Teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts (Critical Thinking) to all students

Probably not the teacher, or even somebody impersonating him, but the right idea.

I believe a new course should be added to the curriculum for teens. It would be a course on critical thinking skills, covering all the ways people will try to fool you and tricks of the human mind, to arm students against these traps.

I suggest the best name for the course is: "Defense Against the Dark Arts." I don't anticipate the participation of J.K.Rowling, though it would be nice if she didn't combat the use of her metaphor. But to be clear, this is only that, a literary allusion, and unrelated to her controversial views on an entirely different topic.) The name should attract kids to looking forward to it, as they have all dreamed of taking such a course.

(Some suggest that Rowling's views on other issues demand that not even allusions to Harry Potter be made. If that sentiment would interfere with acceptance of the course, another name like "Defense against the Tricksy Arts" or "Deceptive Arts" might be used.)

The instructor hopefully wouldn't end up being evil and leave every year, though.

On the curriculum could be:

  • Skeptical and critical thinking
  • History and meaning of science, including the reasons behind the scientific method
  • Understanding the biases and flaws of the mind, including things like
    • Confirmation bias
    • Tribalism groupthink and peer pressure
    • Optimism bias
    • Just World hypothesis
    • Falability of memory, especially strong memory
    • Hidden motives Conspicuous consumption and attention to status; virtue signaling rather than actual virtue etc.
    • Addictive behaviour
    • Being told what you want to hear
    • Many more
  • Cults and their techniques
  • Conspiracy theories and why they are attractive
  • False things believed by the majority and why
  • Peudoscience and quack medicine
  • The occult, fortune tellers, cold readers (bring in magician to teach a session)
  • Propaganda -- with examples from Hitler, Putin and others.
  • Big lies and hype cycles, bubbles and pyramid schemes
  • Special section on the 3rd Reich and other such events and what made it happen, how people fall into evil
  • Financial math, and the mistakes people make by not understanding the time value of money
  • Payday loans, 19% interest credit cards and other bad deals
  • Gambling and lotteries -- a fun unit, but with the long-term lesson
  • Statistics and surveys and the ways people will try to mislead you with stats, and the ways you can fool yourself
  • Advertising and marketing tricks and their history
  • Scams/Confidence tricks and why they work (a fun week)
  • Santa Claus and other things you used to believe
  • Religion -- though difficult to cover current religions believed by the students, but cover elements found in dead or rare religions and cults and other strong groups
  • More on politics (extra credit)

The core focus of the course will be on the practical -- avoiding being tricked and misled, or fooling yourself, and understanding when it's happening to others and society. Enough theory to understand the why of this, but more theory is for the advanced level course.

Several of the units can be a lot of fun -- magic, confidence tricks, gambling, crazy conspiracies, plus a few others. These may get a bit more emphasis simply because they increase student engagement. Many lessons will involve exercises and tests which gameify the lesson -- spot the trick and avoid it to win.

Direct exposure exercise

One controversial exercise would be for the teacher to use these tricks to fool students into believing a false thing, forming a mini-cult. Then bring the students back out of it, so they understand viscerally it can happen to them. Much testing would be done to find suitable fake things to use which all students can be brought out of without harm.

This was actually attempted in 1967, with mixed results. It could be refined to be safe and effective.

Indeed, for most lessons there should be a compelling exercise that allows the students to work through or roleplay the errors and see how they can happen to themselves. Exams and homework would require students to see through examples, possibly real world examples, and spot the trick for full credit.

There is enough material to cover to last more than a semester here, but it's an important skill to equip people with as they go out into the world. Some people -- the ones who like to use these tricks -- would fight the course, and people of strong faith will object to study of the techniques used by religions. It may be necessary to avoid some of those to win the battle of teaching all the other things.

Who teaches?

This course is a mixture of science, math, history and psychology. Some of its lessons might be done in those classes or by those teachers. In schools that simply have no room in the curriculum, this course might be "spread out" as special lectures in existing courses in history, social studies, math and science. (Psychology is not usually a required course, but this part of it should be.)

It might also make sense to have one version for grade 5 and another version for grade 10 with different levels of sophistication. Indeed, a college level version could make sense, along with one for adults and professionals. I have taught a one-lecture session on this to postgraduates at Singularity University a couple of times. Wherever possible, exercises will be done to expose these errors within the students themselves, so they can see it happening for real in their own minds and the minds of their friends. There are existing classes on critical thinking already at some institutions, whose lessons could be imported into this class.

Getting it on the program

Getting any new required course into the curriculum is a challenge. After all, what course gets removed to add this? Do we lose a term of English or Biology or Art? Do they lose an elective? I do believe these subjects are some of the most important skills kids need to go out in the world, and that they will use these skills more than some of the others skills they are learning. But each course that this might replace will fight like hell against it. Initially it might just be taught spread among the other courses. It will have to be kept just to one semester, and there's a lot to cover. Later electives can do more.

