Notes on Pedagogy for Instructors

I teach most of my lessons “backwards.”  Rather than explain a concept or fallacy then illustrate it with examples, I give a set of examples first and ask my students to figure out the common problem underlying all of them. Once they think they’ve figured out the common problem, they have to create their own instance of an argument that contains or corrects the same error.

For example, suppose I’m teaching the fallacy of composition. I’ll put the following arguments up on the overhead:

A:  Everything in the universe has a cause, therefore the universe also must have a cause.
–William Paley’s Teleological Argument
B:  If everyone pursues their own best interest, societies best interests will also be served.
C:  Since everyone cares about their own individual happiness, they will also care about the aggregate happiness of society.
–J.S. Mill in Utilitarianism
D:  This dinner is going to taste delicious:  Every ingredient it’s made from is delicious.
–My mom.
E:  Every person in the class was born to a mother therefore this class was born to a mother.
F:  He/She’s got every quality I like in a person. I’m sure we’ll get along.

In groups they have to identify the common feature that causes each argument to fail. Obviously, they don’t need to know the name of the fallacy, only how to explain what the problem is. Since recognizing a problem only requires a mostly superficial understanding of its structure, each group also has to create their own example of an argument that contains the same error. If they can do this, then I know they really understand the concept or structure we’re studying.

Figuring out the exact common problem with a set of arguments or claims is difficult and for this reason I use a lot of group work. Usually I put the class into teams of 3-5 and put the team names on the board. When a team thinks they’ve figured out the common problem and have created their own example they put their hands up. I go over to see if they got it. The first 3 teams to correctly identify the common error and create their own example get a point. I don’t wait for every team to figure it out because of time constraints.

Once three teams have figured out the answer, I ask them to explain their answer to the rest of the class and give their own original examples. After their explanation, I’ll put the name and definition up on the overhead. At the end of the class, the top 3 teams get a nominal prize. I find that offering a bonus point on their next exam does wonders for their motivation.

The underlying reason for my teaching method is that when students (or humans generally) have to puzzle through a problem on their own, they’ll remember the knowledge that comes from the solution. When the solution is merely handed to them (as in a traditional lecture), it’s gone from their heads in 30 seconds.

At the heart of my method is the belief that critical thinking is a skill not a set of beliefs to be memorized. Acquiring any skill requires practice, and trial and error. You cannot become a musician or basketball player by merely by reading about it. The same goes for critical thinking. To acquire and gain competence in any skill one must practice, make mistakes, have them corrected, and practice some more!

For this reason it will also be important to either post answers to the HW and/or go over at least some of the questions in class. If students’ errors are never corrected, they cannot improve. To quote Neil Adams (judo gold-medalist), “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

The homework assignments follow a similar structure to the ‘lectures.’ The first set of problems focus on mere recognition of particular errors or concepts. The second set requires students to employ the concept themselves and create their own instances or at least explain why a particular argument fails. The last section of the homework requires students to apply the concept from that lesson to a complex (and usually contentious) political, social, or scientific problem.

These last questions don’t have any obvious ‘right’ answers and are designed to challenge the students, broaden their understanding of these problems, as well as set up a brief discussion for the next next class. The last question could also be assigned in-class within the context of group work.