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.

A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
A Directory of Philosophers From Underrepresented Groups
City on a Hill
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Todd I. Stark

    I agree substantially with the idea that the point of education is learning to think better about various things as well as think better in general and to aquire the skills and attitudes of active self-learning. I also note that there seems to be a dialectic here that is hard to avoid and perhaps archaic in some sense, between learning to think and absorbing content. Metacognitive skills and strategies are to some large degree domain specific, and there are also ones that are more domain general. So we probably learn to think well in various specific domains, requiring familiarity with specific content, and aquisition of particular domain expertise, and then we also learn to generallize across domains and apply strategies and skills to domains we are unfamiliar with.

    One of my favorite discussions of this is in David Perkins’ book “Outsmarting IQ,” where he looks broadly at differently approaches for learning to be smarter and concludes that essentially we need to learn to navigate various domains of different levels of domain specificity.

  • The Vicar

    The professor in your first paragraph is an arrogant fool undeserving of his job title if he couldn’t come up with some specific thing his students were going to learn. The sort of person who is precisely why philosophers have a reputation for being smarmy know-nothing jerks, who should not be employed as a teacher.

    Here’s how the dialog would go, were I the head of the Philosophy department of that school:
    Me: So, I hear that you’re having trouble describing the content of your course. What seems to be the problem?
    Arrogant Useless Old Professor: The students are going to be taught how to think critically. I can’t describe that!
    Me: So you have no lesson plans at all? You’re just going to babble any old thing that’s on your mind the first day of classes?
    A.U.O.P.: Of course not! I’m going to lead in with the Socratic method and proceed with–
    Me: So you have some actual content you’re going to teach, after all, is that right?
    A.U.O.P.: But the students won’t JUST be learning that, they’ll be learning how to think critically!
    Me: And if they understand the Socratic method, this will be a measurable step on the way of learning how to think critically from you, yes? Even if they don’t ever actually reach the point of being able to actually think critically?
    A.U.O.P.: Well, yes, technically.
    Me: Okay, you’re going to write down “students will learn about critical thinking through an examination of historical methods of examination and argument such as” and then follow that by whatever concrete examples you’re going to have them learn. Then you’re going to go look at old course catalogs and see how other professors have described their classes, and crib the parts which apply to your course.
    A.U.O.P.: Well, I suppose, but the real point is to teach them to think critically themselves, not to teach them about other people’s thinking!
    Me: Professor, you and I both know that you will never succeed in making all of them think critically. Some of them already do, some of them may figure it out from your course, and some still won’t get it no matter how much you try to get them to make the leap. The course description should be an honest description of the things you actually CAN teach.
    A.U.O.P.: But that’s not the point of the course!
    Me: That may not be the point of the course, but the description is supposed to list the measurable, describable course content. We said so right in the form.
    A.U.O.P.: But–
    Me: You can’t even read a form, and you were unable to figure out this fairly simple task on your own because you were being deliberately obtuse at a totally inappropriate time in an attempt to be clever. You are in no position to teach people “to think”, and employing you is a disservice to our students. I am going to oppose your tenure, if you don’t have it yet, and if you do I am going to make your job a living hell using every administrative method open to me until you retire. Now get out of my office so that I can get back to problems which weren’t artificially created by overpromoted pompous jackasses trying to be cute.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Quite the literalist; eh, Vicar?

    • The Vicar

      Not to the extent of believing that such a figure actually existed, but I am sick and tired of academics in philosophy whining about how hard it is teach people to think. Do you think you’re the only ones with this problem? Every advanced academic subject, with the possible exception of business administration (which generally pushes in the opposite direction, based on what they themselves say), is constantly seeking people who consider their material with fresh and concentrated thought, rather than just regurgitating and rearranging existing material. Historians are always in search of new interpretations and better insight, biologists are always desperately searching for students whose grasp of the subject permits them to pull existing facts together into new theory, mathematics teachers start struggling with trying to make people think carefully with the introduction of story problems in third grade… heck, go and ask a computer science professor how hard it is to find a student who understands the theory well enough to (for example) spot antipatterns in their own work. Far too much work in every academic field is regurgitation; philosophers are only alone in that they lack the awareness to notice that everyone else is trying as hard as they can to teach critical thinking as well.

