Sunday, August 30, 2009

When Conflicts Arise in Teaching


A student of mine (a philosophy major) recently graduated and took a job teaching English for a year in South Korea. He is keeping a blog about his personal and pedagogical experiences and trying his best to analyze and understand them from a cross-cultural perspective (his main interests as a student lie in Asian philosophy). He put a post up today on his blog that I'm sure will be of interest to folks here. With his permission, I'm reproducing his post -- and the dilemma he poses for educators who are schooled in ethical theory -- below.

I have always held a particular fondness for the theoretical side of ethics: sitting in my ivory tower of philosophy and thinking about train-switches and bizzaro-Hitlers in parallel-worlds.

This week I found myself in a very obvious real-life moral dilemma, and although I firmly believe our moral selves don't just "swing in" at the point when when we need them to (morality as a way of life, not something that just happens here and there, occasionally), I did see a clear-cut difference between the situation at hand than the situations I find myself in everyday.

This is an interesting topic for all teachers and ivory-tower theorists-- the situation I found myself in really calls into question several different aspects: child abuse, suicide rates, cultural norms, personal duty and relational identity. Interested?

First, let me explain the situation itself. Before heading to class to teach on Friday, I ran into one of my students waiting for the elevator. I asked him how he was, to which he replied "Not good. I am afraid of the speaking test." As you can probably infer, I was to administer a test in order to determine the students' progress on their English speaking ability. I told him not to worry, the test was short and quite simple, and that I would see him in an hour.

As I entered the class an hour later I saw the student again. The student was clearly uncomfortable, sweating profusely and looking quite anxious. This concerned me, as this particular student is usually one that I get along with quite easily, and that I consider to be one of my brighter students. This student has never had a problem approaching me for any reason. Today was different though. Again, the student said he was afraid of the test. I reassured him, and began taking students out to the hall one-by-one in order to ask them a few simple questions and give them grades. The grades would later be entered into our website, where parents can easily check students' progress.

The student in question did very well on the test, and I told him so again, reassuring him as best I could. Within a few moments after the test, he regained his composure and looked much more relaxed. This is when he said "If I don't do well on the speaking test, my mother hits me." I didn't really know what to make of this comment, what truth was behind such a statement, and what exactly to do. I told him again he did very well on the test, and told him not to worry, his mother would be proud of him. These were all completely true statements.

My question is this: in the future, how will I balance my duty as a teacher to reflect the student's proficiency accurately in grades, knowing that this student may face abuse at home if I grade to harshly?

Conflict of interest, you can be sure.

Now for some background information: Students in South Korea face extremely stressful lives. They are in school or academy (private school) year round, and are tested every step of the way. Tests determine eligibility for middle school, high school, university and job-placement. The only way to assure a decent income later in life is to study and test well. Students are pressured to succeed by their teachers, their peers and their families.

Furthermore, South Korea boasts one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The youth are well aware of this problem. I've had more than a couple of my students mention the stress and suicide rates in their weekly writings.

Culturally (based on what I've seen in public, so far), the standard Confucian parent-child relationship is in play and bound to a fair degree of physical discipline--hitting, spanking, and so forth. Of course, this is completely circumstantial, and I have no idea what my student experiences when he gets home. This is almost a separate topic altogether.

The fact of the matter is that my situation is a false dilemma. I have no choice at all-I have to pad grades. As an English "teacher," I'm more of an English "presence" than anything else. Yes, I go through lessons, and the kids do learn. In the grand scheme of things, however, the grades I give mean nothing.

So, for you ivory tower theorists, lets alter this thought experiment a bit. What would you do if you had a choice? Is padding the grades to save the student's skin a wise decision? Or should you hold up your duty as a teacher and honestly reflect the skills of those you are testing? That is, do you worry about the circumstances at home when factoring grades?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Offensive and Defensive Argumentation

Patrick Appel (and others) here seems to make an amazing discovery: yes, the philosophical method actually makes sense and is worth using! Instead of changing positions in argument only when your opponent has defeated elements of your own position, you should actively seek out to create better arguments for your opponent, utilizing a strong principle of charity, and in the process learn things that lead you to alter your own position. Of course, many students would not agree.

When I teach the method in this way, I always have students who question it. They look at me, almost stunned, and want to know why in the world a person should create a better argument for their opponent. Isn’t that the opponent’s job? This way of viewing arguments is, as Appel and others note, entirely defensive.

