Teaching Philosophy

As a teacher, I see myself as a facilitator of learning, not as a “sage on the stage.” This means that my approach to learning is student-centered. I want my students to be active participants in the learning process. To this end, I have adopted the following principles:
  • Assume that students want to learn. As I see it, my job is not to ignite the fire of learning. Rather, my job is to make sure that it keeps burning. (“All men [and women] by nature desire to know,” right?). Lecturing seems like a sure way to extinguish the fire of learning. On the other hand, activities, such as small group work on case studies, team debates, role playing, peer review, etc., are ways to get students active and engaged. 
  • Put students first. In designing my courses, I think about what students would find most interesting, exciting, and useful to them, instead of what I would like to cover. I usually do this by designing my courses based on an overarching theme, through which I can cover the material that I think students will find most interesting without “sacrificing” philosophical content. For example, I designed one of my courses around the big theme of surviving death, through which I got to cover mind, personal identity, and so on.
  • Aim to leave students with something of lasting value. Another sure way to kill students’ curiosity is to require them to recall what Big Name said about X and what Big Shot said in response. Instead, I do my best to make students go through the arguments on their own. To this end, I make sure that they master the skills of critical and analytical thinking. In other words, my courses are focused more on “thinking” rather than just “knowing.” In making sure that students master the skills of critical thinking, I see my teaching as part of a collective effort to make students better citizens.
  • Be active, too. I recognize that students have different learning needs, and so I am prepared to offer help in various ways (e.g., office hours, discussion board on course management system, email, etc.). In addition, I show students that learning how to think philosophically is the most exciting, important, and useful thing they will ever learn. For example, I occasionally bring examples of bad thinking from the media and ask students to figure out why it is bad. It is a sort of “If only s/he had taken Philosophy 101, s/he wouldn’t have said that…” in-class exercise. Admittedly, this requires a lot of work. But it pays off when a student comes to you and says something like, “I used what we’ve learned in class last week. My friend and I had a disagreement about X and I showed her that her argument was invalid.”
I use class time to engage students in activities, as opposed to the more traditional ways to spend class time, such as lecture, reading passages from a text, and class discussion, for the following reasons:
  • Concentration. It is difficult to pay close attention for one hour and twenty five minutes. In-class activities are good ways to keep students focused. 
  • Responsibility. I think that, if I cover the readings in their entirety in class, I give students the impression that they don’t need to bother with the texts outside of class. So I make sure that students read the assigned texts outside of class, and then engage them in activities in class that expand on the readings.
  • Convenience. By making course material available to students outside of class (e.g., via a course management system, such as Blackboard or Angel), I allow students to go through the material on their own time and at their own pace.
Since I hold students responsible for reading and discussing the assigned texts outside of class, I don’t have to go over the readings in their entirety in class, and thus I have free time for doing exciting and engaging activities in class. To make sure that students read and discuss the assigned texts, I ask them to post summaries of the main arguments on the discussion board in Blackboard or Angel and comment on a classmate’s post. To help students with the readings, I post PowerPoint slides, notes, and links to online sources about the readings on Blackboard or Angel. I also participate in the discussion on the discussion board.

Let me give an example of what I do in class. After they had read Nagel’s “What It Is Like To Be a Bat,” posted their summaries on the discussion board, and commented on a classmate’s post before class, I show in class a video clip about a blind person who can echo-locate.

Then I put up a PowerPoint slide with the following questions:
  • Does the case of Ben Underwood show that human beings can experience what it is like to be a bat? If so, why? If not, why not? 
  • What would Nagel say about this case?
Through this case, students grasp the distinction between what it is like for one to behave like a bat does and what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

Instead of addressing these questions to the entire class, however, I do what is called a Think-Pair-Share activity. I put up a PowerPoint slide with the following instructions:  
  • Think. Think about your answer and write it down. 
  • Pair. Pair up with a classmate and compare your answers.
  • Share. Share your answers with the rest of the class when called upon.
I think that this exercise is better than class discussion for the following reasons: (a) it gives students time to think about their answers (time that can now be spent on thinking, since the reading was done outside of class), (b) it lets them know what their classmates think and engage in conversation about it, and (c) everyone gets to participate.

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