Dr. Michael Starbird—a professor of math and deep thinking—loves helping students become open to changing their minds. Here is his effective 4-step plan.
Professor of Mathematics,The University of Texas at Austin
PhD, MA, and BA in Mathematics
It is a common refrain: Too often, students start their careers in higher learning with a bundle of preconceived notions—political, social, personal—that they believe wholeheartedly, without ever having thought about why they believe them. Those preconceived notions can become an impediment to learning, as students are reluctant to shed those beliefs even when they are presented with opportunities for growth.
For Michael Starbird, PhD, professor of mathematics at The University of Texas at Austin, there is a straightforward solution: Teach students to doubt.
Starbird believes that, as we learn, it is beneficial to question and adjust our opinions based on new evidence and our increasing wisdom. “The main purpose of education is to improve the way people approach their whole lives,” he says. “Two of the basic challenges we all face are having opinions and making decisions. Expecting to adjust those opinions over one’s lifetime is a healthy perspective to have.”
Yet, it is not always natural to do so—which is where his instruction comes in. Starbird has created a course, The Elements of Effective Thinking, that is offered to first-year students at UT. (He has coauthored two books on similar topics with fellow educator Dr. Edward B. Burger: The Heart of Mathematics: An Invitation to Effective Thinking and The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.)
“Students have told me this course is thought-provoking,” says Starbird, “and that’s a good outcome. The goal of education shouldn’t be whether or not the students can do the work. Do they enjoy thinking? Does it bring them joy? Because if they don’t enjoy the process of thinking, then as soon as they leave the coercion of school, they’ll avoid it. And that’s limiting for their lives.”
Keep reading to learn how Starbird teaches students to be open to doubt and, in turn, new ideas.
“The goal of the course and education in general is to help students become effective thinkers—that is, independent, insightful, and creative human beings. Grappling with how to accomplish that goal is an ongoing adventure [for me].”
-Michael Starbird, PhD
Course: UGS 302/303 First-Year Signature Course: Elements of Effective Thinking
Course description: Through discussion of topics such as evidence of a moving earth, to evolution, to works of art, conversation becomes animated. Humanity doesn’t actually understand much of anything—either in the scientific or artistic or social worlds. History suggests that what we now revere as core truth will later seem totally wrong or improper. This course encourages us all to use specific strategies of clear thinking to embrace an appropriate personal skepticism about our own opinions.
Starbird’s 4 steps for opening minds with doubt
During the first day of the first class of the semester, Starbird introduces the concept of doubt to a classroom full of doubters. He begins by walking students through his own thoughts and theories about doubt: This includes the idea that, throughout most of human history, people could expect their experience of life to be much the same as that of their parents. But today’s world is awash in dramatic, constant change—in particular, from scientific progress, social change, and technology. Therefore, he tells students, it is necessary for them to prepare for a future whose challenges are not yet known. One of the best ways to do this is to embrace doubt and change as healthy, positive characteristics of thoughtful people—people who are willing to re-examine their beliefs based on new information.
After he has their attention, Starbird walks them through an exercise to examine their own beliefs through a more critical lens. The steps are as follows:
1. Ask students to identify a strong personal belief
For this exercise, students are allowed to choose any topic at all. Starbird says students have selected political topics such as gun control, religious topics such as evolution, and personal topics such as relationships. Then Starbird has them attach a percentage to it that indicates how strongly they believe it, with 100% being the strongest. One example: “I think allowing registered guns on campus is dangerous. And I believe it 80%.”
Starbird says that quantifying their opinions helps to show students that their current understanding of our world (scientifically, politically, socially, religiously, and so on) is limited—neither perfect nor complete in any dimension.
As for those who say they are 100% certain on any opinion, Starbird points out that they are actually saying they are closed-minded: that no amount of evidence will penetrate the concrete of their beliefs. The professor says he does not shy away from adding that those people should simply be ignored.
2. Have students research the counterpoints to that belief
Once the students have identified a belief, Starbird asks them to locate reputable sources that dispute their belief. This requires a quick review of what he considers to be a reputable source. Starbird does not require a set number of sources, but he does require that students share where they obtained their information.
“I tell them to seek out studies that are respected by the scientific community—for example, studies by the National Academy of Sciences or studies that appeared in prestigious scientific publications. Or choose actual data from other reliable sources, such as governmental sources,” he says. “For example, if you have an opinion on crime, what’s the data from the police department or FBI?”
3. Ask students to (happily) rethink their percentage
Once the research is complete, students revisit the percentage they assigned to their initial belief. They explore whether the percentage has changed—even slightly—and explain why or why not. The result is a paper in which they describe how their minds have changed and what evidence caused the change.
Starbird says this helps students get comfortable with changing their minds. He firmly believes that changing one’s mind is conducive to civility, calm, and improved decision-making. “I convey to students how good it is to be happy to assess the evidence that comes before you rather than resist it in order to stay true to a sense of self,” he says. “So, instead of feeling that every change is a threat to your identity or principles, you’re open to the idea that change is part of being a healthy human being.”
That way, he says, if someone presents credible evidence contradicting your opinion, you can say, “Good point. I still think allowing registered guns on campus is dangerous, but now only 68%.” Expressing a level of conviction less than 100% opens the door to allowing evidence to inform progress.
4. Reward students for changing their minds
Starbird has a clever approach to introducing his final paper and presentation assignment, which requires students to choose a topic and set out to change their mind about it (see sidebar for details). In lieu of a final exam, students write a 400- to 600-word essay on what they learned, then give a three-minute oral presentation before the class, showing at least one relevant visual aid, such as a poster, person, or prop. Other than these guidelines, Starbird says he is not dogmatic and likes to keep the assignment fairly loose.
Starbird has compelling examples of student-chosen topics that are relevant to arguments in society today. For example, one student grew up in a small community in rural Texas in which most of the authorities in her life did not believe in human evolution. “Her belief that evolution was a mistaken and dangerous theory was modified when she applied the history of humanity’s shift in its belief in a moving Earth to the possibility that the biological world might be changing as well,” Starbird explains. “She still doubted that evolution of humans really is true; however, she adjusted her percentage of strength in her views, and she became open to the possibility of further change in her views.”
Another example addressed the question of allowing guns on campus. “Several students chose this topic, originally arguing that allowing students to bring registered guns to campus would make campus a much more dangerous place,” Starbird says. “After looking at the data about gun violence on campuses and understanding that students who went through the detailed process required to carry a gun legally on campus tended to be especially law-abiding people, those students had to adjust their percentage belief in the danger of firearms on campus. Many of them were also healthfully moved to formulate more sophisticated reasons for viewing gun culture as creating societal problems.
“The goal of the course and education in general is to help students become effective thinkers—that is, independent, insightful, and creative human beings,” says Starbird. “Grappling with how to accomplish that goal is an ongoing adventure [for me].”