The Salem Witch Trials: A Collaborative Teaching Effort at Becker College

Published on Monday, October 20th, 2008
Though it has developed into somewhat of a seasonal interest, and is “spooky” in nature, the Salem Witch Trials remains one of the most haunting demonstrations of human hysteria in American history. It also still captivates the attention of people all over the country, and the world. Recently, Becker College Professor Susan M. Nava-Whitehead, PhD and former Becker employee Joan-Beth Gow had a paper accepted for publication by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science that focuses on these trials.
Not only did it provide a unique teaching model, but inspired a collaborate effort between departments at Becker College.
“I met Joan-Beth here at Becker when she worked as the academic specialist for science,” says Nava-Whitehead. “As we worked together to support some of our less prepared, undeclared students, we realized that other approaches to learning were necessary to reach these students. I have always been interested in interdisciplinary learning and Joan-Beth introduced me to case study methodology. Thus, the Salem case seemed a perfect model; students love a story and more so, a mystery.”
Using the model, students are encouraged to examine all of the evidence and come up with their own conclusions as to how and why these events occurred. There is no one “right” answer, but it sparks an important discussion of the root of the hysteria.
Nava-Whitehead and Gow explain that as a teaching tool, the trials can address different topics such as the scientific method, mass hysteria, fungi and ergot toxicity, data analysis, and the history of Salem. Incorporating the idea of reading for pleasure, they add, only promotes “life-long learning.” Like some other longtime New England residents, Whitehead mentions the fact that one of them is ancestrally connected to the event (but doesn’t say which one).
“Most people only know about the Salem witch trials from a popular media perspective,” says Nava-Whitehead. “They don’t realize that there are scientific hypotheses, along with facts and figures that have been critically analyzed in the peer reviewed scientific literature. I think the discussions that ensue are what constitute valid scientific evidence, and is there enough valid evidence to support either the theory of contaminated rye or the theory of mass hysteria being the cause of the events at Salem.”
Here’s how the case is employed to the students: they are given small pieces of data one at a time. Each piece builds on the prior understanding of the case. The introductory section asks students to assume they are living in Salem in 1692, and develop a hypothesis based on their observations. Students often develop “expected hypotheses.” In the next step, students expand their thinking and are guided through yet another possible explanation, followed by more steps Nava-Whitehead calls “progressive disclosure.” Often during the process, she plays devil’s advocate to spark debate and discussion.
“In the end,” she says, “students come to the conclusion that evidence is available to support several hypotheses. It is emphasized to students that science builds on knowledge.
To recognize the work, Psychology Professors Vladimir Pistalo and Kerri Augusto are devoting Halloween to the examination of the topic, having developed an interdisciplinary model for teaching and combining classes. Augusto spent the summer researching PBL as a form of pedagogy and has been experimenting with it in her Intro to Psychology class. Chatting with Whitehead about her efforts, she learned about the paper, and decided to see if they might be able to co-teach pieces of this phenomenon.
Debbie Pallatoo-Fontaine is incorporating a discussion of the Wicca religion as part of her Religions of the World class, Nina Mazloff talks about that “bullying behavior” in her Principles of Education class, and Paul Chase takes on the “rumors” aspect in his computer course called Managing and Maintaining PCS, using the rumor angle as a tie between the role of the technician to the role of the leaders in Salem. Both, when buoyed by rumors, can cause a destructive environment.
“What we are trying to do is unite the college around a theme,” says Augusto, “to examine the issue through their own specialized lens of expertise so that students can be exposed to the idea that there is no one right way to approach a problem, that understanding requires multiple perspectives. We plan to have them examine data, pick apart arguments, and take a stand. All of these are life lessons worth learning.”
Oct. 24, there is a trip to Salem planned, which includes admission to the Salem Witch Museum (tour at 7 pm) and the "Legacy of the Hanging Judge" Performance (show at 10:10 pm). Cost: $5 for Becker Students, $20 for guests
Bus leaves Leicester at 4:30 pm, Worcester at 5 pm. There are two showings of “The Crucible,” at the Worcester Campus on Oct. 27 and the Leicester Campus on Oct. 29.
Email for information and to sign up.