Would lying to students help them learn?

Over the years, I heard my fair share of unorthodox methods used to deliver an important lesson. But I am wondering if deliberately lying to the students is a step too far. Let me know what you think.

It’s that time of the year when I get lots of essays to mark, and I meet the students whose dissertations I will be supervising. A problem that I come across over and over again is insufficient ‘source probing’. I mean, when the student uses poor quality sources, or uses good sources but does not balance the argument.

The result is that the essay or dissertation will have numbers, statements or claims that are either plain wrong or simply can not be verified. Alternatively, the essays will present plausible claims, but fail to take into account other perspectives on the same problem.

As I was pondering this, I came across an interesting blog post that, unfortunately, I failed to bookmark (I know: fail!). In the post, the author was explaining how he (I think it was a he – I’m not sure) deliberately used lies in his classes to encourage students to think critically about what they were hearing. In the beginning of the module, he would start with lies that were fairly easy to detect – for instance, requiring only that students check whether a certain number or fact was corroborated by other sources. During the semester, the lies became more and more subtle – it was no longer about the facts, but how they were taken out of context to support a flawed conclusion. The author hoped that the students would then apply the same skill to what they read for their assignments and, ultimately, in their professional lives.

Reading that article reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague from another institution, years ago. He said that, on the first class of the semester, he would make a series of wrong, implausible or daft claims related to the subject that he was teaching. At first, the students would diligently take notes about what he was saying. Some time later, a small number of students would stop taking notes and start looking enquiringly at each other. And then more and more, until, finally, one student would raise his hand and question what he was saying. At this point, he would congratulate the student who spoke up and explain that he expected students to think actively about what was being discussed in class, rather than (or even instead of) taking notes.

I can clearly see the point of these two approaches, but I never tried them. On the one hand, it is because I feel uncomfortable about deliberately lying to the students. On the other hand, it is because I suspect that this approach might not work with certain cultures and groups of students.

Have you used something similar? How did it work?

How would you feel about an instructor, teacher, etc lying deliberately to make a point?

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