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Sharpen your teaching blades

Dear teachers,

11 June 2015

It is currently a hot summer day and I have decided to write this personal letter to
express my sincere gratitude for making the course Critical Reflection of Technology (CRT)
available to Honours Programme students. It is my hope that the course continues in existence
and reaches a wider audience in the future, since engineers are expected to deal with more
ethical issues than before. Yet, I have a personal remark to make before the course reaches
such a stage. In spite of the great effort, I also do believe, with all respect, that the study goals
of the course are currently not being achieved. Not completely, at least. This is due to the fact
that the current students are not ready for the big steps the present teaching method is taking.
And thus, a different teaching approach is suggested. This letter will therefore devote itself to
the explanation of the underlying reasons and observations of the latter statement. But before
critically reflecting upon CRT and posing any suggestions or improvements, we need to go
back to where it all started.
Walking towards my very first CRT lecture happened on a regular Friday afternoon.
The teacher ordered twenty-five students at arrival to form a U-shape setting by facing all
tables inwards. Students then needed to write their name and study background on a piece of
folded paper and placed it at front. Next, the teacher gave a short introduction to the course
and provided us with a couple of minutes to read a script by Hobbesi. The main message of
the text came through while reading. However, it did not really grab my interest. Suddenly,
the teacher started a presentation to recap what has been stated in the script and followed it by
a discussion, which was initiated by asking students to respond to: what are the
characteristics of man in the state of nature?
That is the moment when it all began. I have literally told my teacher that the
questions, which were raised during the development of that discussion, completely blew my
mind. It boggled me for a long period whether humans are initially good or bad. I tried to
figure out which norms and values to hold to say what being good and bad mean. It also kept
me busy to imagine how inhabitants of a certain country would start behaving if no laws
existed anymore. And besides, why did nine out of ten students raise their hands when they
were asked whether they would base the writing of a new covenant or law on mistrust in
man? Somehow, my fellow students and I could not give answers to these rather simple
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questions. But at the same time, it made me realize that this was my first exposure to relative
unusual topics during my university career.
Civil Engineering is currently my major at the Delft University of Technology. This
choice has exposed me to a certain type of thinking and problem solving. For example, a
regular day would start of with Mechanics class. This lecture would demonstrate approaches
that determine the maximum strength of a certain type of structural beam. Just before lunch
break, my fellow students and I would then participate in Mathematics class and solve the
unknown variables in multiple algebraic equations. In the afternoon, we engage in
experiments and produce concrete compositions according to a certain formula sheet. And
trust me, these experiments are tough. However, around six oclock, we would take our bikes
and cycle towards home for dinner. After we had enough food and rest, we would start
solving homework assignments according to rules shared in class and textbooks. This whole
routine happens the next day and the day after in a similar way. As a matter of fact, my earlier
mentioned Friday afternoon walk, and thus also my introduction to relative unusual topics,
took place during my fifth and last university year. Such unusual topics are not standardly
implemented in my curriculum due to ill relevance and thus, it becomes understandable why
the questions from the first lecture of CRT challenged and intrigued me deeply.
That mind-blowing experience did not pass easily and got me wondering what Critical
Reflection (CR) really stands for. What does it serve and what is the purpose of it? One key
figure, John Dewey, describes CR as an active, persistent, and careful consideration of any
belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the
further conclusions to which it includes a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief
upon a firm basis of evidence and rationalityii. Others have simply stated that CR is a
process of testing the validity of for granted taken premises and presumptions, which our
beliefs are built oniii. To make it clearer, CR is not concerned with the outcomes and answers
of a certain issue. Instead, it deals with the underlying ideas, assumptions and factors that
construct a certain problem. It therefore helps practitioners to have an open attitude and better
understanding of a wide range of issues.
In addition to the above-mentioned descriptions, my interest went also to those of my
course mates at CRT. I have therefore distributed a questionnaire iv. In line with the previous
paragraph, I started the survey by asking: What does CRT mean to you? The participants
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have responded to this question with each their own relative different perception, which is
quite remarkable actually. Some interesting ones are presented here:

An examination of ideas founded on logic and consistency, as opposed to


habit and emotion.

Learning to question what has been given. And learning how to argument
your opinion.

To think weather I'm doing the research ethically right.

Thinking out of box. Consider more on society or human.

As with almost everything else, CR has also several drawbacks, besides the abovementioned advantages, that need to be considered. One of the most important obstacles is that
CR can lead to more open than closed ends if an issue is to wide and complex. This can also
occur when there is not enough information available. For example, a discussion about
death does not automatically lead to convincing results and arguments. It could make
practitioners say that there is no point in discussing such topic, since no one knows the
absolute truth. In fact, I even know some fellow students who would consider these
discussions as a waste of time:

Basic ideas and discussions such as "the state of nature of man" or "the
chicken and egg" have a bearing on legal systems and evolutionary theory
respectively. These can also be shown to be of relevance, perhaps not directly
to the design of a wind turbine blade or search algorithm, but to the society in
which these technologies are ultimately to be used.

