Monday, August 29, 2011

Students' prior knowledge and the teaching of philosophy

I've recently been reading Ambrose et al's How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. It's a very fine introduction to the research on learning that I expect any teacher, regardless of subject matter or age of student, could put to good use.

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:
  1. Philosophical beliefs and convictions
  2. Various 'popular' understandings of what philosophy is
  3. Academic attitudes and expectations, ranging from what the purpose of an essay is to the value of in-class discussion
  4. Beliefs of a non-philosophical nature that intersect with philosophical questions (like beliefs about how various institutions work, historical facts, etc.)
On one 'Socratic' picture of philosophy teaching, philosophy is largely destructive or skeptical. Its point is to induce students to 'unlearn' what they thought they knew. Now that picture suggests one way to build on students' prior knowledge, namely, by calling into question. But that seems like a rather limited picture of how to put students' prior knowledge to use.

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?


  1. There are many things students bring to studying philosophy that they need to unlearn. That includes, IMO, the meaning of terms like "know," "believe," and even "philosophy." Also presuppositions about what a certain branch of philosophy is. (I see this most in philosophy of religion, personally.)

    The real area that hinders student learning, though, is more basic than that. In my experience, students aren't used to thinking about concepts or claims - they either are hardcore relativists (no such thing as objective truth) or else they are used to a world where discussions usually boil down to combat. If they admit a point that needs discussion or defense, that's usually a sign of weakness to their mind. I often really struggle to get my students to understand that playing Devil's Advocate shows they really understand an argument - not that there's something wrong with the argument itself.

  2. Subquestion: To what extent does prior knowledge of academic philosophy obstruct learning? As an undergraduate I had more than one professor complain that my writing was influenced by works in the same sub-discipline that I had read in my own free time. That always mystified me: why was it a _bad_ thing that I'd done "pro bono" research, just for the fun of it?

  3. I've been thinking about this issue during my classes this week, trying to see the preconceptions lurking behind students' questions and responses. I think Marta has an important point about students' idea that they show a personal flaw when they admit that one of their ideas is wrong.

    One pernicious preconception that students have is the "fact/opinion" distinction that their high school teachers drill into them.

    Also, it seems to me that upper-level students' views are overly shaped by the "toy versions" of theories that they learn earlier in their college career (e.g., oversimplified versions of Kant or utilitarianism from Philosophy 101, which [they believe] fall prey to obvious objections). This tends to close their minds to more sophisticated versions of these theories.

    I can also report that there are subcultural differences, too, that affect how students approach philosophy. When I taught in New York, students were perfectly happy to challenge what I said. Now that I teach in the deep South, students are much more likely to (act as if they?) accept things on my authority. How they're reconciling this with the fact that the things I say are probably at odds with many things that other authority figures have told them, I don't know.

  4. I would say that religious beliefs can definitely hinder what a student will learn regarding philosophy. I would also agree with Marta, I think it's necessary to establish definitions for terms such as "know", "perceive", "believe" etc. Religious beliefs, like I said, could possibly hinder education, however religious knowledge would be highly beneficial in understanding a variety of philosophical concepts. If the student had prior knowledge to a variety of belief systems their comprehension would be better suited to debate the reasoning and logics that philosophy bring into question. I would say you need to find a way to make the students as open to new ideas as possible.. I'm sure there are creative exercises you could do to accomplish this. I'm still a student and currently in a Buddhist Philosophy class. I would say the best professor that I had for the subject did a great job of selecting a plethora of research papers, that looked at the different sides of each argument in depth, for us to read and discuss. He also engaged us verbally more than any other professor I've had. It's important to get the conversation in the class room flowing, comfortably and acceptingly. Good luck!


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