One of the more provocative chapters of Svinicki's book concerns how to help students develop skills. One model used to do this is the mimicry of experts: Students observe the techniques and modes of thinking that experts in a field use and attempt to copy them. Svinicki writes:
Another problem with the use of expert models is that learners can get a false sense of their own level of understanding if all they do is watch the model. How often have you heard students say, "but I understood it when you did it in class!" This illusion of understanding is a pitfall of expert modeling. Because so many of the false starts and wrong paths never get articulated during expert modeling, students don't learn what to do when things go wrong. Part of learning any skill is learning how to cope with failure. In learning a dangerous sport, like gymnastics or rock climbing, one of the first things taught is hos to fall without getting hurt. Students are taught how to roll with the punches. We should provide an equivalent education for those learning intellectual skills, how to fall intellectually without getting hurt. (pp. 72-73)
For teachers of philosophy, this is a richly suggestive passage. First, philosophy teaches skills (among other things). The skills will vary from course to course, but certainly careful analytical reading, logical reasoning, critical thinking, intellectual sympathy, argumentative writing, etc. are among the skills philosophers try to instill. I find Svinicki's student comment — "but I understood it when you did it in class!" — to be very familiar. For example, student papers can reproduce arguments discussed in class, but it is often apparent from students' inability to analyze the argument, pose objections, etc., that their level of understanding is not as strong as they had anticipated.
And this is where her remarks about falling "without getting hurt" become relevant: Philosophy is a risky discipline to study, I think. Because it teaches skills, it's cognitively risky, demanding that students step outside their familiar patterns of thought and belief. It's personally risky as well, since philosophy deals with questions about which people sometimes have strong opinions, opinions rooted near the core of their identities. In philosophy, "false starts and wrong paths" are the norm for beginners. (I imagine many of us encounter students coming to philosophy for the first time who know these risks and are not especially engaged with the course because they fear these risks.)
But at the same time, students can't genuinely master philosophy without taking some risks, and I wonder how effective we are at encouraging and rewarding risk taking, and when students fall, how to ensure that it doesn't hurt. In short, how can we make the study of philosophy safe for students?
Here's one example of a common feature of teaching that might discourage intellectual risk taking. Student Y and student Z write papers, and both receive, say, a B on the paper. Y and Z decide to take advantage of your rewrite policies and submitted revised versions of the original paper. Y's paper gets a B+: Y tidied up some of the paragraph structure, fixed the typos, and provided a slightly better reply to an objection to her thesis. Z's paper gets a C: Z undertook a wideranging revision of her paper, revising the thesis in light of criticisms, dealing with new texts (perhaps some of them were even unassigned), etc. But the result is less coherent than her earlier paper: harder to follow, more disjointed, etc. So despite Z's more ambitious efforts to delve more deeply into the issues, her efforts backfire gradewise, whereas Y's more superficial revisions reward her.
Grading is one facet of teaching that makes Svinick's remarks about falling without getting hurt valuable. In order to learn to walk, you have to be willing to fall down. How do we help students fall down?