Training Students To Think For Themselves

This summer a wise older philosophy professor was railing about being asked by his administration to specify for each of his courses what the “learning outcomes” would be. He was, essentially, being asked to indicate what the students were going to learn. He found the suggestion preposterous. He insisted he couldn’t know what the students were going to learn. His job was not to predetermine what the students were going to learn. He might know what the basic subject matters and materials of his courses would be; but what would the students learn from them? How could he know that in advance if they were going to be thinking for themselves, rather than merely regurgitating information?

This semester I taught several courses using several styles, each of which I have employed at various times throughout my ten years in the classroom. Reflecting both on the impressions from this semester which are still freshest and on my memories of years past, it’s clear to me which style I need to start using as my default method for running an introductory philosophy class of any kind. And I realize that a few false beliefs and misplaced priorities were tempting me away from this method in the first place.

The method is simple. It’s as familiar to philosophy and to philosophy classrooms as Socrates himself. It’s the Socratic Method. I have always tried to use it in all my classes. But this semester, I realized that there is a difference between running an entire lecture Socratically and merely employing the Socratic Method when students feel inspired to talk in the first place. The lessons of a decade’s experience congealed for me this semester. The entire class period, at least in introductory philosophy classes, has to be Socratic in its basic structure, rather than built around rigidly planned “content” to be covered, with students’ responses to that content then Socratically interrogated.

The Socratic Method involves asking one’s interlocutors questions, getting them to state their beliefs and then pointing out to them ambiguities and contradictions between their beliefs. The goal is to help them remove inconsistencies and vagueness from their beliefs and in the process make them more coherent, consistent, and clear. Hopefully, this also means they will be truer. The method has the distinct virtue of starting with the interlocutor’s own assumptions and beliefs, rather than asking them to accept anything that they do not find plausible already. Then it helps the questioned person discover the seriousness of a conceptual puzzle for himself as his own beliefs are shown to be inadequate stage by stage. This creates the uneasy feeling of cognitive dissonance that naturally motivates him to start reexamining and altering his beliefs, out of frustration if nothing else.

Now, I aim in nearly every lecture I give to use the Socratic Method at least some. Usually I hope to use it for a majority of the period. But I realized that the way I was structuring most (though not all) of my syllabi and my lectures was stultifying to Socratic inquiry. I made the mistake in my introductory ethics classes this semester of trying to teach moral philosophers’ systems of thought as the primary subject matter, rather than simply bringing philosophers’ paradigms to bear wherever relevant on philosophical questions which were themselves made interesting to the students in their own right. So, for example, I would come in to class prepared to explain in thorough detail all the nuances of Kant’s moral philosophy. Then I would hope that students would be excited enough by the system to dig into the philosophical issues raised by it. Then I would do the same with John Stuart Mill, then with Aristotle, then with Nietzsche, etc. Then in the end I would present the philosophical systems of a single moral realist, two emotivists, an error theorist, etc. Along the way we would discuss various thinkers who talked about the relationship between evolution and morality and then ones on psychology and morality, etc.

Here was my mistake. Introductory students typically have very little immediate interest in philosophical systems for their own sake. And generating interest in systems as such is difficult. It matters very little to their own engagement with moral philosophy whether or not a given moral philosopher’s system is coherent or not, or what its systematic interconnections are.

What matters to students are the core philosophical questions that provoke all that system building in the first place. But if I come in and just give them a system without first provoking in them a profound feeling and concern for the question the system is supposed to answer, then the students have no idea of its relevance.

The best way to provoke a concern for a philosophical question is to let go of the reins of the class, let go of the mindset that says “I have to impart to them this set of facts about Kant’s system today”. That encourages obsessing about how to cover x amount of information in x amount of time, rather than having an open ended inquiry. I have to let go of the mindset that today is about covering all the disparate aspects of Kant’s way of thinking about moral philosophy and about trying to show how they interconnect and that some other day I will go over Kant’s competitors with all their alternative positions and their own systematic coherency.

Instead what I need to do is focus on the questions that the students need to understand. My task has to be to inspire in the students a curiosity and/or to create in them a philosophical frustration. Their assumptions need to be unsettled. They need to be alerted to the existence of a problem. If I come in and start giving them a bunch of theories, they will dutifully write them down and set about memorizing them, possibly without thinking about them or caring much whether they are true. Or they will just assume that these are simple uncontroversial truths from authorities and do little thinking themselves about the remaining problems the theories inadequately address.

But if I simply start by soliciting their opinions on a fundamental question, then they will start philosophizing naturally. Quite often I find that they will start generating, of their own accord, most of the basic positions that philosophers take on the issue. They will start to see the problems that lead to further and further philosophizing on the topic. They can do that on their own. And they should be encouraged to do that on their own. Because then they will grasp the meaning, ramifications, and value of the technical distinctions the philosophers have come up with. If I let them sketch for me then they will see the outlines of the picture. Then all I have to do for them is color it in with the hard won nuances and distinctions of the philosophical tradition that have the power to make it all so vivid and beautiful.

