Thursday , June 24 2021

Teaching how to ask philosophical questions (of complicated texts)

While complaining about Socrates, Trasimaco states that "it is easier to ask questions than to answer them". (Republic 336b) The statement seems obvious because the answers seem to be preceded by questions and we all know the questions that have not been answered. Also, it can take huge amounts of resources to respond to what appear to be simple questions.

Even so, one of the reasons I've always been impressed by Newton's contributions is that his theory is full of answers to previously unthought questions. (For example, how does Saturn and Jupiter influence each other in their orbits?) This suggests – as some Kantian type might insist – that some questions are made possible only by having the right cognitive structures (including answers) in place.

Be that as it may, experienced philosophy instructors are all familiar with the experience that some students ask interesting questions about the material we teach and other equally industrious students ask questions that do not generate interesting discussions. Now, sometimes this can be explained by virtue of the fact that some students have taken courses in philosophy first and, through imitation and the osmotic example, have acquired a style and a kind of questions-questions. But this simply pushes the problem back to a level. I have a strong aversion to the idea that there is an innate philosophical genius, so I prefer to think that we can teach people to ask questions like skills. In what follows, I explain how I teach it. *

Below is an exercise I have used for more than a decade and a half of teaching. As I noted before, I do not think of myself as a very gifted teacher, and I'm not one of the people who win awards for teaching. I constantly make high marks for feedback, and this is partly due to what I'm about to share.

I'm pretty sure that the exercise originated from frustration for students who did not take the assigned readings. And I strongly suspect that I was presented with a version of this in Wesleyan (a place where teaching is taken very seriously) by an elderly colleague (mea culpa to forget). But the task has evolved and with the learning software it has become more functional. Here is the exercise I use in all my courses.

This task requires around 150 words (per assignment). The application should be presented before each meeting of the canvas seminar by 10 am in the morning of the class meeting. It has two parts. 1. In the first line, formulate a question focused on the assigned text (and which we will discuss in the classroom). It should consist of a single question. 2. Motivate this question on the basis of an analysis of the text and provide appropriate references, citations and quotes each time.

You have to go beyond the moment of your question, that is, what drives it, and explain the source or the reason of the puzzle (conceptual / empirical) or the text problem that motivates your question. Do not answer your own question. Do not think for further questions. Do not ask rhetorical questions. Try to avoid turning your question into an objection (thin) masquerade. Try not to ask the same question as the one previously published.

The assignment has three main purposes: (i) to make sure everyone reads and is willing to discuss it in class; (ii) to teach you the art of close reading; (iii) to teach you how to ask research questions .–Pantry by Eric Schliesser

Students can read the respective questions. I have always (tried) to read them before the lesson (it helps me to see what the students have found problematic) and I use them in the main discussion. This adds to my preparation time, but I find it very useful to have an idea of ​​what my students are thinking before the lesson. Sometimes I let one of the students lead a discussion with his own question.

In some courses, I ask students to answer at least one of the questions from the class after the class meeting (and before the next one). This is particularly useful if the course meets only once a week. I had courses in which this generated a permanent online discussion by the students on the course material. (In most courses, it is clearly treated as a requirement.) This requirement requires further training instructions (they must mention their sources, make evidence explicit, etc.); in particular, courtesy rules. I always check the discussion, but I tend not to comment on it. (I do not correct mistakes unless they interfere with my course learning objectives.)

During the first few weeks of the course, I provide detailed feedback on my students' questions without answering. Most of my feedback has a kind of formal character, such as "you have to include a bibliography"; "Remember, you can only ask a question; & # 39; & # 39; notice that your question really involves three distinct problems; & # 39; "You gave the occasion of your question, but you have not explained it yet; & # 39; You know how the last three sentences of your explanation are not rooted in the text; & # 39; "The way you have formulated this question shows vagueness / or lack of attention", etc. Sometimes I spend time exposing the implicit logical complexity of a question.

I never use my feedback to respond to these tasks. But sometimes explicit a conceptual or textual confusion that the student exhibits. After a few weeks, most of the students receive the assignment and I reduce the feedback I provide. (Sometimes, in the second half of a course, I need to do a week of feedback update.)

In the past, my feedback on student homework was always private. But this year I'm experimenting with sharing most of my feedback on canvas (it's like the blackboard) so everyone can learn from them. (I have the possibility to send a private message in case he has a concern for the preparation / participation of the student, etc.)

In the past I did not evaluate the tasks individually, but I used them to help shape (towards the top) my degree of participation in the class. Since I now work in a more legalistic environment, which requires greater transparency in the assessment, I now give them a (rough) vote. (This is private!)

I do not pretend that all students benefit from this task. But I think it would improve the class discussion of how much it would be. Students learn some writing skills: teach them to concentrate, to be explicit about the steps in their way of thinking and to learn to find out what the core of the question is. I would also say that they learn to improve in helping each other understand the texts.

Furthermore, I would say that the assignment teaches them how to read: by explaining their confusion in this way, they discover their own hidden presuppositions that they (us all!) We tend to project onto the text; they learn to pay attention to dissonance and to the steps in an author's discussion.

It is possible that this assignment will work better with the kind of material I usually teach: culturally and historically distant, rhetorical and conceptually complex texts on subjects that my students might not encounter on a daily basis. But I also used the technique in courses focused on topics on fairly standard subjects, and I found it equally useful in that environment.

The downside (for some) is that this is a time-consuming way to teach. It's also quite challenging for students – many of whom have, of course, a busy life. But since the course is already quite intensive in writing, I tend to request very short documents to establish the final grade.

An important effect of the task is that I can prevent students from trying to play with me. (We know all the instructors whose students basically echo what they say [including on exams].) The tasks are focused on the course material.

Teach students how to ask questions? I can not say for sure, given the confirmation bias I have. Obviously avoid doing different things with my students – the opportunity costs are not negligible. But when the assignment works well, the student has asked an interesting question, that is both well motivated by and rooted in the text and one that is not answered by the explanation of it as well as generates (in principle) fruitful class discussions in this regard. Is it sufficient evidence that it is interesting? I can not say with certainty, but the task strongly urges me to explore the course material with my students.

Do you have any ways or techniques to teach your students to ask interesting questions?

* I do it because Tim de Mey, who is a very gifted teacher and someone who understands it as a profession that can be improved, has found the exercise interesting.

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