An Approach to Teacher Training in Philosophy Departments (guest post by Colin Heydt)


“This is not revolutionary stuff. But it is important. And it is stuff I wish I’d known about early in my teaching career.”

The following is a guest post* by Colin Heydt, professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida (USF), on the subject of training graduate students how to teach.


An Approach to Teacher Training in Philosophy Departments
by Colin Heydt

By my fifth semester as a TA in graduate school, I had worked with some fine teachers, picking up what I could by observation and advice. But that semester, a professor told me something about his teaching that dumbfounded me: “When I’m planning my classes, I begin by identifying one or two things that I want students to learn and then build out the class from there.” That accords with “backward design” in course and lesson-planning—start with what you want students to learn. Obvious once it’s pointed out. Did I know it? No. Should I have? Yes.

Teaching is challenging enough without having to discover foundational principles on one’s own. Looking back, I wish I’d had some systematic training, though not having had it seems more typical. While some universities offer graduate students support through teaching centers, a few philosophy departments have designed philosophy-focused programs. Georgia State, for example, has led multi-semester teaching seminars for years. Western University’s teacher training has been helpfully detailed by Jacquart and Wright (here).

At USF’s philosophy department, we’ve created a one-semester course that brings uncontroversial findings of cognitive science to bear on course design, lesson planning, and classroom technique. Throughout, the goal is to provide clear, actionable ways to improve our teaching—it’s not a class in pedagogical theory. By the end of the semester, students generate their own syllabus, engage in multiple teaching observations, and hear from department faculty about their different approaches to teaching philosophy.

This pedagogy seminar is informed by the work of people such as Daniel Willingham, Doug Lemov, Barak Rosenshine, Daisy Christodoulou, and others. So, for instance, we learn that students are much more likely to remember what we teach them if our assessments and classroom activities consistently get them to recall information throughout the semester (i.e. “spaced, retrieval practice”). We talk about the “curse of knowledge,” namely, that experts struggle to see a subject from the novice’s point-of-view. This leads teachers to overwhelm students (i.e. put too much “cognitive load” on them), because they’ve failed to scaffold information in a way that enables novices to learn it effectively. We examine the implications of the science of learning for core classroom activities: questioning, discussion, lecture, and writing. And so on.

These insights have led me to change long-standing practices in my own teaching. For example, I assess and question my students constantly now, whereas I used to rely on the tried-but-not-so-true midterm/final/two papers approach that I had seen employed so often. Frequent assessment incentivizes students to retrieve information over the whole semester and relate it to other things they are learning, whereas my older approach encouraged cramming and forgetting.

My courses cover less material. I’m unmoved now by what used to feel like an imperative: “If I’m going to do justice to this subject, I have to teach this text by Anscombe (or Kant or Hume).” I can teach whatever I want, but if I don’t dedicate time to talking through examples, providing opportunities to apply novel concepts, and making explicit the connections among ideas, the students will learn much less than they could otherwise.

Newly sensitive to problems of cognitive load, I was also chagrined to realize that I didn’t really know whether I was overwhelming students with the vocabulary in texts by, say, Aristotle and J.L. Austin. If a student encounters six or seven unknown words on a page of text, it is very unlikely she will be able to think about the significance of the text, because she’s working too hard simply to comprehend it. So, for the first time, I checked how many words students didn’t know on sample pages of philosophical prose. That’s helped guide my text selection.

This is not revolutionary stuff. But it is important. And it is stuff I wish I’d known about early in my teaching career.

Teaching well is hard. Even as an experienced professor, I constantly fail in the classroom. Every novice teacher will struggle, but we make it worse when we ask them to cobble together basic elements of their practice without guidance. As a profession, we’ve let this situation go on for too long.

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Trevor Hedberg
2 years ago

I was one of about half a dozen guest speakers who visited this seminar, and I attended another half a dozen sessions as the semester progressed. Based on how the seminar was designed and what I observed, I think a course like this (or some suitable alternative) should be on the books in any graduate program in philosophy, and that’s doubly true for programs like USF where the overwhelming majority of graduate student placements are at teaching jobs. The graduate students in the seminar — most of whom were only in their first or second year in the program — will be much better positioned to teach competently in the classroom and design effective courses as a result of what they learned. Their reflective engagement with the science of learning and practice of philosophy teaching will also aid them when it comes time to develop a formal statement of teaching philosophy down the road. The level of pedagogical training at the graduate level is generally quite inadequate given that the bulk of jobs in philosophy are teaching-intensive, so it’s great to see some departments are taking steps to change that.Report

Lucas Dunlap
Lucas Dunlap
2 years ago

This is a nice piece, and I applaud efforts like this.

