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Daniel Weltman

Agreed 100%! One of the ways this is often described in pedagogy discussions is the difference between a "growth mindset" and a "fixed mindset."

Someone with a growth mindset treats their intellectual abilities as things that they can develop through effort. Someone with a fixed mindset treats their intellectual abilities as already determined. Someone with a growth mindset can see challenges as things to be overcome and criticism as opportunities to improve. Someone with a fixed mindset can see challenges as evidence of their inability to succeed and criticism as the same.

So you can imagine why it would be important to get one's students to cultivate a growth mindset - otherwise, they will give up on hard readings and be dispirited by the comments you write on their papers. And it will be hard to help students develop a growth mindset if one believes that the correct mindset to have is a fixed mindset!


I would also add that STEM tutors are widely available compared to philosophy tutors. They can compensate for bad teaching, which also increases or maintains stable enrollment for the field. However, the drawback is that tutoring isn’t as individualized as I’d like because the the time spent and the ratio for tutors and the tutored are significantly skewed. But nevertheless, it’s a benefit that the STEM fields tend to have. Maybe universities should hire (more) philosophy tutors if they can. For example, writing centers can hire philosophy students. I find that when fellow students tend to explain things so much easier. I actually enjoyed gen. chemistry the most out of all my STEM classes. Having formulas to memorize in one or two pages made it easier to do problems.

Philosophy is different because there really is no one formula for writing essays or arguing. Philosophy requires second and even third order thinking. Getting into state of mind takes years. I try my best to provide “cheat sheets” to make *doing* better, efficient, and quicker. Perhaps one activity you can do is make a list of different kinds of claims and have students answer which kind of claim it is or identify which claims are empirical, normative, or logical claim in an article. Teaching students basic differentiation and classification skills can be helpful. In general methodological or intro to philosophy class, worksheets can be beneficial.

Just Wondering

I agree with all of this and think it's really good to note. But I've always been curious as to why philosophy focuses so much on innate talent? It's always been so prevalent in the discipline and I've always wondered why, especially given that it also seems (at least to me) obviously false.

Sam Duncan

Just Wondering,
This is an excellent question, and I have no idea what the answer is. I'm tempted to say that it's because a lot of analytic philosophers want to ape the culture of math and some of the other "hard" sciences including the nasty bits like a belief in talent and an openly abusive sort of discourse and culture (that last bit probably deserves its own post). But that won't do since for one thing there's the fact that in my experience this cult of talent or genius is hardly limited to analytic or Anglophone philosophy. Things seem to me as bad or worse in European departments and in more continental departments in the U.S. Even if that weren't the case there'd still be the sociological question of why the sciences are like this. I wonder if in philosophy a lot of this can't be traced back to the "great men" approach to philosophy. But again that's just a guess. I think this would be a really interesting topic for a sociologist to take up though.

Daniel Weltman

@Just Wondering, like Sam I have no idea and I suspect it's a result of many factors, but I wonder if one of the reasons is that as many people conceive of it, philosophy is entirely an a priori discipline, so in principle you can just sit down and write philosophy one day without having done anything. (And, some of those who may think it's not a priori still think you can do it largely through introspection, via phenomenology or something like this.) Meanwhile lots of other disciplines you at least must research things before you can do anything, so those disciplines accept that "putting in the work" is at least a partial component of success. Notice that the discipline we most naturally look to as being as talent-obsessed as us, math, is another one that some people conceive of as entirely a priori.

Another perhaps relevant factor is that I think there's some research on fixed vs. growth mindsets and variation among them depending on cultural upbringing, and philosophy is one of the least diverse disciplines in academia.


I agree with a lot that is here, and I look forward to further posts on this theme.

One thing I'll mention is the significance of communicating this idea. Some teachers do tell their students philosophy is about innate talent/brilliance/skill. That can be demoralizing for students who don't feel that they are the best among their peer group. I periodically tell my students--either individually or during a class--that I think success in classes is about working hard, and I design my courses to help develop or create skill. At least some students do find that comforting and useful.

Derek Bowman

I agree with these points, but I think it's also worth cautioning against the opposite phenomenon. If, in dropping the misplaced ideology of talent, we assume that it's all a matter of effort, then we can over-diagnose poor performance as being due to lack of effort.

I've found I have to increasingly remind myself not only of how much longer I've been doing this than my students, but also of how this mode of thinking, reading, and engagement came much more easily to me than it does to many of them.

(Of course I also have to remind myself how much of my own learning I take for granted. I can still recall the gently delivered but substantively devastating smack down I was given by Ed Halper after making fun of the absurdity of thinking that all change is illusory. 'Well Parmenides does give some arguments for that view, so you must also be able to show where those arguments go wrong.')



I’m average maybe slightly below average when it comes to math. I just know the basics. But one of the best math teachers I had was my algebra teacher in middle school. His way of teaching math and his classroom environment was highly controlled. His class was one of the most therapeutic classes I've taken. I think because he understood how anxiety-inducing math can be for many or even most students. He never allowed us to write as he demonstrated because he thought the human the brain is not supposed to multi-task. He suggested we watch his demonstration first and then copy afterwards. After his demonstration he gave us group exercises while his music played in the background. The atmosphere felt like an art class. It was very calming. I think the way he controlled the classroom environment reduced a lot of anxiety and because we get to work in groups which lessens the alienation students could feel working by themselves. If we had questions about a homework question we’d go over it briefly.


Here's an interesting question: Is teaching in itself a talent?
Can being a good teacher really be taught, or only up to a point? Perhaps you either have it or you don't?
Are some professors just better at teaching than others, e.g., more engaging, patient, charismatic, etc.? Or perhaps they just enjoy it more?

Sam Duncan

I think your point is a good one, but I don't think there's a dichotomy where we have to either assign everything to talent or effort. It's obvious that students' backgrounds are going to make a big difference in performance. For instance, students who've taken a proof focused math class are going to start with a huge leg up when it comes to formal logic. More generally students' level of preparation for college will depend a lot on what high school they went to. I've even found at my institution that there's a huge range in how required classes are taught that can make a difference. For instance, I know that some of my colleagues do a pretty serious unit on informal logic in their English comp classes while others just seem to harangue students about not using "I" and the passive voice and the supposed "fact/opinion" distinction. Obviously those lucky enough to take comp with the first sort of teacher are going to come into any philosophy class with a big head start. Students' larger situations is also going to make a difference, which I see a lot at a community college. An 18 year old living at home with no serious work or family commitments whose high school education is still fresh in their minds is going to have an easier time of it than a 40 year old who has forgotten a lot of her high school education who also has a full-time job and two kids at home. But none of these differences is due to talent. In fact, thinking in terms of talent tends to obscure these more subtle factors, which itself leads to bad teaching by not taking them into account.

I guess that some people may well start out with advantages as teachers. But it's also clear to me that most of teaching is a skill that can be learned. Now I do think there are some serious questions about how to teach that skill (it seems much more a matter of knowing how than knowing that) and graduate programs would do well to start asking those questions. But the whole obsession with talent I think prevents that since it leads to the assumption that there's no point in developing that skill.

Derek Bowman


Yes, I completely agree. I just thought it was worth warning against a form of over-correction that I've sometimes found myself at risk of falling prey to. We can recognize those other factors - indeed we can better recognize them in their particularity - without hiding them under the obfuscating term 'talent.'

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