The trouble with Kate (my 22 year old Literacy Project subject) was that she just didn’t understand; she didn’t seem to get it. She had amazing reading skills for someone who’d supposedly struggled academically, and she’d quickly acquired and demonstrated her proficiency with the tools of Philosophy. In any normal set of circumstance you’d point to that and say “look, she’s literate!”, but she wasn’t, and it took me longer than it should have to figure out why.
Kate was like that classical violinist who was trying to jam around the campfire at a folk festival: technically able, but lacking an understanding of why everyone else was there, what they valued, and what they might be trying to achieve. Without such an understanding, the violinist sounded strange. I thought Kate sounded strange when she used Logical Argument Mapping and Symbolic Logic to deconstruct an argument quite skilfully, and yet entirely miss what I saw as the point of the excersize.
My journey to understanding why Kate might sound so strange to me began with an inquiry into exactly what Philosophical literacy might constitute.
At the start of my univerity’s Discipinary Literacy unit I’d confidently exclaimed that “Of course teaching literacy wasn’t a distraction from my core disciplinary business”. I’d scoffed at all those other students who might be thinking that their specialised subject area was just a body of knowledge accessible to anyone with a grade-six level of reading. Subjects, like secret clubs, had special sets of words and special ways of doing and thinking about things that were specific to them; those words and skills didn’t just come naturally to everyone. I knew that. I thought I knew that that was the grand revelation that my Disciplinary Literacy unit was meant to coax us into having… and I was already there! This was going to be a breeze.
Philosophical literacy to me, at this point, was a twofold beast 1) a familiarity with the lexicon, and 2) the technical skills required to utilise logic to analyse arguments and solve problems. If you threw those two ingredients together, BAM, you’d have a Philosopher. After all, unlike Maths or History, Philosophy deals with the types of issues and problems that people run into every day, they are inherently interesting problems that demand to be answered.
To Kate, though, Philosophy’s questions didn’t demand an answer; Philosophy talked about reason, emotion, knowledge, the self, ethics, art, value, language and existence in the abstract, it was the plaything of those who could afford to be idle for long enough to care about whether or not the individual was constructed or discrete and, unlike Philosophers, Kate lived in the real world where there were real problems that demanded real solutions; sitting around navel gazing wasn’t going solve any of them.
I could sympathise with Kate. Kierkegaard, for example, warns us of the danger of getting lost in thought, and I agree with him, but he also distinguishes between laziness and idleness; admitting that the latter is a luxury, but imploring those of us who are lucky enough to be able to enjoy it to use it constructively to reflect on our own values, motivations and the world around us. This process of reflection can then inform our actions, the concious choice of which he sees as the highest possible expression of truth… But that’s just Kierkegaard.
Many philosophers express an awareness of their position of privelage in terms of their level of education and ability to use their free time to think. The thing that go me was, it wasn’t like Kate didn’t have those priveleges! She wasn’t living in a war-zone (or even working two jobs) and she had a university-level education, so I could assume she had 1) enough time to be idle, and 2) at least some decent thinking skills; surely she realised that it was equally as dangerous to act without reflecting as it was to get lost in reflecting and forget to act? I really couldn’t get my head around why she didn’t understand the criticality of examining the validity of the premises upon which one’s own reasons for acting might be based, but at this stage it didn’t seem to me like that had anything to do with her literacy.
Nonetheless, her lack of understanding bothered me, enough to force me to go back over my learning in the Disciplanry Literacy unit to see if I’d missed anything. My mind kept returning to an anecdote recounted in the key text for that (the content of which I won’t go into here, but which you can find in the third chapter of Cris Tovani’s excellent “Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?”).
Reflecting on that anecdote caused me to realise that I’d conceived of literacy within a discipline erroneously. It was clear to me now that literacy must be more than a lexicon and a set of skills. To be fully literate, I now understood, required one to inhabit a certain similar perspective to those with whom you were sharing the discipline. Just like that classical violinist trying to jam at the folk-festival, even when you’re capable of playing all the right notes, you’re never really going to be able to communicate effectively with everyone within a given circle unless you get why it is that they’re there, and what it is that the experience is meant to be.
