As I mentioned here before, I’m spending this year as a postdoc researcher for the Toolbox Project toolbox_logoin the Philosophy Department at Michigan State. I’ve come up with a new, pedagogical application for the Toolbox. The basic approach of the Toolbox can be applied to just about any philosophy course, and I will do so when I (hopefully) return to the classroom next year. It should build engagement, provide an initial overview and introduction to material, creates dialogue, and allows for a new kind of assessment.

The Toolbox method is to have cross-dsiciplinary research teams banner1explore together their differing philosophical assumptions about science, so that they can then work better together as a team. Toolbox workshops begin (after a brief preamble) with participants filling out a survey with six different modules (on scientific motivation, methodology, confirmation, reality, values, and reductionism). Each modules has about 5 to 6 statements that participants rate their agreement with (such as “The principal value of research stems from the potential application of knowledge gained”). Then they engage in a facilitated dialogue based on their responses to the prompts. The facilitator lightly guides them through the modules. Finally, participants fill out the same survey again in order to (a) allow for them to reflect on the prompts one last time and (b) allow us to measure changes in their responses to the prompts.

se_rethinking_the_classroom_heroWhile the Toolbox was designed for cross-disciplinary research teams, the basic methodology can be applied in the classroom. Suppose you’re teaching Intro to Philosophy and have a section on personal identity. Students are coming into it with ideas and assumptions about personal identity, even if they don’t realize it. So before they’ve been assigned any readings, the professor can give them a short survey to complete as homework. The survey would have 5-10 prompts about personal identity. They should be about things the subsequent readings will cover. For instance, one might be “Without my brain, I’m not me.” The statements should be short and simple to understand. They can also be ambiguous, as that creates avenues for dialogue.

Then the students come to class with the completed survey in hand. If they do the survey online (which has several advantages), they have to come with a printout or screenshot of their answers. Then the professor spends the class period facilitating dialogue on the prompts. This can be done as a whole class (if not too large) or in groups of 5-10, and floating between groups. They should discuss what they answered and why. Differences with other students will emerge and can be explored.

After the dialogue class meeting, students are already engaged on the topic (having taken some ownership of ideas and positions) and have some notion of what’s coming in the readings over the next couple of weeks. Finally, after the section of personal identity is completed, students should then complete (as homework) the survey a second time. This will let them think about how their views might have changed. In fact, it might also be appropriate to assign a short paper for students to discuss how and why their views changed (or didn’t). The professor can also look over students’ answers on the follow-up survey (and compare them with the initial survey) to gain a sense of where the class as a whole is and want shifts in view were common. Such information could even be useful when thinking about how to revise one’s syllabus for the next term.

The example I sketched here is for a particular section of a course. One could use it once per term or repeat it for every section. Alternatively, one could do one survey with several modules (one for each section of the course) at the start of term and have the follow-up survey at the end of term.

Since this is a new idea and I’m away from the classroom this year during my post-doc, I haven’t tried it out. But I look forward to implementing it. When I do so, I’ll have some updates and share my surveys.