Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy instructional new year

Seeing as we're approaching the New Year, I thought we could share classroom-related New Year's resolutions for 2008: something we'd like to be more conscientious about, improve upon, etc. I''ll go first:

Return student work in a more timely fashion. I'm usually good about this, getting student papers back to them within a week of the due date. But occasionally it takes longer than it should, and the longer it takes, the less students attend to (or can do much with) the feedback I provide. Sometimes this is just a matter of sheer workload, but (I admit) it's traceable to my dislike of grading. I actually enjoy reading people's work and providing comments, but the need to assign grades tends to kill my motivation for some reason. So let's see if I can be more on the ball in this regard next year.

What's your resolution?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Lecturing is not good for children and other living things"

I am opposed to doing much traditional "lecturing" in most classroom contexts that I find myself in, which are typically classes with less than 35 students. For one, I think lecturing encourages passivity: students just sit back and typically just let ideas wash over them, at best. Second, I think it discourages doing the reading, if a lecture substitutes for that, as it often does: if the lecture will sum up the basic ideas and arguments, why bother reading about them in the readings? (And somewhere I have gotten the idea that there is research to show that most people learn best from reading, although I now retain that belief probably on the basis of wishful thinking!). I prefer spending our time doing learning activities that students could not do on their own.

Fortunately, I am not alone in having these kinds of thoughts about lectures. Here are some recent articles on lecturing:

Lecturing vs. Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Breathing Life Into the Lecture Hall

To Lecture or Not to Lecture, an Age-Old Question

A guru here seems to Eric Mazur from Harvard's physics department.

I wonder if people have any thoughts on this issue, know of other relevant discussion, etc.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Arguments for classroom discussion

In his very influential introductory text on ethics, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels discusses the tragic case of an anencephallic baby named Theresa (BT) whose parents wanted to donate her organs so that otherwise healthy children who need them could survive. One of the issues involving this case is that in order to utilize the organs the doctors would have to kill BT. The ethical question arises, is it morally permissible to kill BT in order to retrieve her organs so that others might live? The argument that he presents in favor of killing BT in order to retrieve her organs is what he labels the ‘benefits argument:’ (It should be noted that Rachels does not address whether or not he agrees with this argument, only that this argument can be made.)
1. If we can benefit someone without harming another then it is permissible to do so.
2. Retrieving the organs from BT will benefit others without harming BT
3. Therefore we should retrieve the organs from BT.
When I discuss this problem in my intro to ethics course most students find this to be a plausible argument. They believe that the premises are true and have a tendency to agree that the doctors should be allowed to kill BT.

Assuming that the benefits argument is a sound argument, I then present an argument that seems to follow from, and be consistent with, the benefits argument, but which most students reject as being implausible and would not sanction doing what this argument requires. The argument is:
1. If we can benefit someone without harming another then it is permissible to do so.
2. There is a shortage of organs needed to save lives.
3. We can reduce this shortage by developing a fetal farm of anencephallic babies from which we can harvest needed organs.
4. We will benefit others and will not harm anyone by developing these fetal farms and harvesting the needed organs.
5. Therefore we should develop fetal farms of anencephallic babies and harvest their organs as needed.

The reason I give these contrasting arguments is to get students to realize that even though we sometimes accept premises as being true we do not always accept the conclusions that seem to follow from them. Anyway, you might find it interesting to discuss this issue with your students. In my experience it has generated a great deal of discussion that has lead to some interesting distinctions; e.g., something simply happening and causing something to happen, and possible theoretical positions regarding the roles of reason and emotions in our ethical lives.

I hope all of you have a happy holiday season and a new year full of adventure and growth.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In praise of task praise

We've talked a good bit about learning and motivation at In Socrates' Wake, and of the educational psychologists working on such questions, Carol Dweck has the most interesting things to say. This article from Scientific American summarizes her fascinating work on how praise impacts learners' conception of knowledge, and in turn, the motivations that govern their learning efforts. I'd encourage everyone to read it themselves, but here are a few key ideas.

Central to Dweck's work is a distinction between two ways that learners come to understand intelligence:

... I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

It's easy to imagine how students with a helplessness mindset would struggle academically: The slightest adversity will be taken as evidence of an innate deficiency, and so the helpless learner will figure out to avoid the tasks that manifest this deficiency. As we've discussed a lot here at ISW, studying philosophy can be awfully intimidating and can bring to the surface various insecurities about one's academic abilities. It would not shock me if intro to philosophy classes are places where this difference in how students see learning and intelligence play a huge role in their motivation and subsequent performance.

The practical upshot of Dweck's work is that praise — and in particular, how we praise — shapes whether learners acquire the helpless or mastery learning outlook:

How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

So a question for us philosophy instructors: Is it too late in the academic careers of the students we teach (i.e., college leval) to think that the forms of praise (or criticism) would have any impact on their conception of learning? Suppose that it's not too late. Do we praise (or criticize) students in ways that encourage the fixed intelligence view or in ways that encourage the mastery/effort view? It seems like the message from Dweck is that our praise and criticism needs to be very task-specific, referring not to alleged facts about students but facts about their work and the efforts that produce it. I'd be interested to hear about the styles of feedback or feedback mechanisms that people use and whether these provide feedback along the lines recommended by Dweck.