      But in addition, that anecdotal professor in your opening paragraph struck me as a particularly obnoxious example of the deliberately obtuse form of pretension, and I felt moved to object. There is a time and a place to pretend not to understand a simple instruction in order to a make a point. Most of the time, as in the case of whining about how hard it is to describe philosophy, it’s pure egotistical self-indulgence.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Where in the world is the part about philosophy being especially hard to describe to others? If I had more faithfully quoted the professor he was actually attacking learning outcomes for all the disciplines. His remarks were more specifically against the very idea that what a student learns from a college education can be summed up on a fucking form.

  • Christine

    I had to take a course in third – year (engineering) that essentially was all about how to think. It was a great course. There were pretty much no notes to take which really confused me at first, and exams were scary – you go to study and think “but… what can he actually test us on?”, but good. But that course had a name. It was called electro-mechanical machine design. The thing was that most of the math we already knew (in theory all of it was review, but that’s just theory), and none of the principles were new. So the course was teaching us how to apply knowledge, how to look at a problem. It felt completely unstructured, but looking back, I learned a heck of a lot in it. It was also taught by one of the veteran profs rather than someone who was still on their way to tenure, because it’s really really difficult to teach something that vague and so crucial.

  • Ginny

    Can’t they just write “students will learn critical thinking skills, clarify their values and beliefs, and learn through practice to articulate those values and beliefs and to place them in social and historical context?” Or something like that. I’m sympathetic to your overall message, but as an educator I feel like the professor’s complaint just feeds into the assumption that “learning” implies “absorbing information.”

    Unless the form specifically requires that learning outcomes must be cognitive and content-centered, in which case screw that.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I think his concern was the latter. The constructive suggestion you make is plenty vague. What use is it to put that down? Isn’t it obvious? How is it measurable? He’s railing against the notion that genuine education can prove itself by guaranteeing some superficial standardized result. He’s a polemical, rhetorically loose guy. His point is that an education is about developing a thinking person, not about producing a predictable product.

  • MV

    An educator should be able to state learning outcomes that are measurable. Even if they seem obvious. Otherwise, what exactly are your targets and how do you know if you are making progress reaching them? Or if you have reached them and now need to go further? Being able to measure the progress is essential.

    Every good educator measures learning outcomes and how they met (or didn’t) the learning targets. If those aren’t tied closely together, then there’s a problem (what exactly does the grade mean, for instance). It’s not as easy to do as it appears.

    After all, you can define what educating independent thinkers looks like? How that relates to a grade that you are going to assign? If not, then how exactly can you do it (or justify it)?

  • PhysicistDave

    MV wrote:
    >An educator should be able to state learning outcomes that are measurable. Even if they seem obvious. Otherwise, what exactly are your targets and how do you know if you are making progress reaching them? Or if you have reached them and now need to go further? Being able to measure the progress is essential.
    >After all, you can define what educating independent thinkers looks like? How that relates to a grade that you are going to assign?

    MV, let’s try applying your logic to another field of human activity:
    >A cook should be able to state eating outcomes that are measurable. Even if they seem obvious. Otherwise, what exactly are your targets and how do you know if you are making progress reaching them? Or if you have reached them and now need to go further? Being able to measure the progress is essential.
    >After all, you can define what good food looks like? How that relates to a grade that you are going to assign?

    The point, of course, is that you are assuming that assigning a grade is integral to education and that something other than the subjective satisfaction of the student is what really matters. (And that the person aiding the student to learn should also be the person judging if he has succeeded – which seems a rather blatant conflict of interest!)

    Sometimes, as when the education is being paid for by someone else (e.g., parents or taxpayers), your assumptions may be warranted. But, sometimes, I would think, they are not warranted.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • Ed Darrell

    You make a good case, probably unintentionally, that the “Socratic method” is absolutely wrong for most high school classes, and completely contrary to the (badly misnamed) No Child Left Behind Act and the emphasis on standard tests to measure progress.

    Things never measured include critical thinking, and whether the student becomes more moral, or more complete, or better able to deal with life.