I do want to correct the record on one point, however. The Jacquart and Wright paper linked in the second paragraph does not detail Western University’s teacher training. The authors developed that approach themselves, as a recommendation for how departments could teach graduate students to teach philosophy. Western has no philosophy-specific teacher training course.Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
Reply to  Lucas Dunlap
2 years ago

My mistake! I hadn’t realized that the working group Jacquart and Wright were involved with didn’t become a formal part of Western’s program.
That leaves Georgia State as the only other faculty-led teacher training program I know of (it’s also the only one mentioned in the 2016 Concepcion, et al. piece “The State of Teacher Training in Philosophy”). I would love to find out if there are others! Report

Adam
Adam
2 years ago

Great post Colin! Sounds like an excellent addition to the graduate curriculum.

At the University of Nebraska, in 2009 some fellow graduate students and myself started a teaching colloquium for philosophy graduate students. It’s still going today. It meets once a week each fall and spring semester. It ranges from more formal discussions of a published article on teaching in philosophy, to graduate students work on teaching in philosophy, to workshopping learning activities, to circulating advice about things like grading, how to teach x, what to do when students…, etc. The individuals running the colloquia attempt to draw attention to the importance and use of learner-centered pedagogy and it’s principles, integration and alignment, as well as best pedagogical practice.

We now regularly send graduate students to present work on the study of teaching and learning in philosophy at professional conferences, including the APA. If you’d like advice for how to start a teaching colloquium for graduate students at your home institution, please, feel free to contact at art [at] unl [dot] edu. Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
Reply to  Adam
2 years ago

Thanks, Adam. I look forward to finding out about Nebraska’s teaching colloquium. I know of a few other, graduate-led programs that appear to work well. My concern–and I’d be curious to hear your reaction–is that we need more faculty-led seminars (or, at least, seminars with heavy and consistent faculty involvement). Faculty often have crucial experience to share, but, perhaps more fundamentally, faculty involvement and time express that research departments think teaching well is important. Right now, the actions of departments mostly express indifference to teaching. At least, that’s my impression. Report

Adam
Adam
Reply to  Colin Heydt
2 years ago

I agree, faculty involvement is extremely important.

Interestingly, many faculty at UNL started to take an interest in teacher training due in large part to the success/persistence of our colloquium series. So, despite the fact that the graduate teaching colloquium series like ours is no substitute for a faculty-led seminar on how to teach, it may be a good first step to shifting interests and mindsets. Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

I admire this post and wholeheartedly endorse its major claims. The best teachers really do teach and think in the ways Colin describes. One thing that I think is overlooked (which, given the intention of the article is not a fault!), is that nobody who works at a university on the tenure stream side is hired as a teacher of philosophy. Even at my own institution (which values the ‘teacher scholar’ model), teaching is LESS THAN HALF of what my annual review depends upon. I am not at an R1 (or R2 or R3). It’s for this reason that I find claims like the following to be neglecting an important truth:

“These insights have led me to change long-standing practices in my own teaching. For example, I assess and question my students constantly now, whereas I used to rely on the tried-but-not-so-true midterm/final/two papers approach that I had seen employed so often. Frequent assessment incentivizes students to retrieve information over the whole semester and relate it to other things they are learning, whereas my older approach encouraged cramming and forgetting.”

I have no doubts that the approach suggested in the passage above is better for teaching. I also have significant doubts that it would be in my interest to do. Why? Because the more time I spend grading the less time I have for research, for committee work, for publicizing my research, for giving talks. In other words: for the things that my livelihood are directly based on. We should all be good teachers, I consider myself one even though I use the midterm/final/short paper model. Why do I do this? Because, at least in my mind, this approach keeps the best things about teaching while allowing me to balance my teaching with the rest of my professional academic responsibilities.

Worse still, to those who are adjuncts (or non-tenure track in other ways), it’s usually very difficult to engage in such intensive pedagogical work because adjuncting pays so poorly (in my personal experience – having been an adjunct at several universities) that one finds oneself teaching far too many students to devote the kind of time necessary to teach excellently. While supererogatory, excellent teaching is just something I (at least) don’t feel I can afford. Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

I totally agree with this post. If anything, universities and colleges often motivate teaching staff to minimize time on teaching, because they don’t reward it (something that cuts against the tenor of lots of promotional literature).