(On a side note: I don't think most of us are given a lot of directions early in our teaching careers about how to provide feedback to students. One bit of advice I've heard is that we should always something positive on a student paper, no matter how awful it is. Is that good advice?)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Assessment: A philosopher speaks

Following up on Adam's post about assessment instruments for philosophy majors, I located this article in the National Education Association publication Thought and Action. In it, Ken Buckman (a philosopher at the University of Texas-Pan American) raises several concerns about assessment, and in particular, about assessment within disciplines such as philosophy. Here I'll try to outline (and invite you to react to) some of Buckman's main concerns.

It's a bit hard to specify exactly what makes Buckman an assessment skeptic, but here seem to be his main concerns:

  1. Assessment reflects a wrongheaded view of the value of education as consisting solely in products, whereas the value of education consists in its being "an engagement between a student and a professor in the transformative process of learning [that] is never reducible to an outcome." (p. 35)
  2. Assessment inevitably values quantitative measures of learning over qualitative ones, which in turn leads to standardized tests, which in turn are difficult to craft for a discipline like philosophy.
  3. (related to 2) Assessment demands 'teaching to the test,' resulting in students who, battered by rote memorization, are 'detached' from learning (p. 33)
  4. Not only does assessment ignore the students' responsibility for their own learning, it rests on a "presumptive distrust that faculty are doing their jobs"; since faculty are experts in their disciplines and are subject to regular reviews of their teaching, the grades that students receive from faculty should render an additional level of assessment unnecessary. (p. 34)

I'm not sure I think that these are damning criticisms of assessment (when done well), nor do they point to insurmountable challenges for implementing assessment effectively within philosophy. I'll hold my electronic tongue for the moment though and ask others for their reactions to Buckman's article.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Learning and Motivation, part II: "Falling without getting hurt"

(This is the second post on Marilia Svinicki's Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Here's part I, on how learners come to question or abandon their existing beliefs.)

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?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Philosophy Now and Popular Culture

The current issue of Philosophy Now magazine is devoted to the philosophy and pop culture trend. Some of the articles are available for free online at this link.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Last Day of Class

I would guess that many readers of this blog have put some considerable thought into what to do on the first day of class, apart from administrative details such as explaining the syllabus. But I often wonder what in the world I should do on the last day of class, besides reviewing for the final exam.

Perhaps I just have some sort of psychological need for closure, but it seems to me that in an introductory course in philosophy or ethics, some conclusions should be drawn about the value of philosophy for human existence by highlighting some of its connections with our daily lives. I, however, am usually unsatisfied with how this goes. My usual strategy is to re-emphasize the idea that philosophy grapples with some of life's biggest and most difficult questions, and that this is part of the good life for human beings (not just professional philosophers). There is something to the notion that philosophy begins in wonder, and I want my students to take that aspect of our discipline with them. I would be very interested to hear what types of things others do on the last day of class.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Bowl is more than half full

(Cross-posted at PEA Soup)

I wanted to put in a plug for what is certainly one of the best pedagogical developments in philosophy over the past decade: Ethics Bowl. I'm sure many of our readers are familiar with this competition and its value as a teaching tool. I'll only add my own observations here about the value of Ethics Bowl as a teaching tool and invite others to discuss their experiences with it. (I also have some tips for those interested in getting Ethics Bowl started on their campus, so please contact me if you're interested.)

As I see it, Ethics Bowl provides three things that are very hard to come by in traditional philosophy classroom settings:

: One of the challenges of both teaching and studying philosophy is that its value is sometimes not immediately evident. From the student's point of view, it may not be obvious how studying philosophical questions changes you in terms of your skills and attitudes. From an instructor's point of view, it's often frustrating to think that whatever benefit studying philosophy has for students, that benefit may not be tangible until many years down the road, well after students have graduated (and you've lost all contact with them). Because it's a competitive public event, Ethics Bowl makes the benefit of studying philosophy evident fairly quickly, in a way that is gratifying to students and instructor alike.

Publicity: Ethics Bowl puts the value of philosophy (and other disciplines insofar as they concern themselves with ethical questions) in the public eye. For students, the chance to prove their mettle before experts who aren't their instructors can be a powerful motivator, and when successful, a powerful way of vindicating their efforts. And because Ethics Bowl is a team event, it counteracts the common picture of philosophy as a discipline that progresses thanks to the contributions of solitary geniuses.

Practicality: Ethics Bowl shows that the study of philosophy (and ethics, in particular) is relevant to life outside the classroom. The cases often involve problems in their communities, workplaces, etc. that students may have to confront directly later in life. In this regard, I think it instills a kind of ethical sensibility -- a kind of radar for ethical phenomena -- that is difficult to instill through traditional classroom teaching.

(And on a side note: My Cal Poly Pomona squad won the California Regional Ethics Bowl on Saturday. A hearty congratulations to them!)