Hopefully getting philosophy isn’t as difficult as getting folk music for most people, and the drive to philosophise (which I still believe is no more complex than the drive to wonder) is as close to universal as the drive to sing (regardless of genre), but conceiving of Philosophy like a musical subculture helped me to understand why Kate might be having problems interpreting texts in the same way that I was.
In the same Disciplinary Literacy unit I’ve been referring to, during an otherwise educative but not currently noteworthy lecture, a student whose name I can’t recall piped up in response to an activity asking us to recount a passage we’d read only moments earlier. It became clear to us all through that activity that most people’s recollection of texts wasn’t perfect, but this student offered a great insight into why that might be.
“As I understand it, when we read texts, we process the words, and they stay in our immediate memories like that for a very short period – only long enough for us to create meaning from the words, after which they disappear, and all we have left to remember is what the words meant”
I’d already known before this lecture that readers constructed their own texts, but it had been a knowledge I’d held merely academically that was now mechanical. It literally felt like the moment I first properly understood how a car engine works (rather than just knowing that run by “internal combustion”). It brought home to me how concrete the process of contruction of meaning through reading was and, coupled with my revelation that disciplinary-literacy must include inhabiting a certain perspective, helped me to understand why Kate might not be deriving the same meaning from texts as I was; she just wasn’t reading them the same.
It wasn’t long after I’d discovered these ‘truths’ about literacy before I came across another fantastic analogy of how the process might work that both agreed with and augmented my new understanding.
"We are the inheritors…of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of the centuries. It is a conversation that goes on both in public and within each of ourselves… Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives [us] place and character” (Emphasis added)
Michael Oakeshott, in his essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”, from which the above quote is taken, speaks of a conversation that spans all of human history, but I think it’s possible to conceive of similar conversations taking place at the level of distinct academic disciplines. Oakeshott asserts that the cogency of the arguments within his conversation have no sway on its direction, and in the case of Philosophy I hope this isn’t true, but in general I still believe there is value in adopting his analogy.
If Philosophical literacy is analogous to being able to engage in a conversation, then my job as a teacher of Philosophy and modler of its literacy, must be to guide students like Kate into the conversation before we can start really talking in earnest about the enduring and contemporary problems upon which it’s centred. that means, as well as scaffolding them to be able to talk like and use the same tools as the other people involved in the conversation, I need to provide them with context, to tell them (or assist them to discover) why the conversation is happening, why it is important, and what its parameters are.
Keeping that in mind will certainly influence my future praxis and allow me to better structure sequences of work, as I’ve attempted to do below:
Lesson 1: What is Philosophy and Why Should I Care?
Speech to students:
I know you’ve probably come here today expecting to read or be read to a lot. Philosophy, like the rest of the humanities, has a reputation for requiring a lot of reading, but today I’m not going to ask you to read anything.
What I’d like you to do is spend five minutes writing down what you think the five most important things in life are, and why you think they’re so important.
I’m going to do the same, and then we’re going to spend some time talking about those lists.
The aim of our conversation is going to be simple: to find the real and indisputable top five things about life (I know you’re all smart, so this shouldn’t be hard).
That’s it - that’s all we’re going to do today, apart from me telling you all a very short story at the end of the lesson (it might be one you’ve heard before).
I hope that by the time you leave today you’ll able to understand three things that are essential to interacting with the world like a Philosopher:
1. Interrogating what you think you know, what you value and what you believe is a really productive exercise; even if it’s difficult and sometimes uncomfortable it will make you a better and more self-aware person.
2. Reason is essential to interrogating and defending beliefs, knowledge and values, and
3. Even though we might challenge each other’s beliefs and contentions in Philosophy, we never make it personal; that is, we attack arguments not people, and we don’t take it personally when someone criticises our own arguments or beliefs.
