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Disagreements about whether or not students have learned something often stem from people’s various differences in expectations of what they consider or conceptualize the phenomenon ”learned” to be. This word is past-tensed because that’s what we’re concerned about. At the end of the day, it’s what most teachers wanna know: *did* their students learn?

The answer to this question really depends on our conceptualization of ”learn.” The word ”learn” implies having known something or at least, memorized it enough to recall it upon exam or quiz time. If that’s your idea of what it means to learn something, then there are ways to measure it such as taking exams and quizzes. This is commonsense.

I like to think that education should aim at *more* than just figuring out whether or not students have learned something. Instead, we should also ask if they actually *understand* something they’re being taught. Understanding involves more than just rote memorization. Rather, it involves the *application* of said knowledge.

A word of caution: don’t assume your students already know-how to do something. If you want your students to interpret a text, you must give them the principles or tools of interpretation. I remember I was told to interpret a text once for an assignment. I did and then I got a bad grade on it because my teacher was dissatisfied with my interpretation. Granted, I was ignorant of the critical thinking tools at the time. My educational experience has been such a haze looking back. I did not know that there were various ways we can and should interpret a text.

Don’t do this to your students unless they’re not being graded on it. It’s unfair to them and can be harmful to their self-esteem and intellectual development. Instead, do what math and art teachers do: demonstrate first and then let them apply afterward. After all, demonstration is a sub-species of instruction (species of teaching). Teaching involves a kind of show-and-tell.

Wes Siscoe

Thanks for the input, Evan! I think that you’re right that, when it comes to philosophy classrooms, students often do not receive enough modeling as part of the instructional experience. Even if it seems like common sense to someone who has been reading philosophy for years, it is not common sense how to read or write philosophy, and that necessitates showing students how it’s done. The most effective instructors are often those who can empathize when their students, accurately understand the level that they are at, and then start modeling what it would look like for them to move forward in terms of reading and understanding philosophy. Thanks for the great contribution!


Wes: You’re welcome!

From personal experience, I know there is generally a big difference between teaching at a poor inner-city school and a prestigious school. I went through inner-city schools most of my life with many students who were Black and Latina/o.

My cousin, however, lived in Boston, which was 45 minutes away from where I lived. She went to Boston Latin Academy which was ranked second place (at the time) of Boston’s best high schools. Students have to take an exam to even get into it. Students there had to study Latin while reading books like The Aeneid by Virgil. They were taught how to translate and interpret Latin texts. The students there were more ”cultured” I suppose. The biggest difference between my school and hers was that our school was given more to memorize while she and her classmates were given less to memorize and more to understand. This is how it is in rich schools so we shouldn’t be surprised.

I’m not the most smartest haha. But I’ve always been a great and clear writer. That much I’m proud of at least.

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