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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Grand Teaching Experiment

Over the last couple years, I've become very dissatisfied with the way I've always taught my non-logic classes, e.g., classes on philosophy of language. These tend to be fairly small classes, with enrolment in the range of 10-15, and the basic model has been this: I've lectured on Mondays and Wednesdays, and we have had discussion on Fridays, led by me.
But I've read several things recently suggesting that lecturing is not a very effective way to get students to learn things. So this semester, in my course on Theories of Truth (Phil 1890D), I'm trying something different. I propose to blog about it from time to time.
The first thing I'm doing is trying to make use of Brown's new online teaching framework, called "Canvas". It does quite a lot. For example, there is an integrated conferencing system that I may try to use later. And it has simpler stuff, like the ability to schedule assignments, which are then automatically entered into a "grade book". But the main thing I'm using is the discussion board. For each of the readings, I've set up a discussion thread, and I'm requiring everyone in the class to post to it prior to class.
Obviously, this is just taking the place of the "response papers" that lots of people use, anyway, but it has a few advantages.
  1. It's easy for me to comment on people's responses simply by replying in the discussion thread. As a result, they can get feedback before we meet for class. 
  2. The students' responses, and my comments, are visible to the other students, so there is some opportunity for them to learn from each other. So far, there has only been a little discussion among the students, but I'm hopeful that, as we get into the semester, and as we all adjust to this new system, there will be more. (I've set it up so they have to post before they can see what other people wrote, for the obvious sort of reason.)
  3. Since contributing to discussion is an "assignment", it is linked to the grade book, and I can enter grades (not much more than "did" or "didn't") very easily.
Much of this, of course, could be done with a Google Group, but the way Canvas automatically generates a syllabus from my discussion assignments is very nice. And I can add the other course assignments, too, so a calendar for the semester is automatically created.
The second thing I'm doing differently is I'm not lecturing. At all. I told the students this at the first meeting, and when I walked into the first "real" class, I had no lecture notes. I'm trying to run the entire class as discussion.
The days that would previously have been devoted to lecture are now devoted to discussion that is aimed at understanding the readings. The day that was previously devoted to discussion is now devoted to discussion aimed at evaluating and criticising the readings. We've had two of the former so far (on Austin's and Strawson's famous papers on truth), and I'm not sure yet how they are going. My strategy has been to identify topics from the papers that we should talk about. So, in the case of Strawson's paper, for example, these were: His criticisms of Austin's account of (i) statements, (ii) facts, and (iii) correspondence, and (iv) his own positive account of the use of "true". The first class seemed to go pretty well. The second one, a bit less so, and I ended up talking more. But that may simply have been because Strawson's paper is quite hard, and maybe that is a sign that I should do something else.

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