Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Start with what they know." OK, but what do they know?

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"?


  1. Does Zull talk about in what ways neural pathways must relate to a given learning in order to improve the process of learning?

    I ask because it seems to me that existing pathways would aid learning because they are well established, not because they have a scholastic relationship with new material.

    I remember a prof. teaching Aristotle's notion of convention. He used the distance between home plate and first base as an example of a convention, complete with a series of arguments one might make about where to put first base. He built the general arguments for convention out of the particulars of baseball.

    Not much help if you don't know anything about baseball, but for those who did, it added a solidity to the idea of convention. I still can't hear the word without thinking about first base.

  2. Philosophy begins in wonder. Every college student has asked themselves core philosophical questions like "who am I" and "what am I" and "why is the world this way and not some other way." And they are all actively asking "what kind of person do I want to be" and "how can I distinguish truth from falsity" on any subject. Sure, some of them stopped asking those questions in middle or high school because someone told them to get practical. But the questions are still in there. That's where any good philosophy prof builds from.

  3. I often start with real-world news stories, usually from the recent past. I think people fill in the details more fully when they know it's a real story, rather than (say) a made-up, somewhat implausible story about a runaway trolley. Once people understand the issue in the concrete context of the news story, we can move on to more general questions.

    This is probably more difficult to do when you're not teaching ethics, but it's not impossible. Stories about amnesiacs or people in fugue states would work for personal identity. Surely there are court cases relevant to causation—did the defendant's action cause the financial crisis?—and issues in epistemology—did the defendant know that his action would harm the victim?


    What's your impression of the book so far? Does it seem worth reading?

  4. David,

    I only took a short look at Zull's book, but there's a lot to recommend it. Zull is one of the few neuroscientists with a background in education, so he does an excellent job linking the two. And my sense is that it's pretty state of the art as far as the science goes (and the scientific material is accessibly presented). There's not a lot here that you can directly apply to one's teaching, but Zull should provoke thought about how to teach so that new neural networks are fashioned from the old.

    Anon 8:00: Maybe I'm cynical, but I sense that many of my students don't ask themselves the questions you mention and suffer from a marked absence of wonder. In a post here a couple of years back, I quoted the following from Mark Edmundson:

    "Good teachers know that now, in what’s called the civilized world, the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance, though ignorance will do in a pinch. The great enemy of knowledge is knowingness. It’s the feeling encouraged by TV and movies and the Internet that you’re on top of things and in charge. You’re hip and always know what’s up. ... The cool character now is the knowing one; even when he’s unconventional, he’s never surprising — and most of all, he’s never surprised. Good teachers, by contrast, are constantly fighting against knowingness by asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities."

    Edmundson's description fits most of my students: They'd rather be dead than be caught appearing curious, engaged, or uncertain.

  5. It's interesting that you talk here about intuitions. I have a big problem with lots of philosophical thought experiments where you're supposed to go with your moral intuition (I'm thinking here of the "do you throw a fat man in front of a trolleybus to stop it killing five other people" type), because I find I don't have intuitions like that. I suspect that a lot of people's so-called intuitions are in fact trained responses.
    I also see this post as another good argument for doing some solid teaching. If students don't have a background in the basic concepts, teach them. I know it sounds old-fashioned, and that you want students to think, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of good, solid knowledge.


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