aspect that we’re looking at—[is] the one that there’s the most interest and demand for. Right now we’re looking at what we call middle and high school here in the United States.

The focus is on critical thinking and the value of methodological skepticism in the context of examining the claims that we as skeptics highlight: ghosts, UFOs, cryptozoology, and all those things. What’s great is that we have all these tools to talk about critical thinking and these topics can be both compelling and really fun. That’s something I really enjoy about this. Look at Daniel Loxton, whose Junior Skeptic produces these great lessons that are also a heck of a lot of fun to read. I’m not oblivious to that.

Sturgess: Do you think that there’s a lack of resources for critical thinking in the U.S.? Will this be filling a gap?

Blanford: If you look at just critical-thinking resources out there, there’s actually quite a bit: books, modules, videos. All those sorts of things have been out for a while [as] resources on the Internet for example. But as for resources relating directly to the paranormal, pseudoscience, fringe science—the kinds of things we’re interested in—there’s very little. There [are] elements that teachers have produced for a while, things that have been posted to forums, little bits and pieces here and there. One of the things we’re looking at doing is producing resources that teachers can use, but another important part is building a networking infrastructure for those who are working in the classrooms out there.

[Now], during [the] web 2.0 era, it is a prime time to be building this network. I don’t think that many of these teachers have had this chance before—and many of them know what works and what doesn’t—so trying to leverage their experience and listening to those people who have been invested in this for a while in an advisory role [is important]: people like Barbara Drescher and Matt Lowry and yourself. It’s important to do this carefully from an evidence-based perspective … to produce materials that are going to work. The last thing we want [is programs] that are not practical and can’t work in the classroom setting.

Sturgess: There’s a significant body of research that points toward efficacy with resources in terms of what really works in classrooms. What support do you think the JREF might supply if there are indeed great resources but teachers come across opposition or censorship? We are, after all, not talking about “neutral” topics when we tackle topics like ghosts in the classroom, UFOs, and the like.

Blanford: Yeah, you’re right, and this is something that [we] can be informed [about] by teachers who have been teaching evolution in schools and have faced resistance. (It’s depressing just hearing me say that!) I think that some of them may have had experiences that will provide some insight on how to deal with this. [Part of dealing with controversy] is learning how to frame these topics [by] connecting them to either state or federal educational standards [and] fitting them into that. It’s something that we’re certainly going to have to take very seriously so we can provide support for these teachers. Maybe take a lesson from the intelligent designers and call them “academic freedom classes” or something. There’s branding in what they do; maybe in that regard we can follow them.

This year, JREF will be presenting an Educators’ Workshop on April 28, 2011, with the St. Louis Science Center. The workshop is for middle-school and high-school educators interested in improving the critical-thinking skills of their students through examination of the paranormal and the pseudoscientific.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.