A quiz with seemingly basic questions—how many chairs are in this room?—shows students that critical thinking is critically important.
Professor and Department Head, Sociology, New Mexico State University
PhD, MS, and BA in Sociology
Traditions are important parts of our culture—they help to connect us and give us a sense of belonging. But, as Dr. David LoConto has learned, being too steeped in traditions can be an impediment.
LoConto, who is currently a professor at New Mexico State University, has taught sociology in the Midwest and South as well as the Southwest. In each location, he saw diverse groups of students facing similar issues—issues based in the students’ preconceived notions and acceptance of long-held cultural traditions.
Challenge: Students rarely consider conflicting points of view
In the era of “fake news,” LoConto feels that it is crucial for students to have the critical-thinking skills necessary to consider multiple sides of complicated issues. Yet that is exactly what his students were lacking.
“College students in many of the areas where I have taught rarely think about questioning the beliefs they were brought up with,” he says. “People of various ethnicities and backgrounds are most comfortable with the knowledge they [already] have.”
As a sociologist, LoConto wanted to encourage his students to question their long-held views. And as an instructor, he knew that this critical thinking would be crucial to their future success.
His solution to the problem—and the exercise that opened the door to critical thinking for many of his students—boiled down to asking 10 questions that are ridiculously simple (on the surface, at least).
Innovation: Use simplistic questions to spark serious discussion
One of LoConto’s primary goals, after all his time spent teaching around the country, is to help students see the importance of asking one basic question: What are the facts?
It is a question that he says is more crucial than ever in today’s troubled, divided society. “We all are guilty of living in our own media filter bubbles,” he says.
So he devised a straightforward 10-question survey that ultimately teaches students to question basic assumptions—about facts, opinions, beliefs, and traditions (see sidebar).
“It’s designed to evaluate social phenomena using really basic questions and familiar historical events,” LoConto explains. The survey introduces two themes that dominate the entire semester: determining what is fact and engaging in critical thinking.
“I often explain to students that sociology is about teaching you how to think critically and to consider how location and perspective influence the way you see the world.”— David G. LoConto, PhD
Frequency: Two 75-minute classes, two times per week
Class size: 75–135 students
Course description: Introduction to social theory, research, methods of analysis, contemporary issues in historical and cross-cultural contexts. Covers groups, deviance, inequality, family, gender, social change, and collective behavior.
See resources shared by David G. LoConto, PhDSee materials
Lesson: The “Extra-Credit” survey
LoConto has been using the basic 10-question survey format for 23 years. Though the questions may shift, the overall concept is the same—and the discussion that flows from the survey is always eye-opening.
“The survey illustrates how often people take for granted the world around us, and the consequences [that] our perceptions and lack of knowledge can have on our behaviors and attitudes,” LoConto says.
Here he shares how he sets up the survey, as well as the important discussion that ensues.
Raise (and lower) the stakes
The survey happens during the first class of each of his sociology courses. (And if you want to plan a first class of the semester that really gets students’ attention, he says, this is it.) Because he wants his students to take the conversation seriously, LoConto sets a serious tone from the outset. However, he presents it as “extra credit” to keep students at ease so that they will answer honestly.
Set the ground rules
The survey begins when LoConto asks each student to place their full name on a blank sheet of paper. He explains that, as he reads the questions, they cannot talk with each other, cannot ask for clarification, and cannot leave their seats. LoConto will repeat questions verbatim, but only if asked.
Compile the answers publicly
LoConto collects all the survey responses, and then, one question at a time, he records the answers from the students on a chalkboard at the front of the room. Duplicate answers are not written down, but any variations are recorded.
“I go around and ask all the students in the class for each answer,” LoConto says. “For those that are true or false, I typically ask a couple [of] students, and if the answers are the same, I’ll ask the class if anyone had anything different. Part of this exercise is to get the students talking and participating as well as learning the lesson.”
LoConto’s 10 Provocative Questions for 2018
Here is the current list of questions on LoConto’s extra-credit survey.
How would you answer each?
- How many chairs are in this room?
- How many desks are in this room?
- What color am I?
- True or false: Rape is a bad thing.
- Explain how 2 + 2 = 1 can be correct.
- Approximately what year did the settlers come to North America?
- In 1490, the estimated population of Europe was 70 million people. What is the estimated human population of the Americas at that same time?
- True or false: The Puritans practiced cannibalism their first year in the New World.
- True or false: After World War I, the United States sent troops into the Soviet Union to fight the Russians.
- True or false: During the Vietnam War, the United States never lost a major military battle.
Present questions in ascending order of difficulty
The class discusses the answers to each question before LoConto moves on to the next. The order of the topics allows the discussion to build gradually from some of the lighter topics (Question 1: How many chairs are in the room?) to the more puzzling ones (Question 5: Explain how 2 + 2 = 1 can be correct).
Dig into the questions behind the answers
After the initial run-through discussions, LoConto starts asking questions that trigger deeper thinking. These queries are designed to get the class to talk about how answers to seemingly simple quantitative questions—How many chairs and desks are in the room?—can vary so widely.
The review of each question takes time, LoConto says, but is one of the strongest ways to demonstrate that people perceive things differently. “It can be an ‘aha! moment’ for many students,” he says. “It should provoke sociology questions like, ‘If we all experience things differently, how is it possible to [know] what is actually happening?’”
Embrace uncomfortable, timely topics
LoConto is on sabbatical this semester, but he says, “If I were in the classroom, we definitely would have been talking about the Kavanaugh [Supreme Court nomination] hearings and looking at sexual assault from varying sides.” In past years, LoConto has addressed many hot topics in the news, including racism and its relationship to police violence.
Get involved in the answers
The third question on the survey is, “What color am I?” Most students will answer white or black, LoConto says, though some say beige or peach. In the following discussion, he finds it useful to play devil’s advocate.
“When we review the questions, I take a sheet of white office paper off my desk and hold it to my face,” LoConto says. “Suddenly, I’m not exactly white anymore.”
The conversation can then shift to how and why labels stick, and how the answer depends on context. “When the origins involved the English and the Irish, the English as the victors saw themselves as White, the Irish as Black,” LoConto says. “This typically leads to a discussion of what exactly those labels are for. ‘White’ is defined as pure and clean, while ‘Black’ is defined as evil or suspect.”
Keep it current—and interesting
During classroom discussions, LoConto often uses examples from pop culture (he is an enthusiastic Star Trek fan). He finds examples that make the material more relatable and immediately relevant.
That said, the concepts behind the survey and LoConto’s follow-up discussions can work with students in any discipline who need a creative-thinking challenge. Using his methods, he says, only requires some blank paper, an open mind—and the willingness to challenge students to puzzle through the preconceived notions in their heads.
Carry the lesson throughout the semester
The final questions on the quiz relate to historical events, addressing less immediate (and therefore less threatening) topics in a safe setting. They typically help students understand that when it comes to history, their knowledge may not be as firm as they had thought. The questions provide the foundation for the rest of the semester, during which LoConto talks about various social phenomena and how a historical pattern often exists.
Student evaluations show that they appreciate LoConto’s survey and its mix of basic, historical, and pop-culture topics—and some say what they’ve learned about sociology has been helpful outside of the classroom. Responses include these end-of-semester comments:
“He is a great teacher and relates the material to things we may have experienced.”
“He helped us learn how others think, how others see society and the world.”