Philosophical teaching will get students thinking for themselves again
Teachers need to stop teaching to the test and adopt a more philosophical teaching style across the curriculum, argues John Taylor
Education would be more successful, and more enjoyable, if less time was spent teaching to the test and more time was spent teaching students to think for themselves. I’m not alone in believing this. In a recent Cambridge Assessment Research Survey, 87% of lecturers said that too much teaching to the test is a major factor contributing to students being under-prepared for degree-level study.
With such widespread agreement about this, you would think that the issue of how assessment pressure is distorting teaching would be at the centre of the debate about A-level reform. Instead, the discussion so far has focused on assessment structure (modular versus linear) and standards (bringing in HE to restore rigour and counter ‘grade inflation’).
But if real teaching has given way to a process of training students to jump through assessment hoops, HE concerns aren’t going to be met simply by reducing the number of hoops, or by lifting them higher. We need to think again about the culture of teaching.
As an antidote to teaching to the test, I recommend a philosophical approach. This means teaching students to be critical, reflective enquirers. It is all about putting in their hands the tools they need to find answers for themselves, and stimulating them to begin thinking more deeply and critically about ideas and arguments.
For philosophical teachers, the role model is Socrates, for whom education was nothing less than an examination of life itself. Socrates taught in a non-dogmatic fashion, subjecting the ideas of his students to rigorous, critical questioning. The goal of this process was two-fold: to show them that they didn’t know what they thought they did and to goad them into critically examining their ideas for themselves.
Of course, critical examination of fundamental precepts doesn’t always win you friends. In Socrates’ case, a philosophical approach to teaching resulted in execution for the crimes of corrupting the youth and failing to teach the gods of the state. Socrates was put to death for being an unsatisfactory RE teacher.
Thankfully, for those of us who believe in the essential importance of the Socratic method of critical dialogue, we live in more tolerant times. Yet critical thinking still has its critics. Nowadays, the problems faced by Socratic teachers derive from the assumption that the teacher’s main task is to fill students’ heads with the information they ‘need to know’ for examination success.
But there is a false antithesis here. Teaching students to think for themselves isn’t an alternative to preparing them for tests. It’s actually a good way of equipping them to face the demands of their examinations. In most exams, marks are available for the student who can impress an examiner with an answer which shows real depth of understanding. The best way of preparing students to produce answers like this is to teach them to think well.
How do we do this? Philosophical thinking is best introduced through discussion with students. This doesn’t mean adding another subject to an already crowded curriculum. Philosophical conversations can happen as part of normal lessons in more or less any subject. Try asking ‘What is the self?’ in an English lesson on Hamlet, ‘Can you complete an infinite series of tasks?’ in a maths lesson on irrational numbers or ‘Can an empty room be a work of art?’ in an art lesson. You will find that philosophy is a powerful stimulant. Just as a chemical catalyst can work even in small quantities, so you don’t need a great deal of philosophical discussion to spark off the process of independent enquiry.
To turn the spark into a steadily burning flame of academic commitment, I like to invite students to develop their ideas through project work. For teaching and assessing students’ capacities for independent research, critical thinking and deeper understanding, continuous assessment of project work beats assessment by terminal examination hands down.
Project-based learning is currently expanding in schools thanks to the rapid growth of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). An Ofqual/Ipsos MORI research report has praised the EPQ for developing many of the academic skills identified as desirable by academics. It seems “quietly to be doing rather well” in reliably assessing the development of higher-order cognitive skills and deep subject knowledge, in the words of Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS.
This is promising for those of us who think that the best thing we can do for our students is to teach them to think for themselves. The question now is whether a philosophical approach will become a useful additional element alongside mainstream education, or whether it will become essential to what we think of as good teaching in all subject areas.
John Taylor is head of philosophy and director of critical skills at Rugby School and the author of Think Again: A Philosophical Approach to Teaching. He is a chief examiner for the Extended Project Qualification and a visiting fellow of the Institute of Education. You can follow him on Twitter @drjohnltaylor.