Encouraging Creativity, Critical Thinking, & Transferrable Skills

I have a new paper out in the Teaching and Learning Anthropology Journal!

In this article, I discuss why I have my students do creative assignments – they encourage students to think critically and deeply about a topic, they learn how to communicate across a variety of platforms, and they develop highly sought after transferrable skills. I present two assignments: Evolutionary Forces Infographic and Primate Podcast/YouTube Video. For each, I provide details on assignment goals, guidelines, resources, and assessment.

I also present examples of student work (with their permission, of course) and potential assignment modifications. However, I must say, it delights me beyond belief to be able to highlight the excellent work my students have done. Their receptivity of these unusual assignments is key to success and key to their learning.

You can find more creative assignments and examples of student work here.

Yes, we should correct misinformation; we also need to teach others how to spot it

Misinformation is not new. Deception, whether intentional or unintentional is not even unique to humans (see, for example, Nature’s Cheats).

An amazingly camouflaged (a form of deception) leaf tailed gecko.

However, the landscape of how we create, curate, and disseminate information has drastically changed in the past few decades. Highly accessible internet access, engaging social media platforms, and few-to-no checks on information accuracy have not only increased the amount of misinformation, but have also substantially increased the speed and distance with which misinformation can spread.

The vast amount of information at our fingertips is an incredibly powerful tool, but can also be an incredibly powerful weapon. In the age of COVID-19, we have seen how dangerous misinformation can be (for example, the promotion of hydroxychloroquine despite the lack of evidence), which can lead to real harm (see here and the results of a recent study here).

During crises, people are desperate for information, and this frenzied desire to know more leaves us more open to encountering and accepting misinformation as true (see, for example, COVID-19 Brings a Pandemic of Conspiracy Theories)

Because of the amount and real threat of COVID-19 misinformation, there has been a vocal call for scientists to callout and correct pseudoscience and conspiracy theories (see for example, Pseudoscience and COVID-19 – we’ve had enough already).

Yes, we need to address the problematic claims. However, I think this only addresses the proximate and not the ultimate issue, which is that many, if not most, people struggle to reliably spot misinformation. There needs to be a more concerted effort to train people (friends, family, students) to be more discerning consumers of information.

There will always be people who want to intentionally spread false information, however, if we give people the tools to identify misinformation, we can limit that spread. Correcting misinformation is like giving a person a fish…they will correct, hopefully, that one falsehood. However, teaching someone to identify false claims will empower them to spot misinformation for life.

I agree with Ron Swanson – fishing is not that hard, but spotting false information can be.

Throughout my career, I have placed greater and greater emphasis on teaching my students to always be skeptical, recognize bias (their own and that of others), assess the agenda of article authors, and to confirm or refute purported facts with additional research. And, semester after semester, it is these lessons that students point to as being the most important and most remembered.

These are not skills anyone is born with; they need to be practiced over and over. Here are some tips and questions you can use to identify misinformation. You can also consult the comprehensive CARS (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, Support) Checklist.

      1. Always be skeptical! Question everything…always!
        1. Come into all articles with the mindset that the author has to provide some damn good evidence to convince you of their argument, and even when that evidence is presented…question and research it.
      1. Consider the source of the information
        1. What media outlet is reporting it? Where does it fall on this fantastic media bias chart (or see small image below)?
        2. How might the agenda of the media outlet bias the information in the article?

Media Bias Chart

      1. What is the date of publication?
        1. The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation where new information becomes available almost every hour – often rendering yesterday’s news completely out of date.
        2. If the article is more than a couple weeks old, do a search to see if there is new, updated information.
      1. Who is the author?
        1. Give the author a quick search to find out their background and credentials – especially those that relate to the claims they are making.
        2. Might they have an agenda? If so, what is that agenda? What are they trying to make you think, feel, and do?
      1. How is the information being presented?
        1. How was the evidence gathered? Were links provided to original work?
        2. Does the original work back up the author’s claim?
        3. If only screen shots or simplified summaries of the original work are presented without links, BE EVEN MORE SKEPTICAL. The author is only showing you what the author wants you to see and not the whole story, and you will need to research more on your own.
        4. If you do not have access to the original work, email the author! Scientists love sharing their articles to those who don’t have access. I mean it, we really do.

Be like this hippo!