That said, much of the assessment I use is ungraded–questioning, in-class writing, etc. And I’ve recently tried to focus more on graded assessments and assessment strategies that get most of the benefit (e.g. of the “testing effect”) while minimizing impact on workload: multiple choice quizzes, for example, or only grading a selection of the assignments students turn in.

More broadly, if we get decent training from the outset of our careers, we can be strong classroom teachers even when we simply can’t dedicate much energy to teaching. If anything, my biggest goal is to help the novice teacher raise her/his “floor,” so that students always get a solid learning experience and the teacher always does a competent job. Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Colin Heydt
2 years ago

This is really helpful. Good to know that students are responsive to ungraded assignments (I’ve always been hesitant to do this out of concern that they’ll complain or lose motivation to complete them). Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Well, they’re definitely responsive to ungraded questioning (cold-calling is super-effective, but not for everyone). I’m also experimenting with assignments where students know that only _some_ will be graded, but they don’t know which ones (e.g. 5 out of 10 pre-class reading assignments or 2 out of 3 exams), and that seems to work well. It reduces grading load and keeps the benefits of graded assessments. I learned that tip from one of my colleagues who came to visit the teaching seminar and share his experiences (thanks, Michael Morris!). Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Colin Heydt
2 years ago

One thing I’ve found helpful to negotiating the trade-off between giving students appropriate amounts of formative feedback and reducing my time spent grading is to give comments electronically. I found that I was often repeating the same advice, especially early on, to my students on their reading responses. I just create another document where I type up my concerns about some general issue in student responses and then my suggestions for how the student might try to address this issue in future responses. I can then copy/paste this feedback for each student (I use Blackboard to grade and provide feedback). I can also add a sentence at the beginning explaining why this particular response is running into the issue, so the feedback is not completely abstract. I find this method of providing feedback allows me to give better explanations of issues and advice about how to avoid the issue in the future. I also think it is probably less alienating for students than some of the more commonly suggested methods of cutting time giving feedback, like the suggestion described here: http://dailynous.com/2017/01/31/philosophers-key-grading-papers-quickly/Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
2 years ago

As Colin Heydt notes in a reply to Adam, “Right now, the action of departments mostly express indifference to teaching. At least, that’s my impression.”

I don’t think that impression is far off. And I think teaching will continue to be ignored as long as our profession is gripped by an exclusive picture of what counts as philosophical accomplishment.

The unquestioned paradigm of philosophical achievement is the publication of the journal article or the book, the “contribution to the literature.” (This picture could, but as of now doesn’t, accommodate the idea of publishing a story or dialogue.) But I think we should also take seriously — more seriously than we do now — a different paradigm: bringing a student to understand a philosophical idea. The word “understand” in that last clause contains multitudes, of course. But one thing it contains is something like “seeing one’s life through a philosophical idea.” Importantly different about this achievement is, first, that its value is irreducibly personal, indexed to the life so seen, and, second, that the publication of anything in such a case, while doable, is laughably beside the point.

I’m not saying that this different paradigm should replace the current one. I’m saying it should be set beside it. I would like to register, however, that there is an argument to be made — cribbing from ancient Greeks, perhaps — that the value of publishing is parasitic on the value of bringing another person to understand a philosophical idea. And if there’s a good argument in the vicinity, the profession’s indifference to the art of cultivating understanding begins to look perverse.Report

Eric Wilson
Eric Wilson
2 years ago

Thanks for the great post, Colin. It’s nice to hear your approach draws on the work of people like Willingham, Christadoulou, and Lemov. I’ve been pretty convinced by their work. But I struggle to apply much of it to my own teaching. The issue of cognitive load points to one difficulty. On the one hand, it usually speaks in favor covering less material, as you suggest. This has been my response to the issue as well. On the other hand, the less we cover, the less they will know. This threatens to produce a reverse Matthew Effect, however, which sets students up to learn even less at the next level. One could object that less coverage doesn’t entail any sacrifice since it lets the teacher lighten the cognitive load, thereby increasing rather than decreasing the total amount of learning. But I’m not sure this is always right. I suspect it underrates the value of superficial knowledge. Willingham, if I recall correctly, makes a good case for its importance. Surface before depth. Teachers consistently underrate superficial knowledge. Perhaps we need to get clearer on the sort of thing we’re trying to teach. Is it superficial knowledge or deep knowledge? Obviously it depends on the course (among other things). But, speaking for myself, I’m rarely clear about this when I teach. Either way, the issue you raise points to the need for us to know more about the cognitive load our students are likely to experience when confronted with our assignments (and lectures and discussions). One tool I’ve used is a diagnostic quiz at the beginning of the semester. It’s a blunt instrument, but better than nothing.Report

Joanna Lawson
Joanna Lawson
2 years ago

This is a fantastic post! Keeping students in mind while we design our courses is surprisingly uncommon.