At a certain point, discussions become fruitless and a waste of time. It's an


engineering judgment kind of thing: at what point do we stop trying to make
more and more detailed calculations that send the effort skyrocketing, and
start make some assumptions instead?

Some people may have radical opinions from others in . Death is such a topic
that is not welcomed by all for discussion. Any debate about it is inconclusive
as no person has a definite answer. Nevertheless, one can talk about it to form
various opinions.

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Is it truly a waste of time as some might say? Or should you, teachers, leave us in our
element instead of overwhelming our minds with problems that have no single and clear
answers? At this point I asked myself whether challenging engineering students with topics
that lie outside their familiar fields is a good act or not.
My direct surrounding made me realize that current inventions are intervening our
daily personal lives more than ever before. The applications differ greatly in size and
purposes. Mobile devices, hands free car driving and robotic limbs for human bodies are great
examples for instance. Each of these inventions and applications surely pose certain ethical
issues that need to be dealt with before, during and after implementation. It is therefore
crucial that an engineer or inventor is capable of doing this without the aid of an external
party. In addition, the increasing multidisciplinary projects forces engineers to work within
different fields, cultures and mind-sets. This demands most certainly an absolute attitude of
open- and willingness in order to bring projects to a success. Besides, it is noticeable that
current society, and thus users of inventions, expect from engineers to have thought through
and probably solved any posed ethical issue. It is for these reasons that courses, like CRT, are
nowadays of great importance to the development of engineers. Namely, it makes them more
familiar and trained in dealing with such topics, since they get exposed to unusual and
societal questions that lie outside their fields of expertise.
I have to say, dear teachers, that the findings in the previous paragraph and the
responses of students got me thinking. Does the current CRT course fulfil the expectations
CR should have? Does it have the proper study goals? And does it indeed teach us to have an
open attitude towards a wide range of issues? To figure this out, I have chosen to split this
task in two, namely audience and teaching method.
The six remaining lectures after my walk were carried out in a similar manner as the
first. We, students, had to prepare and read a different paper on a weekly base. These were
then discussed in class in the presence of a teacher. According to the course information, the
purpose and study goals of these lectures are: The ability to form an independent, well
argued position with regards to ethical or methodological problems (preferably concerning
technology in general or the professional practice of engineers more in particular).
Now, usually, when engineering students (audience) need to solve a presented issue,
they tend to frame it according to certain rules. They, for instance, explicitly state the
boundaries and assumptions in which the problem will be investigated. The variables, which
the problem consists of, will then be translated to numerical entities, which make it somehow
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solvable with the aid of numerical methods. This approach makes engineering students
somehow feel more comfortable, since the outcome of a numerical method is something we
could grasp and discuss about. For example, should we grant a heart donation to an elder or to
a youthful person? Under normal circumstances, the choice would be easy and the heart
donation would probably go to the younger person due to age. However, certain topics cannot
be translated to numerical entities and are therefore not solvable through numerical
approaches. This also means that it becomes difficult to obtain single and clear answers. And
thus, different manners are needed that can deal with non-trivial issues.
When we discussed papers in class, most students engaged and shared their opinions
regarding the topics. Nonetheless, I also had the impression that a wide majority of students,
including me, lacked basic skills and experiences in forming logical arguments. Not being
able to differentiate between good and bad reasoning will not help practitioners maintain
consistency within their set of knowledge. And thus, it happened that students were giving
contradicting arguments while expressing themselves. Especially when ethical issues were
raised. It is for these reasons that the objective and study goals of the course CRT perfectly fit
to the demands of the audience. And I hope that this does not come as a surprise to you
teachers, since we students did not gain such skills and capabilities within our majors. And I
am not per se referring to students from studies like Architecture and Industrial Design, but to
the wider range, which have majors with numerical field cores, like Civil, Electrical,
Aerospace and Mechanical engineering.
Further, the current way of teaching (teaching method) made me doubt whether these
skills were actually taught in class. To my experience, we did not specifically debate in class
what valid and invalid arguments are. I also cannot recall a moment that good arguments were
taken as an example to learn from, for instance. Of course, I have no doubt that good
arguments were given by papers, students and teachers. But, we were not taught to recognize
these or distinct them from the invalid ones. I therefore doubt whether the current way of
teaching truly meets the study goals of this course. Also, students had to write a final essay
during the second period, while the first period was devoted to debates during lectures. In my
opinion, there seemed to be some didactic voids between these two periods that unlink the
debates, reading papers and writing an essay with each other. I therefore believe that it is
crucial to sharpen the current teaching method to form a more coherent whole.

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In relation to improving the teaching methods, I have also asked my fellow students to
explain how they would teach the CRT if they had the chance. Some responses are as follows:

I would additionally require a written response to each of the prescribed


articles, as this would ensure each student's engagement.

The way in which the course is being taught is appropriate. Well, almost. The
course only misses the metacognition step, in which we reflect on how we came
to our conclusions and how it fits into a logical argumentation scheme. See
also: Cognitive Acceleration. Writing a paper is a proper didactic way to truly
teach us how to argumentate.