However, there's more to it. The defensive strategy views the argument, and the thinking behind it, as complete. As a result, there’s nothing more for the holder of the argument to learn. All that remains is the job of occasional defense and the need to adjust the argument when one’s opponent is successful. The contrary method (call it the offensive strategy) sees one’s position as essentially incomplete and so constantly under development. As a result, it doesn’t adjust only in defense. It adjusts as it seeks out its opposition and creates better arguments for the opposition position.

Perhaps for some (students and others) committed to the defensive strategy, all that exists is rhetoric, dogma and arrogance. Argument is a zero-sum game of winners and losers competing for finite goods. With the offensive strategy, participants are motivated by truth, greater understanding and humility. Argument is not zero-sum, and the goods of the practice are available to both sides in the exchange.

I'm wondering what reactions people here at ISW have about this. Do you teach the offensive strategy yourself? How do you teach it? How do you frame the worth of this approach? Do you find from time to time that you, against your better instincts, reward defensive strategy thinking in students (I know I do)? What do your students say to the offensive strategy? How do they view the function of good argumentation?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Getting on board with grading rubrics

An article in the NEA Advocate offers advice on how to create grading rubrics. The article also links to this site, which has a number of nice examples and templates for rubrics. I've become a big proponent of rubrics for student papers over the years. They save my time and communicate to students how they performed in a quick-and-dirty way. Some of the tips from the Advocate article I particularly liked:

  • Think in terms of a task description, the levels of performance, the dimensions (criteria), and the description of the dimensions.That's what a good rubric should do: explain the expectations, the degree to which they were fulfilled, and justify the evaluation.
  • Put a description of the assignment itself on the grading rubric. Simple, and helps reminds students of what they were supposed to accomplish with a particular paper assignment.
  • Involve students in the creation of a rubric. Why not? A little time consuming perhaps, but it's likely that when students work with you and their classmates to develop the grading rubric, they will feel more like they "discovered" the expectations and criteria than that they were imposed on them. An appreciation of those expectations and criteria is likely to 'stick' better when students have crafted them.

A few other tips of my own:
  • Refine rubrics over time by analyzing problem papers, i.e., those that, in your judgment, are better or worse than would be suggested by a particular rubric. I've definitely found that my rubrics have improved over time to better reflect what I actually expect and desire from student papers. Many of the changes I've implemented have come when I found a paper that, with respect to a given rubric at least, falls through the cracks: The paper is somehow better or worse than would be captured by my rubric. Sometimes I've photocopied those papers and made a note to myself to take a look at them when I later revise a rubric.
  • Simple rubrics for simple assignments, complex rubrics for complex assignments. I tend to use simple rubrics for writing assignments in my lower division courses, rubrics with a few general categories and descriptions, and more detailed, analytically penetrating, rubrics and descriptions in my upper division courses for majors. My lower division courses are bigger, so a simple rubric saves me time, and students in those lower division courses often seem overwhelmed by a complex or detailed rubric. Upper division students seem to prefer the more exacting feedback on the other hand.
  • Don't just use a rubric. Yes, students like the snapshot of their performance that a rubric provides, but this does not obviate the value of a few handwritten sentences or remarks at the bottom of the page to indicate that, yes, a real person read their work.

Anyone have good thoughts about how to construct and use grading rubrics?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Teaching Experimental Philosophy (Presentation Call)

I received an email from Jonathan Philips wondering if we could post a call for presentations on the subject of teaching Experimental Philosophy (for the Pacific APA). If you are interested, see below the fold.

The APA Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy invites abstracts for a special session on teaching with experimental philosophy to be held at the 84th meeting of the Pacific Division of the APA in San Francisco, CA. The three-hour session will include four presentations, each 30 minutes in length. Presentations in all areas of experimental (and empirical) philosophy are welcome, and interactive presentations (as opposed to read papers) are particularly encouraged. Topics might include: teaching thought experiments with “clickers;” introduction to philosophy through experimental philosophy; case studies on the teaching of particular experimental philosophy articles; the tradeoff between philosophical and scientific depth when creating syllabi, for example, in the philosophy of mind; and resistance to the incorporation of experimental philosophy into the curriculum; among other topics. Presenters must be APA members by the meeting date.

