Think Again: A Philosophical Approach to Teaching
reviewed by Esther Fusco - August 30, 2013
In Think Again: A Philosophical Approach to Teaching, John L. Taylor shares a rich trove of ideas regarding the establishment of philosophical discussions across academic classrooms. Taylors book challenges the idea that thoughtful discussions are incompatible with an age of testing. At the heart of the book is the notion that we can create a dynamic learning environment in which students can think rather than being passively spoon-fed content. His approach is not an add-on program but one designed to build the context and conceptual levels that are being explored in a lesson. The goal is for students, through open-ended questions, to think and analyze more closely ideas that are being developed in different content areas. Taylor sees a philosophical approach to instruction as key to building thoughtful learners who understand the connections between ideas and content and thus have a better chance of becoming informed citizens.
According to Taylor the goal of his philosophical approach is to shine a little light, and point out the pathways along which teachers can go, which lead to a richer, more educationally satisfying approach; (p. 2). All too often, teachers are bogged down by the drudgery that surrounds them in this restrictive testing era. Philosophically based classrooms, in contrast, use effective questions as the basis for genuine conversations among students with some prompting from the teacher. In such an environment, discussions are open-ended and students can learn to share different opinions as they are guided on their way to developing self-knowledge. Through articulating their ideas and being open to other opinions, learners develop a new sense of confidence. Students also learn to express their ideas in a clear manner and build their academic vocabulary in the process. The goal is to have a rich, enjoyable discussion, in which students actively contribute their own ideas and arguments in response to a philosophical question; (p. 33). As students share their thoughts and hear supporting or opposing viewpoints, they adjust or revise their thinking; teachers, too, are reflective and willing to think across academic boundaries. From this perspective, philosophy is clearly not an add- on but rather an essential component in each academic content lesson.
Unfortunately, Taylor acknowledges, in our schools today little of this philosophical approach exists. Teachers concerns for successful test scores have made them unwilling to stray from the didactic instructional model. They fear that discussions will take time away from covering materials that are prescribed in their texts and thus impact their students test scores. Taylor argues that well planned questions on a topic will encourage more students participation and at least give students something meaningful to think about. Taylor asserts that the process of questioning, offering points of view, and counter points of view and discussing responses is not limited to specific types of students. He reasons that all students, regardless of their background, can climb the thinking ladder if given appropriate facts and materials. It is up to the teacher, as the facilitator of the discussion, to orchestrate this kind of learning experience.
Taylor presents several interesting ideas related to the philosophical approach. The first is the Extended Project Approach similar to the Project Approach, advocated by Lillian G. Katz and Sylvia Chard in Engaging Childrens Mind: The Project Approach (2000). This approach involves students independently researching an idea and becoming experts in an area. The purpose is for students to initiate original ideas and follow through on their development. During the process, the teacher cognitively mentors the student. The student reviews the literature on the topic, raises big questions, and then gathers the related materials to understand the themes and connected ideas. Students work to refine the selected projects until they are ready for a presentation to a group or class.
Taylor also presents a carefully designed framework from which students can write a dissertation on a topic or project of interest. While the format seems somewhat contradictory to the open-endedness of his Socratic approach, the benefit is that students will know how to present their ideas. The author indicates that the structure facilitates the students independent efforts. Along with this, the mentor must anticipate problems, ensure quality control, and supervise the students efforts until the project is completed. In particular, the mentor helps to maintain the focus on the big idea. (Taylor includes a job description for the mentor.)
Another point is that philosophy can help students step outside the curriculum boxes; (p. 96); and discover how many subjects have roots in philosophy. More importantly, all academic subjects can readily accommodate Socratic dialogue because all have big questions or big ideas that need to be explored. When students engage in the Socratic method, they grapple with making sense of the fundamental ideas through conceptual analysis and clarification of terms. In this way, students look beyond the mere facts to the connections and purposes within a concept.
For Taylor, a primary goal of education is to promote understanding rather than the memorization of facts promoted by the current assessment agenda. The problem with plain factual learning is that the facts are not tied together in a conceptual manner; the instruction is not designed to promote use of the knowledge or create effective thinkers. A philosophical approach in each subject can overcome this deficit. Think Again is filled with interesting and practical examples not just abstract philosophical discussions such as what is truth, but also topics like animal rights, time, and mapping. Many of these interesting examples are found in the chapter Reunifying the Curriculum.
How can such an approach exist in this exam-driven era? The author stresses that students ability to think deeply and to be creative is better exhibited in a philosophical discussion and project based instruction than through mechanical testing. This approach provides the teacher with time to continually assess students through well structured questions and projects. But if tests are to be given, Taylor argues, they need to be well designed so that they accurately are assessing the important concepts of education. A curriculum that incorporates philosophy encourages critical analysis rather than memorization of information. It enables students to link ideas in order to understand the whole and internalize it. Students can see how ideas are logically related to one another. This comes through reflection and an appreciation for the connections that are being created.
Taylor summarizes his point regarding good education and assessment in this way:
Good education . . . cannot be measured. But such is the influence of the utilitarian approach that, instead of this fact being used to put outcome measures into context, we end up allowing the system of measurement to determine the way in which we teach. A consequence of the emphasis on measurable outcomes is that less tangible qualities like depth of understanding, ethical awareness and creativity come to be taken less seriously than things that seem easier to measure (like, for instance, accuracy of factual recall). (p. 137)
In the closing chapter, Taylor discusses how we might change to thoughtful classrooms in the future. To do this, he indicates, we must reconsider questions like What is school? How should students be taught? How do we measure their learning? He specifically states that philosophy should be integrated into all subjects. The goal is for the teacher to encourage students to engage in discussions that go beyond the confines of a single discipline and look at ideas from multiple perspectives. Of course, this is what happens in the real world. Taylor also notes that these discussions can be accomplished even through on-line instruction.
For me, it was refreshing to read Think Again. At a time when teachers and administrators are so burdened by developmentally inappropriate government regulations, the book presents a method that can be used in spite of the test mania. The inappropriate interventions in our schools seem to be taking the dynamic nature out of our teaching and learning. Taylor sees philosophy as a way to revitalize the classroom experiences by asking thoughtful, well designed, broad, and linked questions in daily classes at all levels. From my many years of experience, Socrates and Taylor have it right.
Katz, L. & Chard, S. (2000). Engaging Childrens Minds: The Project Approach. Westport, CT: Praeger.