• Cattywampus and teaching critical thinking

    by  • 12/10/2007 • life • 1 Comment

    James Randi reposts something that a reader sent him from somewhere else that was written by some other guy… I bring you the story of the Cattywampus, as told by David Owen in Life Magazine in 1990. Thanks to Randi’s latest Swift column for bringing this to my attention and for helping provide this in the latest installment of Things I Didn’t Write.

    The Best Teacher I Ever Had

    Mr. Whitson taught sixth-grade science. On the first day of class, he gave us a lecture about a creature called the cattywampus, an ill-adapted nocturnal animal that was wiped out during the Ice Age. He passed around a skull as he talked. We all took notes and later had a quiz.

    When he returned my paper, I was shocked. There was a big red X through each of my answers. I had failed. There had to be some mistake! I had written down exactly what Mr. Whitson said. Then I realized that everyone in the class had failed. What had happened?

    Very simple, Mr. Whitson explained. He had made up all that stuff about the cattywampus. There had never been such an animal. The information in our notes was, therefore, incorrect. Did we expect credit for incorrect answers?

    Needless to say, we were outraged. What kind of test was this? And what kind of teacher?

    We should have figured it out, Mr. Whitson said. After all, at the very moment he was passing around the Cattywampus skull (in truth, a catís), hadnít he been telling us that no trace of the animal remained? He had described its amazing night vision, the color of its fur and any number of other facts he couldnít have known. He had given the animal a ridiculous name, and we still hadnít been suspicious. The zeroes on our papers would be recorded in his grade book, he said. And they were.

    Mr. Whitson said he hoped we would learn something from this experience: teachers and textbooks are not infallible. In fact, no one is. He told us not to let our minds go to sleep, and to speak up if we ever thought he or the textbook was wrong.

    Every class was an adventure with Mr. Whitson. I can still remember some science periods almost from beginning to end. One day he told us that his Volkswagen was a living organism. It took us two full days to put together a refutation he would accept. He didnít let us off the hook until we had proved not only that we knew what an organism was but also that we had the fortitude to stand up for the truth.

    We carried our brand-new skepticism into all our classes. This caused problems for the other teachers, who werenít used to being challenged. Our history teacher would be lecturing about something, and then there would be clearings of the throat and someone would say, “Cattywampus.”

    If Iím ever asked to propose a solution to the crisis in our schools, it will be Mr. Whitson. I havenít made any great scientific discoveries, but Mr. Whitsonís class gave me and my classmates something just as important: the courage to look people in the eye and tell them they are wrong. He also showed us that you can have fun doing it.

    Not everyone sees the value in this. I once told an elementary school teacher about Mr. Whitson. The teacher was appalled. “He shouldnít have tricked you like that,” he said. I looked the teacher right in the eye and told him he was wrong.

    I have a couple teachers that I remember in something of a similar light, though they weren’t quite as direct as Mr. Whitson was. I wish that they had been, but they were cool in there own ways. Mr. (Phil) Ridley, Mr. (Dave) Thomas, and Mr. (Ed) Shields); one elementary, one junior high, and one high school.

    Mr. Shields was a science teacher who did all the cool experiments with things that blew up or collapsed, or who demonstrated over the course of an entire semester how silt built up in layers and compressed to rock. We started with rocks and water, forcing erosion by shaking the container for some time, after which the water was poured off into a big jar. I’m sure that there was more to it than that, but it was one of the coolest experiments I recall from grade six. He drank only hot distilled water out of a beaker; well, we never got close enough to verify it was water coming out of his little distillery…

    Mr. Ridley had a pretty open format version of an English class for a Catholic high school. He’d been in the CFL for a bit, and I’d even seen the movie he’d been in with a speaking part and everything. We had one assignment to right about Lord of The Flies, but he encouraged us to write outside of traditional book report fashion. I went for court transcript and statements of Jack and Ralph from the inquiry, and I think I was the only one that did anything of the sort. It was a small collection of documents, with no real narrative. He loved it.

    In a later year, Eddie, Paul, Curtis and I made one of the worst videos ever for Mr. Ridley. produced as part of a group project. Horrible, horrible, horrible. Script good. We shouldn’t have gone for improv that just wasn’t funny; it was painful. Oh, and the fact that one of us used a phrase with the word “shit” in it, didn’t notice it, in shooting or editing, and ended up playing it in our Catholic high school class in 1988? Yeah, I’m surprised we were allowed to graduate. Well, my best defense was that it wasn’t me that swore on camera; that was Eddie (son of Mr. Shields above, and the Good One in our group).

    Mr. Thomas was my grade 4 or 5 teacher, and I remember him reading the entire Narnia series to us over the course of the year. Yes, apparently it’s a thinly veiled mirror of the Christian myth, but as a ten year old kid in the 80s, it was just an adventure story. He didn’t point out metaphor or anything; he just read us something that the whole class ate up. He also produced all the school plays, taught music class, and swore at us (we assumed, anyhow) in Welsh.

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    One Response to Cattywampus and teaching critical thinking

    1. 8/6/2009 at 5:58 am

      Great post! I think we all love those teachers who actually teach us to think rather than those who only wish to indoctrinate

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