Thoughts on Teaching

I work as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course and teach two sections of about 25 students each. The least interesting part of this is the grading that comes with it. The most interesting part is that I’m able to look at the courses I took as an undergraduate through the lens of someone who’s creating lesson plans and holding class discussions. I have, as a result, developed some strong opinions on teaching and learning and the purpose, in general, of an undergraduate education. This will be a loose teaching philosophy, of sorts; something I’d like to look back on, in the future, to see if and how I’ve changed.

I think the primary objective of teaching, especially at an undergraduate level, is to teach students how to think, rather than what to think. It is also important that students are taught to be open, receptive and willing to admit to being wrong. It might seem like these objectives aren’t as pertinent to courses that are more concerned with information, than arguments (“scientific” courses). In perhaps a roundabout way, though, I would say they are pertinent to these courses as well. Stick with me till the end, and I will attempt to explain this better.

I first want to talk about a class that I took as an undergrad – a philosophy class – which I refer to a lot, when I think about how teaching should ideally be done. We studied philosophy of the Enlightenment in this class (Kant, most notably). The subject matter is unimportant; I just wanted to impress upon you how reading-heavy this class was. We read a fairly dense set of arguments for class each week and our professor would come to class prepared, not to teach us the arguments, but to defend them. The method we followed was this: we’d accept the assumptions (that were stated explicitly) by the thinker, and then assess the merit of his argument from within this framework of assumptions. This made reading a purely intellectual exercise: the question of the validity of these assumptions was set aside for a while, and the argument was evaluated purely on the basis of its rigor. It is important to get past these explicit assumptions and understand the argument, to see if the argument is making any implicit assumptions: An argument that makes assumptions that it doesn’t know its making is a bad argument. This exercise (that of identifying implicit assumptions) is fundamental to what we call “critical thinking”. Enabling students to think in this manner, I believe, is the most important objective that teaching must achieve.

Additionally, not placing a value judgment upon the assumptions, at least at the time of reading/understanding/deciphering the argument, is a good way of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. To have reasonable conversations with each other, we must be open to each others’ ideas. We must leave behind our own biases and account for others’ if we ever hope to understand where they’re coming from. That said, I do not think a logically valid argument within a framework of fallacious assumptions is a good argument. However, many times, it is hard to ascertain the truth value of assumptions with certainty. Given this, determining the validity/truth of explicit assumptions should, necessarily, be step 2 of the process. If we make it step 1, we can’t ever hope to have a meaningful conversation with people we disagree with. Atheists would never have conversations religious people. Liberals would never have conversations with conservatives. This exercise – the “I disagree with you, but let’s say for the sake of argument that X is true” exercise – is extremely important even if it isn’t the final step in evaluating an argument. Understanding this process is important to identifying and evaluating your own biases. It is also important for being open and receptive.

It’s easier to gear course material towards these teaching objectives for philosophy courses or other humanities courses. It can be a lot trickier, and at times impossible, to achieve them while teaching, say, a microeconomics class. Yet, logic is something that is fundamental to all the courses we take/teach, and this framework that I’ve worked out has a lot to do with logic. The key is to get students to ask questions, make connections, and identify assumptions; it is to get students to understand the process of thought, rather than just the product of it.

These “objectives” are based purely on the most valuable skills that I think I’ve developed through college. These are also skills that, I believe, are valuable to individuals that hope to contribute positively to the world.

I’m not claiming to be the most critical of thinkers or the most open-minded of people. I’m just a better critical thinker and a more open person than I was before going to college and taking certain classes. This is what I believe I gained from college and it is what, as a teacher, I’d strive to provide to my students.

I could prattle on and on, but I think I’ll stop here. I’ll be back, sooner or later, with more things to say about things.

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