Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Teaching Like Aristotle, Part One


I count myself as an amateur enthusiast of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, which makes me fun to hang around with at parties.  This particular interest of mine began when I took a course in Aristotle's thought as an undergraduate philosophy major, and I have since returned to his work at various points over the course of my life for reflection and guidance.  In the wake of the recent presidential election, amidst the swirling storm of negative emotions and overheated arguments that flew around my social media accounts, I took refuge in his work once more, and re-read both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.  


Image result for aristotleThis was my first sustained re-reading of these works since I began writing books about teaching and learning almost a decade ago.  As a result, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the ways in which Aristotle's philosophy can provide us with some insightful reminders about how we can best help students learn, now almost 2400 years after it was first presented to his students.  It adds an interesting layer of complexity to this enterprise when we note that all of Aristotle's works come to us essentially in the form of rough drafts or notes from his students; although he was apparently a prolific writer on almost every subject imaginable, from biology to metaphysics, none of his finished works have survived.

The concluding section of the Politics actually directly addresses education, but I found that material less compelling than three more general principles of his thinking which strike me as still relevant for our pedagogical conversations today.

1) Learning from frequent practice. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle addressed the question of how people become virtuous or vicious.  He was responding in part to arguments from Plato, and to more general theories about the source of human ethics.  He argues, for example, against at least two different theories: that people are born virtuous or vicious, or that one can be a virtuous person while still doing occasionally vicious things.  Instead, he suggests, virtues develop in us slowly and gradually as we make the conscious decision to perform virtuous acts:

"We . . . take on the virtues by first being at work in them, just as also in other things, namely the arts; the things that one who has learned them needs to do, we learn by doing; and people become, say, housebuilders by building houses or harpists by playing the harp. So too, we become just by doing things that are just, temperate by doing things that are temperate, and courageous by doing things that are courageous."

In other words, a person who performs courageous actions gradually becomes a courageous person, and his slowly developing courageous character makes each new act of courage easier and more likely for him.  Later commentators on Aristotle’s work have referred to this as the virtuous cycle: the more we perform virtuous acts, the easier it becomes to perform virtuous acts.  Our actions develop our character, and our character then gives birth to our actions.

This sounds to me a whole like what we know today about the virtue of frequent practice for learning.  If we want students to learn how to think like philosophers, we can't stand at the front of the room and philosophize for them. We have to create the context in which they can practice thinking like philosophers. The same holds true for any cognitive skill we want students to develop. Would Aristotle have been an advocate for the flipped classroom?  Perhaps he might not have gone that far, but he certainly represents an early advocate for the modern principle that we "learn by doing."

2) Listening to our learners.  Aristotle's Ethics begins with the argument that human beings are meant for happiness, and so sets out to inquire what makes us happy.  But instead of simply trying to logic this out from first principles, he recounts what people say about the subject.  This happens over and over again in both the Ethics and the Politics. Aristotle always begins his inquiries by considering what people have had to say about the subject in the past, and he searches for bits of truth and good ideas in these surveys of popular opinion.  In Book One of the Ethics, for example, he concludes an overview of different theories of happiness with this sentence:

"Some of these things are said by many people and from ancient times, others by a few well-reputed men, and it is reasonable that neither of these groups would be wholly mistaken, and that they would be right in some one point at least or even in most of them."

It seems likely to me that, in his actual lectures, Aristotle solicited these opinions from his students, in some form of a dialogue or discussion, but we can't know that for sure.  In any case, Aristotle reminds us that we can view the knowledge that students bring into our classes as harmful and mistaken, ready for our correcting--or we can view it as the starting point for our inquires together.  When we view the prior knowledge of our students in this light, the classroom becomes a community of learners working together to increase all of our understanding, rather than a forum in which one person imparts knowledge to the many.

In the Politics Aristotle refers explicitly to the idea of a community of learners, and the power of their collective knowledge, with the metaphor of a banquet: "And as a feast to which all the guests contribute is better than a banquet furnished by a single man, so a multitude is a better judge of many things than an individual."

One of the most important principles I have learned from the literature of teaching and learning in higher education has been to listen to what learners bring into our classrooms.  Rather than simply starting a new lesson by offering students a box of content, we should take a few minutes to address the fact that our students always bring folk theories about our subject matter into the room, and that their prior knowledge can provide us with building blocks for what we want them to learn.

3) Remembering context.  Over and over again, in both the Ethics and the Politics, Aristotle reminds us that general principles always fail to account for the particulars.  General principles must be put into practice in specific contexts, and those contexts require further reflection, modification, or even rejection of the general principle.  He addresses this specifically with respect to education in the final book of the Ethics:

"And further, educations tailored to teach person are better than those that are given in common, just as in the case of medical treatment, for in general rest and fasting are beneficial for someone with a fever, but perhaps not for some particular person, and a boxing instructor probably does not impose the same way of fighting on all people."

Most of us don't have the time to tailor an individual education to every student we encounter, but this principle should remind us of two important things.  First, the general principles that helped us (i.e., faculty members) learn might not work with our students.  Just because we learned best from reading and listening to lectures (as I did, and I loved it), that does not mean that all students learn best from those methods. So we have to continue to reflect on our methods, and vary them in order to ensure that we are providing educations that make sense with the particular contexts of our students, and not the students we used to be.

Second, educational research that works in one context might not work in every other context. If you spend enough time reading and analyzing the literature on teaching and learning in higher education, you will eventually realize that no magic solution of any kind exists for student learning.  The particular contexts of our individual classrooms contain so many confounding elements for any one teaching technique, however well-researched, that we have to remain continuously reflective about our practice, and continuously alive to the possibility of change.  That can be frustrating, but it can also be intellectually stimulating, and keep us thinking and evolving through a whole teaching career.

Next month, in the second half of this mini-series on Teaching Like Aristotle, I'll consider the implications of his arguments about pleasure and happiness for the higher education classroom.

Note: all quotations from the Ethics come from this edition, translated by Joe Sachs; quotations from the Politics from this edition, translated by Richard McKeon.