Really, those three points encapsulate most of what Philosophy is about; it’s about examining our fundamental beliefs, values and what we think of as knowledge, and then testing their validity in a civilised environment using logical argument, to try to find the best answer to the hardest to answer and most important questions of life.
You might look at this activity we call Philosophy and think it seems pointless, that it contributes nothing to your life, but hopefully the story I’m going to tell you at the end of the lesson will change your mind.
During the lesson I will ensure that we take turns sharing our ideas and that criticism of ideas is made in a civilised way. I will also ask some pointed Socratic questions when and where important learning opportunities present themselves, and will speak up where points made by other students require re-enforcement or reflection. Other than that, I hope to have minimal input.
At the end of the lesson, I will tell students the story of how Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth, of how he chose to die rather than flee or argue for a reduction of his sentence (rather arguing that he should be released and given a salary by the state for continuing to interrogate the citizens of Athens about their beliefs), of how he asserted that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing at all, and how he boldly proclaimed in his last speech to the parliament, just before his death, that the unexamined life was not worth living.
It is a powerful story and a logical entry point to the conversation of Philosophy in the Western tradition.
Lesson 2: Logic
Speech to students:
As we observed in the last session, whenever we try to convince people of our point of view or criticise theirs we use argument in one form or another, and the most productive way of mounting convincing arguments is to use logic.
Today we’ll be looking at some basic rules of logic and types of argument that people often use, some of which are logical, and some of which turn out to be not very logical at all. Hopefully as I point these arguments out you’ll start to draw connections between the structure of these arguments and the structure of arguments that you hear everyday.
Being able to recognise good and bad arguments will not only help you to make better arguments for yourself, but to avoid being taken advantage of by people who might try to win you over with what we call sophistry (this happens more than you might think, by the way, through the media, advertising, in the workplace and maybe even within your group of friends).
Once I’ve provided enough examples of arguments that are logically sound and unsound, and have given you some language you can use to label these arguments, we’ll go through some more as a class and try to figure out whether they’re sound or unsound and why that is.
I’ve only provided a sketch of two lessons here, and in reality the content I’ve attempted to cover within them might not be so quickly dealt with in a classroom environment. Together, though, I think they provide a logical entry point to Philosophy and a grounding in its literacy.
I think it’s important to note that both lessons are conducted within a collaborative environment, an element of the sessions with Kate that was sorely lacking, and would have helped her to examine her perspectives more critically (as Newcomb et. al.'s seminal research reveals).
In future lessons I would like to move from a collaborative team environment to a Community of Inquiry, as is recommended by the Philosophy for Children theorist John Lipman.
If we return to Oakeshott’s description of literacy as being the ability to be involved in a conversation, then, in tandem with the theories about learning as social process that are advanced by social constructivists, it makes sense to allow students to attempt to navigate and continue on the conversation of Philosophy in their own way, prompting questions and finding answers for themselves, with only occasional support from me as their teacher.
As a purely incidental addendum, I think it is interesting to note that the lessons I’ve designed, above, would fit nicely within a program of work delivered within the ACT College System under the BSSS Curriculum for Theory of Knowledge.
In particular they agree with, and have been influenced by, the conceptions of Philosophical literacy within that document. For example, when that document describes Philosophy as a way of thinking that explores the nature and communication of knowledge and related concepts, it agrees with the outline of what philosophy constitues that I have provided in my first lesson (and which, if we accept the premise that literacy within a discipline includes being able to perceive from a certain persepctive, offers a succinct description of what that perspective might look like).
The BSSS curriculum goes on to describe Philosophy as an activity that promotes critical thought, insight and analytic depth, the seeds of which,in terms of literacy, I’ve attempted to sow in my second lesson.