The controversial sections

The units on politics and religion would be "extra credit" units which can be opted out of with parental request, rather than provoke a battle with parents concerned about how items in this section might conflict with their own religions and political affiliations, though generally popular religions and parties would not be covered. Rather, study of earlier religious and political mental tricks may be seen as applying to present day groups. Those students might study something else, or may simply not qualify for the extra credit.

The course must stay politically and religiously neutral to avoid conflict with parents, and because neutrality is a good idea anyway. Examples from the past are better, and the reality is, if, given these lessons, the students can't figure out what's happening in the modern world, then the course is not doing its job. We are trying to tell the students what to think, but how to think.

As a new subject, those interested in teaching or promoting the course could gather together in a wiki, where they contribute lesson plans, slide decks, exercises and tests around the various subject matters. Because students will have read up about the effort to temporarily fool them, a large set of such exercises could be compared so students would not know them all. This set might be kept secure to instructors only so they are not casually available to students, though all the other material would of course be freely available, as well as textbooks and reading material.

D.A.D.A as more than just a metaphor

As noted, a considerable majority of children have dreamed of being at a magic school and taking its most important course. This is a metaphor to attract them to the course, but it can be more. I believe the focus of the course should be practical -- real skills you need to learn to defend yourself out in the adult world -- but in particular a good deal of fun. Learning that is fun is considerably more effective as well as being attractive.

In fiction, the DADA course comes from a world where there are bad forces out there who will try to attack you with tricks, and you must learn how to identify and counter these attacks, or suffer consequences. This is true in the real world. The lectures can have a focus on identifying the tricks and flaws in the brain that others will exploit or you will fall into on your own. First, know when to spot them. Then learn the "spells" to fight them. (While at the same time teaching the students that magic isn't real and that magical thinking is one of the traps!) I've even considered having fun in the video series by having instructors put on robes or a hat or similar to create the aura of a magic class.

Stage magicians actually believe in teaching this, and many would be willing to help build lessons and even visit classrooms to teach these lessons from time to time, making lessons that are entertaining while they inform. They will also produce video content.

Other Resources

There have been numerous efforts to educate on these matters. Of course people involved are very welcome in collaboration, preparing and proposing lessons, or making use of any curriculum generated for this.

The challenge, in fact, is not finding material to teach, but winnowing the most important parts down to a single semester.

Making this real

So what lessons would you suggest adding to the curriculum? And how do we make this a reality?

Steps include:

  • Share and build support for the idea
  • Start to winnow down the core curriculum that will fit in one semester
  • Find some adventuresome schools and private schools willing to teach it as an elective
  • Gather educators and assistants to prepare materials, including lesson plans, slide decks, videos, exercises, tests and volunteer guest speakers (ideally famous) for the early adopters. Work with other schools already teaching similar courses.
  • Exercises, exercises, exercises -- fun exercises. Learn by doing. Make interactive tools on the web. Learn to avoid the tricks by doing.
  • Learn from these early attempts to improve the materials and courses
  • Build a YouTube channel or similar with the lessons taught by great teachers. Also make a series of shorts to go on Instagram/TikTok style platforms
  • Lobby school boards and private schools to teach the course, first as an elective
  • Get testimony from students, teachers and parents. Stories of people who avoided falling into traps after taking the course.
  • Prepare an online version of the course, possibly with online exercises for use in independent study, home school and by adults
  • Test, refine, improve and build momentum

Refining the curriculum

I've seen many suggestions of topics people think could fit in this course. Even just considering our known biases there are scores and scores of them documented, and not enough time to understand and train on them all.

I propose the following criteria in evaluating material:

  1. Is the lesson practical? Will students come out of it able to better handle a likely real world situation in their future? How dangerous is the real world problem and how common is it?
  2. How well can it be taught that students will retain the knowledge? Can it be made fun? Can we test them on whether they learned it? Can we make or can we have good exercises and lesson materials for this unit?
  3. Will political or religious objections cause parents to fight the course or pull students from the course? Is the topic important enough to go to the mat on, or in some cases is it better to sacrifice a topic and keep those students in the course than to lose them? (There are definitely some topics that must be covered even in spite of objections.) Can the controversial topic be taught using other examples which teach the lesson but don't trigger objection? In general, we should (as the course teaches) avoid our own personal tribal, cultural and political biases in deciding what to cover.
  4. Is it better or simpler to teach the topic in another class, or is it already covered there?

From this, possible topics can be scored, and the top scoring items making it into the core course. Other topics would appear in advanced versions of the course, or be available as video/online classes for teachers to direct students to.

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