For those programs that want to implement some sort of instruction for graduate student teachers but aren’t ready to take the plunge into a full-fledged semester-long program, I heartily recommend the AAPT’s one-day workshops: https://philosophyteachers.org/teaching-learning-seminars-workshops/. Enthusiastic philosophy teachers will come to you and teach the basics of learner-centered pedagogy and backward course design (depending on what your department’s needs are, of course!).

For those who can’t get their department on board for an AAPT workshop, there are more extended seminars in teaching and learning philosophy that occur at the AAPT conference (which happens every other year).
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Camille
Camille
2 years ago

It’s too bad there aren’t more teaching postdocs. I imagine they might be better than allotting time during PhD research for teacher training.Report

Melissa Jacquart
2 years ago

For those interested in making a case for a graduate course on teaching in your own department, Jessey Wright and I offer 7 reasons or talking points for including, and even requiring, a course like the one we detail in the blog post-linked paper in your graduate program:
https://blog.apaonline.org/2017/08/29/teach-graduate-students-how-to-teach/Report

Tim O'Keefe
2 years ago

Thanks for this post. At Georgia State, one of the main things that’s helped us improve our teaching by graduate students is having a permanent faculty member whose main job is to help train and support our graduate student teachers. Our Coordinator of Graduate Teaching, Sandra Dwyer, leads our various pedagogy classes–the one-semester Teaching Philosophy class that everybody takes before they teach, plus the teaching practicum classes they take while they’re teaching, meeting once a week to talk about how things are going, get advice and feedback, etc. She also does classroom observations that result in detailed feedback, and she helps deal with various crises as they arise..

It’s a Lecturer position, so there are no research expectations. It might seem like dedicating the majority of a faculty line to training and supervising graduate student teachers is a large investment. But from my POV, when I consider the huge number of undergraduate students in Critical Thinking, Introduction to Philosophy, and Introduction to Ethics who are being taught by grad students who are mostly only in their second year in our program, it would grossly irresponsible not to have such a person.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
2 years ago

Pittsburgh’s Philosophy department also has a year-long course for first time TAs led by a dedicated faculty member, Tom Berry. I haven’t taken it, but I do give guest lectures on inclusive pedagogy. It’s great to see some commitment to teaching and learning in their department. Pittsburgh’s HPS department does not have a dedicated faculty member to primarily run our Teaching Practicum, but we do have one faculty member in charge of the course each year. Speakers include invited faculty from HPS, folks from the Center for Teaching and Learning, and myself on inclusive pedagogy.

Still I want to echo what other folks have said about the value of the AAPT and their workshops. I’ve attended one at Western, co-organized one locally at Pitt, and attended their biannual conference. AAPT workshops and conferences remain the context that has most shaped my teaching style and helped me think more deeply about what strategies work best for my students and myself.Report

David Concepcion
David Concepcion
2 years ago

The American Association of Philosophy Teachers sends expert philosophy teachers to departments around north America offering the type of training discussed here. If you are interested in hosting an AAPT workshop on your campus, contact the chair of the American Association of Philosophy Teacher’s Teaching and Learning committee, https://philosophyteachers.org/governance/. At the moment, that person is me, [email protected]

More info. is available in an APA blog post that came out today:
https://blog.apaonline.org/2019/01/23/teaching-and-learning-seminar/

Past hosts include
MIT, Michigan, Western (CAN), Pittsburgh, North Texas, Mt. St. Mary’s (CA), Penn, Indiana, UCSF, Loyola (IL), Carnegie Mellon, Minnesota, and many more.

What past participants have said:
“This was the most productive and affirming single day of my entire 6.5 years of grad school.”
“For those who have been teaching a while, it is a fantastic way to revitalize your teaching without feeling judged.”
“A surprising amount of content covered in a short period of time, without feeling dense or overwhelming. Relaxed but focused atmosphere”
“Unlike other pedagogy training I have had, the workshop made clear both what to do and why. I felt motivated and empowered to make better teaching choices.”
“It is a game changer”
“Inspirational”
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