Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canada and Critical Thinking
Skeptics readily associate critical thinking with science. After all, skeptics typically confront pseudoscientific claims, and critical thinking is the foundation of the scientific method. Yet, no skeptic would deny that critical thinking is applicable to all other academic disciplines.
As a case in point, the website Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canada and its supplementary site Mystery Quests demonstrate the importance of critical thinking to the fields of history and social studies, and in doing so, the sites even succeed in, astonishingly, making Canadian history interesting.
Personally, I enjoyed taking Canadian history in school, but when I was a youngster, historical facts and cultural complexities were not supposed to get in the way of good narrative. I still remember from elementary school the “red book,” Pirates and Pathfinders, and the “brown book,” Breastplate and Buckskin. These textbooks unapologetically presented simple, linear stories that made the founding myths of Canada seem uncomplicated, harmless and inevitable. They captured my imagination. After all, how cool are 17th century explorers when you can ignore their impact on indigenous peoples. The books taught me certain historical facts and themes, but they fell far short of developing my cultural empathy or critical thinking.
Canadian history resources for schools have undoubtedly improved since those days. Although I am not familiar with the standard textbooks for elementary and secondary schools these days, I suspect that they are in line with the style of The Story of Canada and the CBC TV series Canada: A People’s History. These populist sources include more cultural perspectives and diverse views of the material without completely abandoning narrative themes and interesting storytelling. James Marsh, in his paper The State of History 2007, overviews for the histori.ca website some similar considerations in Canadian history pedagogy.
In introducing critical thinking skills to the way history is learned, Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canada and Mystery Quests make the next educational advance, at least from a skeptic’s perspective. Although, critical thinking development was not the primary goal of the project team.
The “Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History” project provides engaging, high-quality materials to schools and universities for the teaching of historical methods and Canadian History. The project … has created a series of instructional websites based on the premise that students can be drawn into Canadian history and archival research through the enticement of solving historical cold crimes.
How insidious. Entice students to solve cold cases, and before realizing it, they are learning history. But the ruse gets sneakier. The clues for the cold cases are primary sources, which have to be sifted, assessed, interpreted in a socio-historical context and analyzed. The students learn the importance of primary evidence over other types. They learn what were the social, cultural, political and economic issues of the day. Most importantly, they end up “doing” history, not just learning it by rote.
The students will encounter, probably for the first time, evidence that is not laid out in a linear/narrative form for them. They realize, painfully, that history is a process of creating their own narrative from complex and often contradictory bits of evidence, all of which must be evaluated according to particular standards and used in particular ways. Merely asking them to describe “what happened” forces them to evaluate evidence and make choices about what they consider most reliable.
Which introduces the need for critical thinking.
Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canada is a repository of historical case studies, each with its own archive of primary source material and teacher’s guide of source interpretations (behind a password controlled firewall). The sibling website, Mystery Quests, is setup in a WebQuest format. (WebQuest is a student-centered, Web-based problem-solving methodology that typically comprises sections for introduction, task, activities, resources, evaluation, reflection and teacher notes.) Although both websites serve to develop critical thinking skills, Mystery Quests is particularly notable for its critical thinking exercises, which collectively amount to a virtual course on the subject. These exercises get the students to conduct some of the following tasks and activities:
- Identify evidence by kind (hearsay or second-hand; character; circumstantial or indirect; direct) and assess it for quality. Question evidence and recognize weakness in it.
- Assess inferences drawn from evidence. Identify relevant and important evidence, and draw plausible conclusions. Assess supporting and contradictory evidence.
- Decompose a situation/issue into component parts and assess the parts independently from different perspectives and in appropriate contexts.
- Weigh arguments for and against. Develop counter-arguments.
- Identify relevant clues, assess them using who/what/when/where/why analysis, and offer plausible conclusions. Develop follow-on questions.
- Assess direct and underlying causes.
- Identify underlying factors behind human action by analyzing individuals, institutions and ideas.
- Identify impartial perspective (open-minded, full-minded, fair-minded) and biased perspective (closed-minded, one-sided, prejudiced).
- Recognize media bias.
- Recognize trial bias.
- Present convincing conclusion supported by documentary evidence.
These critical thinking exercises are valuable even outside the study of history. So kudos to Drs. Gossage, Lutz and Sandwell and their project team for their efforts. Their websites are a collateral benefit to the skeptic community by encouraging young students to develop their critical thinking abilities. If only “true believers” like 9/11 conspiracy theorists, ufologists and creationists could work through some of the exercises, they might be more careful vetting and interpreting the evidence they use, and as a result, inflict fewer questionable claims on the public.
(See also The Critical Thinking Consortium for a similar Canadian website.)