Constructive Thought and/or Practical Applications
Theory in Practice:
I have become convinced of the importance of small group interaction for learning, and I hope to build upon group interaction as an integral part of my courses. While it may seem like group work is incompatible with philosophical studies and the learning goal of deep reading, this pedagogy course helped me see how it can, in fact, play an integral role in a philosophy course. Deep reading is difficult for beginners. Undergraduates often enter high education having mastered surface reading (scanning texts for facts and information to regurgitate during tests), but attempting to understand difficult philosophical texts can seem daunting. Struggling together as beginners in a group, buttressed by encouraging words from the professor, can help ‘norm’ the difficulties students face. Group discussions can also help with scaffolding, as students can get a better understanding of how concepts build upon the previous weeks’ texts. Thus, group discussion can engage multiple intelligences, including inter- and intra-personal intelligences, in a manner that proves useful to classmates.
Perhaps most importantly, small group interaction helps students to not feel anonymous. The McKeachie text deals with student anonymity in large classes, where “students not only feel anonymous, they usually are anonymous” (Teaching Tips, 271). I think this is more of an issue in large classes, but it can be just as problematic in a class of 10 to 20 students. No matter the class numbers, some students are not comfortable engaging in class discussion. Small groups help alleviate this problem, as even if those students are still reticent in the small groups, there are nevertheless a few students in the class that will know their name and at least hear some of what they have to say.
From a purely pedagogical perspective, group interaction helps every student engage in active learning. “Active learning” means “paying ‘attention to relevant information, organizing it into coherent mental representations, and integrating representations with other knowledge’” (TT, 38). For students who do not engage in class discussion, it is common for them to revert to a passive role where they simply take notes and attempt to imitate the professor’s thoughts in their own writing. Small group discussion forces students to engage with the text and put their own thoughts into words as they converse with their classmates.
Peer-to-peer discussion also helps norm the difficulties of reading and helps students move through and recognize “scaffolding” throughout the course. The McKeachie text describes “scaffolding” as “supporting and helping students reach higher levels of learning and achievement but without doing the work for them” (TT, 109). As they discuss texts throughout the course, students can intuitively build on previous concepts in order to make sense of new texts and ideas. I plan to implement a midterm self-assessment to help students see how and where they have improved in their deep reading, and how they might be able to see where they moved up the scaffolding in the course. In this way, students can develop their intrapersonal intelligence (a necessary skill for academic success) as they learn and develop in an interpersonal context.
I experienced how helpful group interaction can be in a number of philosophy classes in my PhD program. In one of these courses, we worked through 5 of the most important works by Gilles Deleuze, an equally difficult and important philosopher for my research. I had never before read Deleuze, and I had a tough time getting my bearings as to what he was trying to accomplish and what his philosophy might mean. At the beginning of the course, the professor determined groups of 4-5 students each, and required that each group meet for one hour outside of class (it was a four-hour class, but the professor counted the outside meetings as one hour of class time, so it did not add to our time commitment). Some of the other members in my group had more familiarity with Deleuze, and they greatly helped me understand the texts throughout the term.
I hope to duplicate and improve upon the model I experienced in the Deleuze class by further emphasizing peer-to-peer interaction. I want to add flexible guiding questions to the groups discussions, with particular focus on specific questions such as ‘What is the author’s thesis?’ ‘What is their method of argumentation?’ and ‘What is the genre of the text?’ in order to stimulate deeper reading. Furthermore, I hope to tie these questions into active learning by assigning ‘Thesis Practices’ where students formulate critical evaluation and response to the texts they read. They will share these practices with their small groups and offer feedback to one another. To build on the scaffolding of these guided questions and thesis practices, students will develop a prospectus that develops one of their theses. My goal is to have students grow from surface to deep reading, and from deep reading to active engagement in philosophical discourse. Small group interaction will provide a healthy context for students to work through the difficulties and discuss with their peers to help each other learn and grow as learners.
Constructive Pedagogical Theory:
I understand my authority as a teacher purely as an extension of the learning process and learner-centered goals. I am an “authority” in the classroom simply because I have spent a significant amount of time and effort at the tasks I ask of students. I have an accumulation of experience and knowledge which I want to utilize toward the goal of having every student accomplish the learning goals of the course. With this in mind, I do not emphasize my own personal ‘authority’ in the classroom. The primary arbiter is the syllabus, which is the contract between myself and the students that orients all of us toward the course learning goals. My goal, therefore, is to construct a detailed, thorough syllabus that will serve as the primary authority of the course. A well-constructed syllabus takes arbitrary authoritative decision making out of the hands of the professor. When issues arise, I will point to the syllabus. Of course, I will face new issues that require me to rethink and rewrite syllabi from one class to the next, but that does not change my primary goal of constructing a thorough and detailed syllabus.
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