And it is best, in my experience, to let this process of inquiry genuinely go wherever the students’ own thinking leads and to bring in the philosophers that will help the students through their own dialectical reasoning process, rather than the ones necessarily predesignated by a rigid syllabus to be covered that day. (Some semesters I have ditched a pre-planned reading schedule altogether and let the conversation flow throughout the semester from one topic to the next even, and the results were terrific.)

The discussion should be driven by the questions; first the core philosophical problem that I pose to the students and then the questions raised by their answers and their own curiosity. To the extent possible, every philosophical concept (or set of concepts) that I offer to the students to learn should be, in a sense, asked for by one (or several) of the students, whether they “ask” by being philosophically perplexed in a way that the philosopher’s hypothesis can help solve or whether they “ask” by getting on a philosophical roll, developing for themselves a line of that will be excitingly helped along by a philosopher’s technical precision or challenge.

I am thinking that it is not my job to decide what the students are going to learn any given day. I do not even want to start the way I traditionally have by laying out a few basic hypotheses to orient the students’ thinking. I want to start by just posing to them an orienting question instead, one perfectly accessible to ordinary people. Then I will ask them questions about their answers and let them think in an open ended way through their implications.

I want to give the students the control. Because they are invariably the most excited and engaged and I am at my most creative, my most interesting, my smartest, and my most entertaining when I am improvising farther and farther afield from my predesigned plans, in a genuinely open-ended philosophical inquiry with other people. The farther we follow our own passions and our own ideas the more personally engaged we all become. That cannot be scripted in advance. I cannot plan what the students are going to think and at the same time have them think for themselves. I cannot plan out in terribly great detail what I am going to think and say and know in advance that it’s going to be what this group of people will respond to most effectively on this day. I certainly don’t have any idea what kinds of rewarding knock down, drag out arguments I may even find myself personally embroiled in with these particular students.

And therefore, I should not go into the classroom demanding that an imaginary conversation I have thought out in my head will happen with real people or that a brilliant conversation I had with a different group of students in the past will reoccur the same in the next class. I need to go in ready to do a bit of provoking and then just carefully listen and creatively respond to the actual people in the room with me, actually thinking for themselves.

Now, I have all throughout my career tried to get these dialectical discussions going and in most classes, they do happen. But I have also found that some of my classes become listless and have their enthusiasm dampened. And I see a pattern to those cases. They are courses where I started feeling anxiety about covering all the predesignated “content” of the course. The more I would become focused on making sure that we hit certain paces scheduled for that day or that we catch up on material we are behind on, the more I would wind up effectively saying, “No, students, that’s enough thinking for today, there is information to be memorized.”

Partly this is because I have been pretty conscientious about wanting to give information rich, thorough courses. And there is nothing wrong with that in principle. But it is a prejudice to think that the information they need is precisely the information I planned out in advance to give them, or which I always give my students. Why not discuss the ideas and vantage points that their own minds are ripe for on a given topic, rather than the ideas and vantage points that are on the schedule? I already know far more about the topics than I could ever cover in a single introductory class. Why predetermine in an introductory survey course that I am going to cover this set of ideas and information available to me, rather than that? What makes it so intrinsically more important? Based on what consideration? The selections of readings I gave them? My previous positive experiences exploring certain ideas with other students, but not these ones?

All that I really know students will most benefit from and what they most need from me in particular as their introductory philosophy teacher is to internalize philosophical questions, think through them for themselves, practice subjecting their ideas to rigorous dialectical reexamination, and then learn and incorporate technical distinctions that can take them much farther than they could have gotten on their own. I know a big set of great questions. I can provoke any number of them with a relative handful of key questions that are accessible to everyone and which most students should readily enough be able to internalize with the right dialectical guidance. I have a wealth of ideas loaded up in my mind, which I am ready to teach the students when they are ready to learn them. After the fact, I can go assign the students to go read up on what we have discovered that they are beginning to know. At the end of the semester, I can give them thorough study guides which summarize all the ideas that they actually thought through into digestible, memorizable chunks to be tested on, so that they can review and process everything systematically before moving on.

But deciding in advance what they are going to learn? Or how or when they are going to learn it? Or, even more presumptuously, planning what they are going to think? None of that is my job. My job is to educate independent thinkers.

Your Thoughts?

Read this if you are interested in studying with me online in a non-matriculated course, most likely run in the style described above.

For more on my approach to education, read my statement of my teaching philosophy from 2009 and this post from the summer on how I create maximally constructive and inclusive debates in classrooms.

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