Jonathan sent me a PDF to go along with the post, but I can't figure out how to get it up on Blogger (Go Wordpress!). In any case, if you are interested, I'm sure Jonathan would be glad to email it to you. His email address is

When (Chinese) Parents Cheat

I posted this up at my own blog, but I figured it might fit well here too. My wife and I have two undergraduate Tsinghua students from China staying with us for the weekend until they start school for the year at my college (Drury). Last night we got into an interesting discussion about the Chinese gaokao. For those of you who don’t know what that is: the gaokao is the national college entrance examination in China. Unlike the SAT here in the US, the gaokao almost single handedly decides (a) whether you go to college and (b) where you can go to college. So the pressure to do well on the gaokao is intense. Last night we talked about a fraud case involving the gaokao that apparently became a hot topic among mainland Chinese students.

Here’s the story (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the details, here, of course): last year a student took the gaokao and was scored as the top student in China. However, this scoring involved the fact that the student received an extra 10 points on the exam because he was a minority (there’s affirmative action component in total gaokao scoring). Interestingly enough, it’s not the affirmative action angle that is so controversial – this part is more or less accepted as non-problematic (I remember actually discussing this aspect of the gaokao with my students while teaching in China, and only a tiny few thought that minorities shouldn’t be given extra points in this way).

Instead, the real problem was elsewhere. Apparently it turned out that this student was not really a minority. His parents lied, and had been lying about the child’s ethic background for years (possibly with the inevitable gaokao advantage in mind). The child, mind you, did not know what his parents did -- he was in the dark about his own ethnicity. The Chinese officials found out, and took away his 10 points.

Fair enough. Nothing controversial there. Here’s the kicker, though: although the student’s score – even after the 10 points were taken away – was high enough for the student to be scored as one of the of the top students in China (and so could still easily attend any top school such as Tsinghua, Beijing University, or Fudan), no top school would enroll him. They refused to let him in. This is what got the Chinese students riled up. The issue: how far does responsibility and punishment extend? My guests thought that it was horribly unfair to punish the child for what were the sins of his parents. After all, he didn’t even know. However, on the other hand, the argument was made that if the colleges had accepted him there would have been no little reason for other parents not to try and repeat the fraud If the only consequence of being caught for cheating in this way was that you might have the extra points deducted (and a little shame), the risk/reward ratio for parental cheating would be tilted heavily in the direction of fraud.

At bottom, the thinking of the colleges is clear: to maintain the authenticity of the gaokao, and the integrity of the system as a whole, they felt that they should punish this student so severely in the hopes that other parents would not even think of committing this fraud. Whether the child knows or doesn't know about it would constitute no defense.

There are a lot of interesting dimensions here. The immediate question is whether the colleges were right to refuse the student admission. Another question might be whether there are cross-cutltural aspects to this issue: what would American universities do in such a case? What should they do?

Any thoughts?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Taking Course Goal Seriously

How do we articulate course goals in an age of knowledge and information? Does it sacrifice the notion that we ought to trust the power of the texts themselves and our expertise at helping students navigate such texts? Do we do a disservice to students by emphasizing the very targets of assessment mechanisms - knowledge learned - at the cost of a more loose and cryptic notion of what "students should come away with."

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T.S. Eliot asked in his 1934 poem The Rock: Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” I find myself admonishing myself with these words as I craft my syllabi. I should note that I am coming off a year sabbatical, which makes the problem I describe here only more acute.

When I was on the job market I was given sage advice about how to answer a certain interview question: how would you teach course X? I was told: don’t hand them a syllabus, don’t spout a bibliography – talk about what you want students who take the course to come away with.

I took the interview advice and I also took the advice as it was probably intended: if you get the job, think this way about your courses as well. I followed it. But eight years later, I find myself having more difficulty taking that advice. In crafting my syllabi I seem more interested in what the students should know – what information they should have – than in what they should, cryptically, take away from the course.

As the bloggers here know, I have an uneasy relationship with assessment. In a trivial sense, it is absolutely necessary and helpful. But for many of us earnest and honest teachers, it also makes us uneasy – not because we do not want to be assessed, but because it tends to ask the very questions that are making me uneasy about the way I have found myself thinking of my courses lately: should courses be judged on what information and knowledge they impart?

I’ve been prepping a course in Modern: 17th and 18th Century philosophy. In trying to cover as much as possible and in trying to make sure that students understand the scientific and historical contexts I find myself crafting a syllabus that maximizes information at the cost of trusting the texts and trusting myself.

This post doesn’t pose a question so much as a challenge to myself and others during this pre-term time: how do we, in the age of assessment, take course goals seriously by asking what it is that we want students to (cryptically) come away with? For my part, it is not information or knowledge, but understanding. And such understanding might come at the price of information and knowledge.