From the Archive: A Bizarrely Inexplicable Post

A mention of the work of Douglas Adams in The New York Times, this morning, has prompted me to go back to the archives of my earlier blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, for a post from December 20, 2011.

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As long as I am acknowledging my intellectual debts, I should pay tribute to a writer who had an early, deep, and not entirely explicable influence on my outlook on the world: Douglas Adams.

Yes, it does seem strange to be writing this. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not exactly part of the canon of essential philosophical treatises.

It’s very funny, of course, and has tremendous appeal to people of a certain culture who went through adolescence in the 1980s, but is it really worthy of serious tribute from someone who claims to be a serious philosopher?

Well, that’s part of the point, of course.
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The Aims of Education

My approach to teaching could be described as “outcome-based education,” given the emphasis of my courses on helping students to develop particular skills of moral cognition.

For me, this narrower, short-term aim has always been tied to a broader vision of the humanities, or of liberal education, or of human life in the world. It has taken be by surprise, then, that on several occasions colleagues have asked something like the following critical questions:

In focusing so much on skills and measurable outcomes, are you not selling out to the corporate model of higher education as mere job-training? Are you not betraying the spirit of liberal education by capitulating to the increasingly corporate or consumerist approach to higher education, which reduces the whole enterprise to the provision of “credentials”?

This is a fair question, one made perhaps more urgent by the fact that the vast majority of my students are professionals-in-training, and much of what I do, particularly in engineering education, is to prepare them to work well and responsibly in their professional roles.

My first reply to the question of whether I am betraying the liberal arts is simply, “I hope not!”  I think I can do better though, in that I can draw a distinction between outcomes-based education of the kind I am developing from the job-skills-training model that seems more and more prevalent in higher education today.

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Being on the Same Side

I use a rubric in assessing my students work, set out in tabular form: each row is one of the criteria from the learning outcomes, while the columns indicated degree of mastery, with stronger performance on the left.

When a student comes to see me about an assignment, usually concerned about the final grade – GPA rules all! – I immediately turn to the rubric and discuss specific ways they can improve their performance on the assignment.

Talking to one student, this semester just past, I said, “My goal is to get everyone to move to the left.”

I was taken aback when the student asked, in reply, “My left or yours?”

Beat.

“We’re on the same side, looking at it the same way,” I replied.

After a moment’s silence, the student said, in wonder, “I’ve never heard a professor say that before.”

It makes me wonder what my colleagues are doing in their own classes, or what students think we are doing, that it never occurred to this particular student that an instructor could be on the same side, with the same goals.

It makes me wonder how many of my colleagues, and how many of my students, think of education instead as an adversarial process?

What can we do to tear down that wall?

Design Flaws

As I’ve noted before, I adopted a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to my practical ethics classes in Fall 2012: after a summer of planning and preparation, I jumped in to the deep end with two courses structured entirely around groups working on messy, practical problems.

(I’m looking back over my history with PBL in preparation both for a paper I’m writing about it and for a workshop I’ll be conducting later this month.)

By the midpoint of the term, I recognized a serious structural flaw in my design, one that threatened to undermine all learning in my classroom: the two “practical exams” that made up much of each student’s final grade were given equal weight in the gradebook.

I should not have been surprised that students struggled so much with the first exam, but it became clear enough that they were still far from mastering the basics of ethical inquiry. In short, scores on the first exam were quite low, across the board.

Student despair and panic over their already-beleaguered GPAs is not altogether conducive to student engagement and cognitive development.

So, I introduced my first mid-course correction. Continue reading

Starting Again

In the hurly-burly of an academic term, I have been neglecting this blog. It’s been so long, in fact, that coming back to it seems like starting over rather than picking up where I left off.

The Spring term has just ended, and I have one week to prepare myself for Summer term: I’ll be teaching the same classes again, though with some further tweaks to the design.

One of my most important discoveries of the past few months has been the vital importance of scaffolding in problem-based learning. One of my tasks for this week, then, is to prepare the pieces for the scaffolding I’ll provide my students this summer including, if you can believe it, worksheets of various kinds.

And even, if you are not overwhelmed with incredulity, spreadsheets!

More on that, as it develops.

Integrity Test

I take ‘integrity’ to mean a kind of wholeness or consistency of character: someone with integrity can be counted on to behave with the same kind of self-control or courage or respect or honesty or fairness in any circumstances, even if no one is looking.

