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

Knowing By Heart

I’m just back from a regular practice session with the Atlanta Open Band, a community contra-dance band of which I am the chief instigator and organizer. We ran later than usual because, just about the time we’d usually wrap up, I fell into teaching the band a new tune by ear.

After practice, one of the musicians said to me: “The only tunes I know by heart are the ones I learned by ear,” with the implication that she might have to re-teach herself by ear all the tunes she usually reads from the page.

Mulling that over, just now, it struck me that it might be another connection between music and ethics: I hope for my students that they might know ethics “by heart” in a sense precisely analogous to knowing a tune by heart.

To know a tune by heart is to be able to play it, and vary it, and improvise on it, and dig into the structure of it, and play counterpoint against it without having to read it off a page or follow someone else’s lead.

On the side of ethics, I was thinking particular of theory. It’s one thing to read the Categorical Imperative off a page, for example, and to memorize it in order to copy it down later; it’s something else altogether to learn to notice and respond to the autonomy and dignity of human beings by experiencing them in real time, in their concrete immediacy, in the pulsing ebb and flow of social life.

The question is how best to create an environment and to structure a set of activities that might guide students to such experiences, and to help them to understand what they are experiencing.