I wanted to invite discussion about the first principle in the book, and specifically, how we who teach philosophy might make use of it: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
A great deal of research on learning indicates that students do not learn ex nihilo. Instead, learning necessarily builds on existing knowledge. As Ambrose et al emphasize, a student's prior knowledge will actually hinder learning if it's inaccurate or inaccessible, or if the student doesn't link the new content to her existing knowledge base:
Students do not come into our courses as blank slates, but rather with knowledge gained in other courses and through daily life. This knowledge consists of an amalgam of facts, concepts, models, perceptions, beliefs, values, and attitudes, some of which are accurate, complete, and appropriate for the context, some of which are inaccurate, insufficient for the learning requirements of the course, or simply inappropriate for the context. As students bring this knowledge to bear in our classrooms, it influences how they filter and interpret incoming information. Ideally, students build on a foundation of robust and accurate prior knowledge, forging links between previously acquired and new knowledge that help them construct increasingly complex and robust knowledge structures. However, students may not make connections to relevant prior knowledge spontaneously. If they do not draw on relevant prior knowledge — in other words, if that knowledge is inactive — it may not facilitate the integration of new knowledge.
A philosopher's quibble: It grates to hear the authors talk about "knowledge" that's "inaccurate". JTB anyone?
That aside, what sort of 'knowledge' do, say, beginning philosophy students bring to their study of philosophy? My own feeling is that college-level students are not exactly blank slates for me, but they come with little if any sense of of our discipline, etc. And so this question seems a lot harder than it would be for someone teaching history, mathematics, or composition.
But once you begin enumerating the prior knowledge that students bring to the study of philosophy, it becomes gargantuan. No, few students have academic knowledge of philosophy, but they have lots of beliefs and attitudes that bear on the study of philosophy. Just a sample:
- Philosophical beliefs and convictions
- Various 'popular' understandings of what philosophy is
- Academic attitudes and expectations, ranging from what the purpose of an essay is to the value of in-class discussion
- Beliefs of a non-philosophical nature that intersect with philosophical questions (like beliefs about how various institutions work, historical facts, etc.)
Some questions for us to chew on in comments:
- What prior knowledge do students bring to the study of philosophy that helps them learn, in your observation?
- What prior 'knowledge' do students bring to the study of philosophy that hinders them from learning, in your observation?
- How can we best make use of students' prior knowledge in the philosophy classroom?
- What specific strategies can we use to work effectively with students' prior knowledge? Ambrose et al. suggest we need strategies to "help instructors determine the extent and quality of students' prior knowledge, relative to the learning requirements of the course"; to "activate students' relevant prior knowledge"; to "address gaps in students' prior knowledge"; to "help students avoid applying prior knowledge in the wrong contexts"; and to "help students revise and rethink inaccurate knowledge." These are big goals — what can we philosophers do in this regard?