Most interestingly though, I believe an understanding an consideration of the BSSS Theory of Knowledge curriculum for graduates of its units is woven through my plans and we are essentially aiming toward our students beinf able to demonstrate the same abilities/literacies, namely that they can use logic to examine enduring universal and individual dilemmas, reflect critically on truth claims, and their own and others’ world views, and develop clarity in thinking and an openness to new ideas. These outcomes, taken together, are the real hallmarks of a philosophically literate individual.
Oakeshott, M. (1962). The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind. In: Rationalism in politics and other essays. London: Methuen.
Newcomb, TM., Wilson, EK. (1966). College peer groups: problems and prospects for research (Chicago: Aldine, 1966). Chicago: Aldine
ACT Board of Senior Secondary Studies, The. (2013). Theory of Knowledge Curriculum.
This psychological theory asserts that learning manifests itself in behaviour (either changed or reinforced behaviour) and behaviour can be conditioned through a system of punishments and rewards. Desired behaviours can be encouraged through rewards; undesired behaviours can be suppressed through punishments. Behaviourism is one of the oldest teaching methods. It is typified by rote learning, drill and-practice skill acquisition, and a punishment-and-reward system of learning. It is commonly practiced in primary schools and, to a lesser extent, secondary education. Current assessment practice, in all sectors, exhibits a behaviouralist approach –rewarding success (with a “pass”) and punishing failure (by withholding certification). Behaviourism cares little about the mental processes that take place within the learner, who is considered a black box. Conversely, the teacher plays a central role, being “master” with responsibility for “training” the learner. In the behaviourist model, learning takes place in a highly controlled environment, through drill-and-practice techniques. It manifests itself through changed behaviours such as the acquisition of new practical abilities or mental skills. E-Pedagogy: Does e-learning require a new pedagogy?
Cognitive learning theories view learning as a process of understanding and internalising facts and concepts about the world around us. In the cognitivist model, knowledge and understanding are represented by discrete mental states; unique synaptic combinations that represent specific knowledge and understanding. Cognitivism takes a data processing approach to learning, with the learner being seen as a computer who inputs, processes and outputs information. Cognitivism relies on both teacher and learner. The teacher provides content and leads learning (i.e. the creation of specific mental models); the learner is responsible for internalising the material presented by the teacher. In the cognitivist model, learning takes place when the “correct” materials are available to the learner, and the teacher directs the learning. Cognitivism recognises the individual differences between learners, each having their own pre-conceived ideas and preferred learning styles. But knowledge remains essentially pre-determined, with the role of the teacher being to transfer knowledge through a series of learning activities.
According to this theory, knowledge is entirely subjective, uniquely constructed by each learner through a combination of their existing knowledge and beliefs, and new stimuli. Knowledge is actively constructed by learners through a mental process of development through which learners build (“construct”) meaning and knowledge. Meaning is derived from current knowledge and beliefs, and is individually constructed. Piaget’s (1977) notions of assimilation and accommodation describe how learning takes place. Assimilation refers to the integration of perceptions into existing mental models; accommodation involves the alteration of mental models to explain perceptions that would otherwise not be understood. Piaget asserts that learning occurs by active construction of meaning, rather than by passive acceptance. He explains that when we, as learners, encounter an experience or a situation that conflicts with our current way of thinking, a state of disequilibrium is created. We must then alter our thinking to restore equilibrium or balance. To do this, we make sense of the new information by associating it with what we already know, that is, by attempting to assimilate it into our existing knowledge. When we are unable to do this, a state that psychologists call cognitive dissonance, we accommodate the new information to our old way of thinking by restructuring our present knowledge to a higher level of thinking.
Whenever students are involved with issues they regard as vital concerns, good teaching is going on. In good schools, problems aren’t viewed as occasions to impose more rules and tighter management from above [they] are transformed into the very stuff of the curriculum. Schooling is living, not preparation for living, and living is a constant messing with problems that seem to resist solution. - Martin Haberman