Get Started Teaching Philosophy

Ok, you’re teaching philosophy. You know what you want to teach. But how do you achieve your goals? The simple answer, I think, is through strategy. Practically, teaching philosophy is just like making widgets or waging war: it can be analyzed and optimized. Moreover, teaching philosophy can benefit from the basic principles of good strateg.

So, I adapted a few principles from Sun Tzu’s Art of War and B. H. Liddell Hart’s book on military Strategy to the classroom. I generally just replaced “enemy” and “war” with “students” and “teaching” respectively. Don’t get me wrong — the students are obviously not the enemy — but the resulting strategic principles have been astoundingly successful in the classroom.

  1. Know your students. This may be the most important, and the most often neglected. You can’t make progress, or learn from your mistakes, if you don’t know the precise effect of your actions. Plot grade distributions, track progress, get feedback — do whatever it takes to provide yourself with a detailed record of your successes and your failures.
  2. Adjust your means to your ends. Teach ambitiously, but always face the facts. Students may unexpectedly turn out to lack an essential skill, and class time may be cut unexpectedly short. Always be flexible, and be willing to reset your teaching goals to accomodate your means.
  3. Keep your teaching goals at the forefront, even while being flexible. There are many ways to teach a subject, which should be explored. But getting side-tracked or stuck at a dead-end may hurt your chances of achieving this goal.
  4. Surprise your students. The psychological dislocation that surprise induces is absolutely invaluable to effective teaching. Surprise simultaneously garners attention, stimulates students to think, and improves long-term memory recall after class is over.
  5. Choose the path of least resistence — as long as it still leads you to your goals. The clean and simple way to get a message across always trumps the sophisticated and complex one. (This maxim can be very difficult for philosophers.)
  6. Teach in a way that targets multiple objectives. If you fall short of achieving one, you may still achieve another, and thus still make progress towards your goals. Teach a difficult text that involves a few practical skills. Even if you don’t nail the former, at least you’ll still achieve the latter.
  7. Don’t teach an unreceptive class “head on.” On sunny Friday afternoons, there may be a barrier between you and the students. You can break this down, but not by plowing directly into the lesson plan. Circumnavigate: ask them to think through a puzzle, or discuss a funny question, or do anything that might make them more receptive. Once they’re engaged, you can more effectively draw them into the lesson.
  8. Don’t repeat a teaching tactic that has once failed. Give your tactic an all-out try — but if it doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board. It can be tempting to repeat what you just explained, but your students will benefit more from a new way of looking at the material.


Soul Physics is authored by Bryan W. Roberts. Thanks for subscribing.
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