I recently skimmed through parts of James Zull's The Art of Changing the Brain, a book that makes use of contemporary neuroscience to investigate issues in teaching and learning. One of its main ideas is that learning is the process of building and enriching neural networks. But doing so must begin from existing neural networks. Hence, effective teaching requires that we build from what students already know.
This seems correct, even obvious, to me. But I think those who teach philosophy are somewhat handicapped in building from what students know.
The U.S. history instructor (at the college level at least) can work from her students' prior knowledge of the subject. Admittedly, such knowledge may be very sparse or may not be 'knowledge' in a very robust sense; it may be superficial or simply mistaken. A science instructor can work from his students' prior experience of the natural world. Indeed, it seems that a lot of innovative science teaching happens when instructors get students to confront the contradictions and oddities found in their naive physical worldview.
Now of course few students come to the college philosophy classroom with any awareness of the discipline. That would seem to suggest that teaching philosophy starts from nowhere, which (if Zull is correct) means that philosophy pedagogy is destined to fail. (Let's hope that's not true.) But that's obviously too pessimistic. Even if the word 'philosophy' rings no bells and excites no neural networks, we can hope that some of the things we attempt to teach (reasoning, say) or teach about (religion, ethics) might find fertile ground among students' existing knowledge and neural networks.
But I have to say that my own experience makes me feel discouraged. I often do sense that teaching philosophy is trying to work from a neural tabula rasa. For instance, when teaching ethics, pumping intuitions doesn't seem as effective as it should be. In many cases, students have so little familiarity with various ethical issues and questions that they have no intuitions to be pumped!
I still sense, though, that if I could tap into those neural networks lodged in my students' brains, then an abundance of learning could happen. So here's my query: When teaching philosophy, how do we build from students' prior knowledge? Does anyone have examples where you've successfully taught by drawing out students' prior knowledge? What general principles or techniques do we need to use in order to "start from what they know"?