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17 April 2013

Throwing Aspirin at Social Problems

I'm teaching a couple frosh-only sections of a critical thinking course again this term that is unique to our institution. The major final project for the class is a group problem-based learning (PBL) exercise. It works like this. I reveal pieces of a hypothetical scenario involving a local individual over several weeks. The students are charged with identifying the structural causes of the intersecting social problems befalling our imaginary friend. Finally, the students propose a solution(s) to the social problems.* One issue that I've run into in the past is that the "solutions" that students propose are not really solutions at all. In order to get them past this, I came up with this analogy that I used for the first time this morning:
Imagine that you are suffering from excruciating headaches that are recurring and that you just can't shake. Finally, you go to see your doctor about it. After describing your symptoms to her, she prescribes an aspirin a day. How would you feel about this?
The students generally agree that they would be angry because the doctor really didn't try to treat the cause of the headaches; the aspirin may alleviate the symptoms but doesn't really get at the root cause. I then tell the students not to throw an aspirin at their social problems. A paper that proposes increasing welfare benefits as a "solution" to poverty, for example, would be aspirin. The students all shook their heads and seemed to get it, but I guess we'll see.

* - I adopted the PBL model for this course after being selected for a workshop on campus that essentially required that we implement it. I'm not entirely sold on the pedagogy, but that's fodder for a different post.

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