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How Teachers Succeed

by Steven M. Cahn

What are the fundamentals of pedagogic success? The essence is contained in three strategic concepts.

The first is commonly referred to as “motivation.” Without it a class stagnates. After all, how long will you watch a movie that does nothing to capture your attention? Or read a novel that begins with a situation of no interest?  The slower the start, the more difficult to generate enthusiasm. At best, the audience allows you a few minutes without much action. The same with teaching.

Consider the openings of the following two lectures, delivered in the years 1969 and 1970 as the Presidential Addresses of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.

One speaker was Wilfrid Sellars, who began as follows: “The quotation which I have taken as my text occurs in the opening paragraphs of the Paralogisms of Pure Reason in which Kant undertakes a critique of what he calls ‘Rational Psychology.’ The paragraphs are common to the two editions of the Critique of Pure Reason, and the formulations they contain may be presumed to have continued to satisfy him—at least as introductory remarks.” If your interest has not been aroused, be assured that many in the audience shared that attitude, for although the subject matter was relevant to Kant scholars, not one word that Sellars offered motivated his other listeners. What could he have done instead?

One answer is found in the address given a year earlier by Stuart Hampshire. He, too, wished to give an exposition of a text but offered a far more provocative opening: “I want to speak today about a philosophy of mind to which I will not at first assign an identity or date, except that its author could not have lived and worked before 1600. He is modern, in the sense that he thinks principally about the future applications of the physical sciences to the study of personality. As I speak, I hope that it will not at first be too easy for you to tell whether or not he is our contemporary, whether indeed he is not present in this room. I attempt this reconstruction as a way of praising a philosopher who has not, I think, been at all justly interpreted so far.”

Hampshire’s withholding the name of the author was a brilliant stroke, because members of the audience were immediately curious as to whom he was referring. As they looked around, wondering if the subject was there, they also listened carefully, treating Hampshire’s every sentence as a clue. Finally, a few minutes from his conclusion, Hampshire revealed that the author in question was Spinoza, and ended by quoting the passage from Spinoza’s Ethics that had been the unspoken focus.

Had Hampshire begun by quoting the text he intended to discuss, the philosophical substance would have been unchanged, but doing so would have been a pedagogical disaster, for few would have listened with special care. But by making his talk a puzzle, Hampshire captivated his audience, and, having been present myself, I can testify that the quiet in the hall was striking.

No one can offer a formula for developing effective motivational devices. Yet they are crucial to successful teaching.

Even with a motivated student, however, a successful teacher needs to know how to take advantage of such interest. A key element is organization, presenting material in a sequence that promotes understanding.

Imagine an experience, common in the days before cars were equipped with GPS. You’re driving through an unfamiliar town looking for the highway, and you ask directions from a passerby who responds: “It’s easy. Just turn right as you approach the supermarket, then turn left at the second light before the firehouse, then turn right at the stop sign near the post office, and you can’t miss it.” The problem is obvious: if you are a stranger and don’t know where the landmarks are, how can you know when to turn?

Every student making an effort to learn should have the opportunity to do so. That aim can be achieved, however, only if material is presented in an effective order.

Even a well-organized presentation, though, will be unsuccessful if the material is not presented with clarity.

One problem is speaking too quickly. No matter what your content, if you speak too rapidly you won’t be understood.

Another problem is using terms the audience doesn’t understand. If I remark that for a year I worked at the NEH, which has a different mission than the NEA but is not connected to the DOJ,  Washington insiders will know that I’m referring to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Department of Justice, but others will be lost. Should they know these acronyms? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, if many are unfamiliar with them, that’s reason enough not to use them without explanation.

Another reason for lack of clarity is omitting steps in reasoning. Suppose an instructor offering an example of mathematical thinking says, “Given that 17-11=3x, we all know that 2x=4.” Some students in the class are sure to be lost, because the teacher has failed to take the time to explain how the first equation proves that x=2, hence 2×2=4.

But can’t you omit what seems apparent? The question brings to my mind an incident, reported by a number of witnesses, involving W. V. O.  Quine. While his textbook on symbolic logic was widely used, he didn’t relish teaching the subject at the introductory level but was occasionally asked to do so. Once in such a course, after he wrote a proof on the board, a student raised his hand and asked impatiently, ”Why bother writing out that proof? It’s obvious.” To which Quine replied, “Young man, this entire course is obvious.” Of course, what was obvious to Quine was not always obvious to others, just as what is obvious to a teacher may not be obvious to the students.

In sum, a successful teacher provides motivation, organization, and clarity. If students aren’t motivated, don’t see how matters hang together, or are confused by the presentation, then regardless of what the teacher may believe, the quality of the instruction has fallen short.

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Recent books he authored are Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia, 25th Anniversary Edition; Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well (with Christine Vitrano); and Religion Within Reason


A version of this piece appears in the Spring 2017 issue of the Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy.

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