Goals in Teaching
If learning is an endless journey, and I think it is, as a teacher I see myself as a guide for the student. I want them to look at me as someone to ask for advice and guidance in the process of learning.
First of all, I think that presenting material clearly is very important: the teacher needs to consistently and accurately present the material itself but she needs also to explain the reason that the particular material was selected. In other words, the class is supposed to have a structure and the structure has to be clearly and easily understandable to the student. Instead, too often it happens that the material is just presented but it is not clear how it is supposed to fit in with the other information provided by the teacher.
Secondly, I think it is also important to teach students skills, such as critical and analytical thinking. That is, once the teacher has provided the student with the basics of the subject matter, for example provided an introduction to the problems philosophy deals with, it is important also that they learn how to move into the subject by themselves. I think that a crucial part of philosophy is done by actively engaging with it, discussing it, writing about it, thinking about it. Ultimately, I would like them to be autonomous as students but also– and maybe more importantly– as persons. This is something that they will need in their lives as grown–ups whatever they decide to do. In other words, I want to provide my students with the tools that allow them to be active rather than passive subjects. That is, what I aim for is to make them critical about what happens around them and not to take anything passively. Rather, I encourage them to fight for what they believe to be true with rational arguments.
I think it is crucial that the students have a clear idea of what is expected of them, both in class and in the assignments. It is my intention to provide students with a clear and structured syllabus in which I describe what will be covered in each class and how every class fits into the course. Moreover, at the beginning of every class, I remind them where we have arrived and I tell them where we are heading, so as to give them the right perspective.
In general, I structure the class in such a way that it is clear what the aim is, where are we going. For this reason, when I design the class, I ask myself what is the point I want the students to take home and then I plan the class accordingly. As a rule of thumb, I think one class–one point is the best that you can expect to accomplish.
In order to accomplish my aims in teaching, I need a combination of lecturing and interactive teaching style, since I noticed that students –at least some– learn those skills and even the material better if they are engaged by a teacher who demands participation and challenges their abilities and their ideas, which is what I aim to do. I think that lecturing is important to set the basis and provide examples of what good philosophy is, and discussion is important to boost students’ autonomy in thinking and arguing. Therefore, when I assign them a certain text, I care most to teach them how in general a text is analyzed rather that to teach them something about that particular text. When I explain the material I proceed as follows. Suppose, as an example, I want them to be able to reconstruct the argument that a certain philosopher gave. I explain what the argument is formally, in such a way that they can recognize its structure. Then I provide examples to illustrate how the logic of that argument is supposed to work. After having done that, I ask them to provide different examples. When they can do that, I go a step further and I ask them to compare the argument with a different one. Then I come to the part in which I explain what the objections to that argument are and I do that also with examples. Finally, I ask them as a class to discuss the objections themselves and I challenge them to find a way to overcome them. That is, after having explained the material, I engage them in discussions that focus on a challenging question about the issue that has just been explained. Therefore, the students need to be confident with the material, they need to come to class prepared to talk. Moreover, to have a successful discussion, it is important that they learn to listen to what other people have to say and to understand it. I think that, among the skills they can learn in my class, this is one of the most important. Only if there is mutual understanding is it possible to actually engage in a discussion where at the end we manage to learn something new.
I require students to talk in class, both to answer questions and to express their ideas. I ask a lot of my students: it is not easy to stand up in class knowing that your fellow classmates and your teacher are there watching you. For this reason, I also work to make my classroom a safe environment, a place in which they can feel safe to express what they really think, without the fear of being “judged” or considered stupid. The first day of class I explain to them that they can talk freely in my class and that discussion is something healthy to do: we argue and we disagree to confront our ideas to arrive at a better understanding of the subject at stake. Even if most of the discussions naturally end up with two views fighting and arguing one against the other rather heavily, I try to make the point that criticism is always about the argument proposed and never about the person, in such a way that nobody should feel offended if someone is disagreeing with him or her. However, I do not let the discussion get a life of its own: as a teacher I need to provide structure and direction and I cut out comments that are out of place and do not focus on the issue at stake. Since I realize that for a shy person it might be difficult to actually speak up in class, missing in this way an important part of the process of learning, I sometimes assign group work. In fact I think that in this way an introverted person might feel more comfortable to engage in discussion, being more likely to be active in a small group than in a large class. In the future, I would like to create a class mailing lists or a web site, and encourage students to participate both with questions and with answers to other people’s questions. This will allow for the possibility of a more complete exchange of ideas, opinions and doubts and I believe it might be useful both for introverted student who cannot speak in class and in general to clear up misunderstandings.
Homework and Exams
In the assignments that I give them I try to make sure first that nobody is left behind. Therefore, in the first assignment I ask them just to present, for example, an argument that we discussed in class. And only if they successfully accomplish that can we move to the second step, that is to report what the standard criticisms to the argument are. Only after they have shown me that they are confident with what other people have thought about the issue at stake can they engage in creative thinking, expressing their own opinions on the matter. This is usually what they are asked to do as a final paper. I encourage students to turn in drafts of their papers, to come to talk to me during office hours or, if they cannot, to schedule an appointment with me. This allows me to comment on their writing and to answer their questions on a one-to-one basis. I think this is very important: to get to know the students as persons and to try to help them out according to their personal needs. I try to provide assignments that are clear and, to avoid possible misunderstanding, I often give examples of what I expect as a good answer. In addition, I run review sessions to cover problems on what I think the students might be confused about in preparing the assignment. Moreover, I always attach at the back of every assignment a grading scale in which it is clearly explained how and why they got a certain grade and what it means. Briefly, I try to do my best to allow the students to find themselves in a situation in which they have control, so that they are finally responsible of their grade.