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