Teaching

I have spent most of my professional life at colleges whose mission primarily is driven by teaching. I also happen to have research interests (informal logic and critical thinking) in which teaching has always loomed large. Thus, I thought I’d use this page to share resources and approaches that have been useful to me in the classroom.

First off, I recommend wikidot. I’ve been using it for years to create online syllabi with embedded media including podcasts, videos, and games from The Philosophy Magazine, among other things.  JSTOR access through our library makes it possible to eschew pricey textbooks entirely in favor of classic and contemporary journal articles. Integration with Google Calendar makes course planning easy and portable for students too.  Here’s what I’ve put together using these tools for my classes.

In terms of pedagogy, I’ve used the Learning Spiral approach to good effect for many years. It works particularly well with groups of students like the ones I typically get: very mixed in terms of age, background, and academic ability. I have also come to appreciate the value of using of grading rubrics instead of more traditional methods of percentage-point grading. Rubrics have improved my focus, and have helped me to connect the comments to the grade in a more explicit and understandable way. Rubistar is probably one of the better known sites on rubrics. Though I find the site unaesthetic and hard to navigate, it is highly recommended if you are at all interested in this approach to evaluation. Please note that though it is possible, it is difficult to use rubrics effectively with classical objective assignments (e.g. true/false, multiple choice, etc.).  These, I find, are best used as in-class assignments that do not count towards the grade but do give students immediate feedback and a ready-to-hand study guide to boot. I am working on ways of developing the meta-cognitive benefits of such assignments. I’ll post results on this page when I have them.

Like many in philosophy I frequently find myself called upon to teach critical thinking. Unfortunately, the term ‘critical thinking’ has become something of a political football, and sound, research-based approaches to it are often hard to find. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. In fact, there is a rich tradition of interdisciplinary research about critical thinking that deserves to be better known. Particular favorites of mine among the researchers in this field include Bob Ennis, Deanna Kuhn, and Harvey Siegel.  A good example of the kinds of discussion that drives this research can be found on the blog for the textbook Reason in the Balance, by Sharon Bailin and Mark Battersby–which I also recommend. Among this body of researchers, a great deal of thought goes not just into critical thinking but into thinking about pedagogy too. CT pioneer Michael Scriven is well known in this regard. Don Hatcher and David Hitchcock have both done a good deal of work in this area too. There are a number of resources for critical thinking on the RAIL Resources page too, apart from the ones I’ve linked to here, but the message I want to send is this: critical thinking encompasses more than classical logic, the memorization of a list of fallacies, or norms of good English composition. There is more to critical thinking than we might at first assume, and we owe it to our students to formulate a well-grounded understanding of it before teaching it.  We also have to be prepared to adjust that understanding too. As research on human cognition and norms of reasoning advances across the disciplines, our conception of critical thinking should advance too.

Finally, I want to put in a plug for two tools that serve me very well in all my classes: modeling philosophical discussions as dialogues and argument diagramming. I learned of the dialogic approach to argumentation first through Doug Walton’s 1989 book Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argumentation. (That book has since been revised and re-titled: Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach. It appeared in 2008. You can read my review of the new version in the journal Cogency here.)  This approach to argumentation has particular pedagogical value because very often newcomers to philosophy are perplexed by the way in which we give arguments, pose objections, and answer or otherwise modify our positions in response to the objections–all in a single article.  Framing the argumentation of an article as a dialog consisting of a series of moves between the author and his objectors (real or imagined) helps the students understand the reasoning much better than does simply moving through the piece section by section the way that many of us did in graduate school. The primary way of doing this involves representing the argumentation of an article as a dialog profile. You can get a sense of what that looks like and what kinds of analysis it makes possible by having a quick look at sections 4-6 of this paper by Walton. One particularly important benefit of this approach is that forces one to contextualize the author’s position by situating it in the larger philosophical discussion in which it occurs. Students nearly always come to philosophy without this context–something we tend to forget because that context informs so much of our work and thinking outside the classroom.  I find that being forced to make the context explicit also helps me find “ways in” to the philosophical content through more immediately accessible pathways: e.g. the aforementioned games, videos, and podcasts. If you want to learn more about argumentative dialogs I strongly recommend Commitment in Dialogue, by Doug Walton and Erik Krabbe. I also strongly recommend a look at the Dutch pragma-dialectic theory of argumentation, which to some degree informs both of the books I’ve mentioned. The most recent version of that theory is A Systematic Theory of Argumentation, by Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst.

Argument diagramming (sometimes called argument mapping) is the technique of visually representing the inferential pattern in an argument.  While it isn’t as powerful a tool as logical symbolization, it works very well in philosophy classes that are geared towards non-majors and it complements the dialog-based approach very well.  You can get a sense of what it’s all about by looking at Tim van Gelder’s very helpful online resource, Argument Mapping in Your Subject.  If you get interested in this approach you will want to generate diagrams of your own for use in class. Thankfully there are some well developed software packages that can be used for this purpose. Of the many out there the one I recommend at present is Araucaria, brainchild of the Argumentation Research Group at the University of Dundee in Scotland. It is a solid, time-tested, cross-platform application developed specifically for the purpose of analyzing arguments. It’s hard to use on the fly though, so plan ahead. Typically I map my arguments before class so I can pull them up on a SmartBoard or give them to the students as handouts.

Like anyone who teaches for a long time has, I’ve picked up or invented a number of other little tricks to help students along in the classroom, e.g. to guide them through readings and class discussion, prepare them for essay tests, aid their writing processes, etc..  This page is probably already long enough, though. If you have questions or want more resources regarding anything I’ve written here, or if you have tips, techniques, or tricks you’d like to share then please let me know! I’m always looking for ways to improve my teaching. Send them to swpatterson[at]gmx[dot]com.

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