Philosophy professor Nicolas Fillion has received a 2019 Cormack Teaching Award for his work teaching students how to think critically.

Awards, Faculty, Philosophy

Tricking students into critical thinking

September 16, 2019

Nicolas Fillion’s eyes sparkle when he talks about critical thinking even though he knows that it’s not the most popular subject among the many interesting Arts and social science courses on offer.

Fillion’s passion for sharing the joys of critical thinking were recognized when the philosophy professor received a 2019 Cormack Teaching Award. The award was established by former Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Dean Lesley Cormack  to celebrate excellence in teaching.

“Most of my teaching is in subjects that Arts students hate, prima facie anyway,” professor Fillion says. Nevertheless, enrollment in SFU’s Department of Philosophy logic courses have increased significantly since he began teaching them. In part that could be because Fillion relies on his sense of humour to help teach what some say is a dry subject.

“My area is philosophy of mathematics, logic and scientific methodology.” Fillion says. “To make a mathematical logic course work in an Arts environment you really have to work hard, to show up with enthusiasm every day, with jokes prepared. If you don’t have that it’s going to be a disaster.”

Fillion also admits that he tries to trick students into taking critical thinking courses without calling it critical thinking. His ploy was to create a course on conspiracy theories.

“The course is about developing a critical thinking toolkit that is particularly well suited to dealing with the topic of conspiracy theories,” Fillion says. “Of course, most of that toolkit will be the same for other topics so it’s a good way of teaching critical thinking. I got amazing teaching evaluations because everybody loved it.”

Universities aim to teach students to think critically, but most have never been introduced to the concept when they begin their postsecondary education. To better prepare students, Fillion is keen to promote critical thinking in high school. The time is right as British Columbia is developing a new school curriculum based on core competencies, the most important of which is critical thinking. Yet many high school teachers have never taken a university critical thinking class. Philosophy majors are the best trained in critical thinking but they cannot become high school teachers.

For four years Fillion has lobbied the Ministry of Education to reform this state of affairs and he estimates it will probably take another four or five years of advocacy for change to come about. In the meantime he is finding other ways to expose high schoolers to critical thinking.

Regional winners Sands Secondary of Delta take on Princess Margaret Secondary of Surrey in the semi-finals of the first B.C. Ethics Bowl which was organized by professor Nicolas Fillion, SFU Philosophy. The collaborative competition encourages dialogue and collaboration-useful skills for global citizens in the 21st century.

In April 2019 Fillion organized the first British Columbia Regional Ethics Bowl where teams from five Metro Vancouver high schools compete in a collaborative version of a debate club. Rather than arguing different theses, the teams pose and respond to probing questions about ethical issues in social, political, economic, scientific, cultural and other milieux. Students have to demonstrate that they can listen to what the other team says and engage with it. The event was held at SFU’s Burnaby campus and for many of the competitors it was the first time in their lives that they stepped onto a university campus. Some of the students wrote to Fillion afterwards that it changed their career path and that they’re now thinking of studying philosophy or law. Fillion is trying to start a French version of the Ethics Bowl for French immersion schools in the province.

“Now we have an opportunity to teach kids and their teachers at the same time about how to do critical thinking and become good at it,” Fillion says. “And at the same time they will see examples of people who are good at critical thinking.”