Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Learning and Motivation, pt I: Abandoning existing beliefs

I have recently been reading (with colleagues from various disciplines) Marilla Svinicki's book Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. This will be the first of what I intend as a series of posts sharing provocative tidbits from the book that I hope prove relevant to the teaching of philosophy.

Svinicki devotes an early chapter to the topic of what theories of learning tell us what will assist students to master new content. One of the main barriers is that "prior knowledge and experience affect current behavior and learning," and not necessarily in salutary ways. For example, learners may have existing beliefs that are sufficiently ingrained that attempts to dislodge these beliefs by presenting counterevidence to them will often fail. Svinicki, citing a paper by Posner et al. (1982), states that four conditions must be met in order for learners to abandon an existing belief (pp. 28-29):
  1. Dissatisfaction: learners have to be confronted with information that makes them dissatisfied with the existing belief
  2. Intelligibility: the belief proposed as a substitute must be intelligible to the learner
  3. Plausibility: the belief proposed as a substitute must be plausible to the learner
  4. Fruitfulness: the proposed new belief must be able to "predict new ideas as well as explain old ones"
Svinikci's four criteria fit somewhat awkwardly with much of what we teach in philosophy: For instance, philosophical beliefs have logical implications, but often don't "predict" anything. Nevertheless, her description resonates strongly with me inasmuch as much of philosophical learning is unlearning: unearthing and querying unrecognized assumptions, noting that our commitments have surprising — even implausible — implications, etc. This is much of what we sometimes think of as 'critical thinking.' And on the whole, I think philosophers are reasonably successful in using our analytical and logical skills to help students meet the first criterion.

Yet I wonder how often we succeed in meeting criteria 2-4. I suspect many students new to philosophy are thrilled by philosophy's capacity for intellectual destruction but become disillusioned when they feel that the relentless criticism of views endemic to philosophical practice results in many views being toppled but not much being offered in their stead. In philosophical research, being 'purely destructive' has its place. (If I recall correctly, Gilbert Ryle had several papers whose purpose, he said, was wholly destructive.) But in the classroom, being purely destructive is itself destructive -- and I wonder how often we help students destroy without helping them 'move on' to an ostensibly better view of the phenomena in question. This relates to some of our earlier discussions: Mike's on philosophical progress and mine on 'easy' moral skepticism. But I'd be curious to hear people's thoughts about how well we philosophy teachers do beyond instilling a sense of dissatisfaction in students concerning their philosophical convictions, and if we're not doing as well as we should, what techniques or approaches might help us steer students toward convictions that are intelligible, plausible, and fruitful.


  1. Hi there,

    I read your post with great interest as I am in fact troubled by the nature of philosophical questioning itself. In particular, what is of great concern for me is the destabilizing character of some philosophical questioning as regards the political community.

    I recently wrote something on the topic and would value very much your comments. The pertinent section for the issue you touch upon is the initial one dealing with puzzling and questioning. The link is:




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