Umm. This is a tough one. I'd say completely differently from how it is
currently done. The discussions should be about making educated decisions
(educated as in using our engineering knowledge rather than pure ideology, as
is the case for many of these discussions) about controversial topics such as
nuclear power. Rather similar to the Ethics course I guess.

Set a fixed case study or a topic, and through the whole class, I will ask
students discuss and explore the argument and problem deeply together.

It became clear to me that critical reflection needs practitioners with certain


characteristics and skills. Having a certain attitude or openness of willing to thoughtfully
question topics that might come within their range, and possessing certain methods or skills of
logic inquiry and reasoning are the right characteristics to my opinion. The good thing is that
the course CRT brings these aspects together, since its purpose is to acquaint students with a
comfortable attitude towards relative unusual topics and form well-positioned arguments.
Therefore, I will use the next paragraphs to explain approaches that might help to achieve
these study goals in a more efficient and effective way.
In class I had the impression that a great majority of students did not really have an
opinion on being open or firm towards unusual topics. I would therefore suggest teachers to
focus on this group rather than others. These students need to be convinced of the great
benefits of a course like CRT. However, I also admit that this might be a quite challenging
task for teachers. Therefore, taking small steps is recommended in this case. I have learned
that the philosophical domain Epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge,
rationality, justified beliefs and how open-minded we should be to prevent being closeminded. Other domains, like Reasoning and Logic, help practitioners in forming and
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understanding logically valid arguments. However, it is by no means certain that attending


these domains indeed advances the openness, reasoning and interest of students. On the other
hand, I do believe that the first two lectures or so should be devoted to understanding and
recognizing valid arguments. This would surely improve students understanding and
preparation of different papers, which eventually will lead to higher engagement in class.
Furthermore, teachers should explicitly state what the gains and learning goals are for
students, at the beginning of each step, topic and lecture. This will give them a grip of the
discussed matter so that confusions are avoided. Also, mixing students with different
backgrounds is a great thing to do and thus should be kept this way. This will challenge them
to open their minds due to different insights during discussions. However, starting off with a
topic that is completely unrelated to scientific fields might scare off some students. I would
therefore advice to gradually choose topics, starting with a paper that is close to science and
ending with one, which is not. This will seem less abrupt and will have a more convincing
effect on students in the long run.
As you might have seen from the responses of students, writing is a powerful method
to develop skills like logic, argumentation and reasoning. I personally support this as well.
Writing might sound schools, but this piece in front of you is the best example I can give. It
is in fact already my third version and it has taught me a lot while writing it. The discussions I
had with teachers about this topic and piece, kind of opened locked doors within my brains. It
led me to new insights and ideas fortunately. Also, the writing over and over again, the hours
and days of over thinking and rephrasing, the survey I conducted, they all gave me a feeling
of truly understanding what valid arguments are. However, it did not always go smoothly,
since I had to figure this out on my own. I also know others who had the same experience. To
avoid this, teachers could ask students to write a one-page piece about the topic that is being
discussed every week. These could then be shared with other students to give and receive
feedback, which will make them realize the differences in logic and reasoning and thus learn
from each other by doing. In addition, their writing skills will be improved, which surely is a
big bonus. And thus, it will eventually lead to a smoother process of writing this final essay.
Besides, when students are more skilled in writing argumentative pieces, the course designers
are then able to shorten the period that is reserved for this final essay so that more lectures and
topics can be planned within the curriculum. As well, asking students to present their written
pieces will increase engagement and learning curve during class, since they will learn to
respond to each others arguments. The teachers role in this case should be that of an
observer who comes in whenever the discussion goes off topic. Ultimately, at the end of each
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week, students should be asked to reflect upon their contribution to the homework
assignment, the discussions and their participation in class. This can be done with the aid of a
form, consisting of reflective questions, which will make them think in a deeper sense about
their process throughout the course and therefore increase their learning experience and level
of comfort.
In conclusion, I have written this personal letter to share a valuable experience. This is
due to the fact that I really enjoyed the course and wish that every student could have the
chance to participate in it. The influence I had on me was so great that I even looked for
possibilities to follow a PhD track within this field. But that is another topic.
I also hope that you do not see the opinions of my fellow students and mine as an
attack towards the current teaching method. In fact, the opposite is true. We currently need
effective courses, which teach engineering students to deal with ethical, societal and relative
unusual topics, more than ever. And hopefully, we will then have more students that follow
the footsteps of great renowned scientists and engineers, which were and are able to ask the
right questions at the right time for the right reasons.

Yours sincerely,

Hoessein Alkisaei
Student number: 1541358


i
Hobbes, T., & Oakeshott, M. (1962). Leviathan: Or, The matter, forme and power of a
commonwealth, ecclesiasticall and civil. New York: Collier Books.
ii
Critical Reflection. (n.d.). Retrieved June 11, 2015, from
http://faculty.coloradomtn.edu/orl/critical_reflection.html
iii
Mezirow, J. (1990). Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to
transformative and emancipatory learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
iv
Link to the questionnaire:
https://docs.google.com/forms/d/12AWGK8dNubbFAIaKWnCVSTxy2AX5oFY8HidcBf90rA/viewform
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