An old test of integrity is the Ring of Gyges, from Plato’s Republic: a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible, which enables him to get away with all sorts of bad behavior. In the story, it could be said the shepherd lacked integrity: he was one person in one circumstance but, as soon as those circumstances changed, his behavior changed abruptly.

The challenge of the Ring of Gyges is this: If you had the ring, would you follow the shepherds example and become someone else when you cannot be seen? Or would you remain constant in whatever degree of virtue you happen to have?

It occurred to me this morning that it might be possible to develop a new integrity test that might appeal to the current generation of students.

You are posting anonymously to an online discussion, and you disagree strongly with a comment someone else has posted. You quickly type another comment in reply. Before you click on the button to post it, consider: All else being equal, would you post the same comment under your own name?

If there are things you would post anonymously – insults and threats, for example – that you would be ashamed to have connected with you by name, does this suggest a division or inconsistency in your character?

I say “all else being equal” because I understand that there are many circumstances in which people have good reason to post anonymously – when there’s a power imbalance, for example.

As I write this, I have some doubts about the usefulness of this test. It may introduce too many extraneous factors.

How about it, though? Could this be a useful way of getting at the idea of integrity? Is the analogy with the Ring of Gyges – the possibility of getting away with conduct one would never consider under other circumstances – sufficiently strong?

I’d be interested in a discussion of the idea.

Systems Imagination in Environmental Ethics

My current approach to teaching environmental ethics puts a heavy emphasis on awareness of systems, as I’ve noted before, more than once.

I’ll post something tomorrow about the scaffolding I’ve started to develop to help students in my current section of the course, but in the mean time I’d like to note one of the motivations for putting less emphasis on the profusion of ethical frameworks that characterizes the field of academic environmental ethics.

I have for some time now been dabbling in education assessment, working with colleagues to conduct quasi-experimental studies using quantitative instruments, some already established (like the DIT-2), some we developed ourselves.

I was, for various reasons, not terribly satisfied with the results from those instruments, so I attempted a smaller, qualitative study of my own, focused on a single section of environmental ethics and without a control group.

This small study resulted in an article published in Teaching Philosophy in 2008, titled “Teaching for Moral Imagination.” Continue reading

Thinking about Virtue: A Bit of Scaffolding

I have been reading back in some literature on problem-based learning (PBL), and related matters, in preparation for writing a paper on my ongoing course-design process. Along the way, I made a discovery – or a re-discovery – that was immediately and urgently useful in the classes I’m teaching this semester.

One of the basic ideas behind PBL is that teaching and learning can be modeled as a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins 1987, Newstetter 2005). The challenge of course design is to create a learning environment in which students, working on their own but with guidance, develop a particular set of cognitive capacities.

Part of the knack of course design is to make a realistic assessment of how far students will be able to go in this development within the limits of a semester; another part of it is providing just those kinds of support students need to go that far.

(I could get into some of the theory behind this, some of which is derived from Vygotsky’s work on human cognition, especially his notion of the “zone of proximal development” . . . but I’ll leave that deeper dive for another time.)

What I want to get at in this post is the idea of scaffolding, an artificial structure provided to students that can allow them to operate at a higher cognitive level than they could otherwise reach. The hope and the aim is for students to be less dependent on the scaffolding as they go, until they can work at that higher level on their own.

The key, and the thing I was missing, is that scaffolding can and should have a physical component to it, or at least a spatial and even tactile way of arranging cognitive elements that directs the students to make distinctions and connections among those elements. Continue reading

Darwinian Humanism

In honor of Darwin Day 2015, I would like to revisit an odd paper I had published in Environmental Values in 2007, titled “Darwinian Humanism: A Proposal for Environmental Ethics“. I would here like to offer a few – I hope tantalizing – excerpts from my final typescript.

In hindsight, it was an odd and audacious paper, but one the right of which helped me to sort out my thinking about some basic distinctions in ethical theory.

According to the abstract:

There are two distinct strands within modern philosophical ethics that are relevant to environmental philosophy: an empiricist strand that seeks a naturalist account of human conduct and a humanist strand rooted in a conception of transcendent human freedom. Each strand has its appeal, but each also raises both strategic and theoretical problems for environmental philosophers. Based on a reading of Kantʼs critical solution to the antinomy of freedom and nature, I recommend that environmental philosophers consider the possibility of a Darwinian humanism, through which moral agents are understood as both free and causally intertwined with the natural world.

Along the way, I devote some attention to Darwin’s treatment of “the moral sense,” especially in The Descent of Man. Here’s an extended excerpt: Continue reading