      1. Does what you are reading confirm what you already believe?
        1. If yes, BE CAREFUL. This could be confirmation bias, which is the tendency to only seek out and trust information you already agree with in order to confirm the beliefs you hold.
        2. Here is some more information about confirmation bias.
        3. Another term for this is apophenia – the tendency to make connections or see patterns between unrelated and random things. This is often how conspiracy theories are generated and spread. This article does a great (albeit long) job of discussing this.
        4. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are wrong in your thinking, but it does mean you need to do some extra research to determine if this is confirmation bias or not. Read articles (from quality sources, see media bias chart above) that promote opposing views. Once you have heard both sides of a story, try to objectively weigh the evidence and decide where your thoughts fall with this new information.
      1. Does what you are reading elicit an emotional response?
        1. If yes, BE EXTRA SKEPTICAL! The author of the article is likely trying to use emotion (and not well researched information) to sway your opinion.
        2. The same advice applies here as it did above. If you find yourself reacting emotionally to something (especially if it is anger or fear), do additional research from quality sources to determine if the original post is misleading you.

This reaction is a warning sign! It means you need to do more research!

    1. Check out the website “About” and “Contact” pages
      1. Do they have a list of reporters? If not, be VERY skeptical!
      2. Is the “About” page comprehensive and give you a good idea of who they are and what their goals are (see #2,4,&5 above)? If not, be VERY skeptical!
  1. 9. Reach out to others!
    1. 1. Still don’t know if what you are reading is true? Start conversations with friends and family who may have more expertise in a particular subject. Make sure you and they are asking questions.
    2. 2. Seeks expert opinions, and get more than one if you can.
  1. 10.  Be wary of video clip times! If you see a video clip that is only 5-10 seconds long or less DON’T BELIEVE IT! That clip was taken out of context! Do some searching to find a more complete video, and then make a judgement about the original shortened video’s goal and potential manipulation.

Debunking a Bad Science Website

While teaching today I needed to find a picture of a fossil ape skull(Sivapithecus) next to a modern ape skull (orangutan). I found the perfect image and put it up on the screens, but it turns out that though the picture was exactly what I was looking for, the website was spouting extremely bad, debunked science conspiracy theories.

Bad Science

This little gem of a quote can be find on this site, “70 Million Years Ago Caucasian Human Race has a long blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin with a small nose that is similar to the Barbie of Today.”

The students were both amazed and appalled by this. I thought out loud, “Next semester, I should totally have students find and debunk these terrible ‘science’ websites.”

Students loved the idea, and relished the thought of debunking some of the bad science that is all over the internet. Identifying and critiquing misinformation is ridiculously important these days, and I didn’t want to shut down an opportunity for my students to learn and practice this skill. So, I gave them the option to either complete the book review I had originally assigned, or do a review and debunking of a “bad science” website. Here is the link to the assignment.

About half the class decided to stick with the book, and the other half are going for the website.

I very much look forward to seeing what the students come up with.

Spring 2020 Syllabi

Life at Extremes coverHey, all, here are my Spring 2020 syllabi! Have a look at the textbook-free Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology one for sure. Huge thank you to Holly Dunsworth for being so generous with her textbook free syllabi. I could not have done this without her. I am also teaching Humans at the Extremes this semester, though this is a more specialized course.

#Hackademics & Un-grading with Susan Blum

As you are starting to think about your classes next semester (though perhaps not thinking about them this week!), you should have a listen to our next installment of #Hackademics where we chat with Dr. Susan Blum about non-traditional teaching pedagogy and un-grading.
I have personally learned a ton from Dr. Blum, and I hope this episode is illuminating for many.

Fossil Hominin Dating Profile

I had my students do a fossil hominin dating profile for one of their larger assignments. See the assignment here: Assignment #4.

Much to my delight, a few decided to make their profile on old fashioned poster board! Here are a couple…

A. boisei dating profile
Dating profile for Australopithecus boisei.

AMH Dating Profile
Dating profile for Anatomically Modern Humans…using Dwayne The Rock Johnson as their example.

Early & Late Archaic and early modern H. sapiens

I put together some materials Early & Late Archaic and early modern H. sapiens. It is similar to what I did with early genus Homo. Please go to activity #10 on my teaching page.

I have additional materials on Neanderthal culture, early modern human culture, and human dispersal models (replacement, multiregionalism, and assimilation). If you would like those, please email me directly. I will also lead a class discussion on the recent (and highly problematic see here, here, and here) paper that suggests the earliest modern humans originated from Botswana.

Early Hominin Teaching Activities

There is a lot to cover in the Plio-Pleistocene when it comes to hominin evolution. So, I put together 4 activities that will hopefully help students determine how one might identify an early hominin, assess the bipedal ability of the current earliest hominin contenders, critically assess competing hypotheses for why bipedality evolved, examine the wide range of Australopithecine variation during the Plio-Pleistocene.

You can find all four under #8 of my Teaching Activities Page.