Thinking students and student research.

Think againIn his excellent book Think Again (2012), John Taylor makes a strong case for putting philosophy at the centre of our teaching in order to develop students’ ability to think. As he says in his introduction: “Education should be all about teaching students to think for themselves” and the best way to do this, he argues, is to take a philosophical approach to all our teaching, getting students to think more deeply and independently.

The book offers practical support for teachers who want to promote philosophical discussions in the classroom including through different subjects. It also highlights the opportunities created by effective and well organised project work for students to develop their research, analytical and dialectical skills.

Project based learning

In the chapter on how to develop a project-based approach, Taylor suggests a range of ways in which student research projects can build on philosophical ideas and discussion by combining them with greater academic challenge and deeper reflection and, hopefully, the development of a soundly-based personal perspective.

Personal projects can emerge from informal settings but there are also ways of accrediting student research such as the Higher and Extended Project qualification or the Extended Essay as part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Structured philosophical discussion is a good way of building up students’ questioning and thinking and provides the stimulus for students to prepare for an independent research project on a topic of their choice.

Taylor argues that one of the benefits of a project-based approach is the opportunity for students to think more ‘deeply’; to try to uncover some of the fundamental ‘first principles’ and question received wisdom and assumptions in the area they are studying. In the context of a well-defined research project, the critical Socratic enquiry Taylor advocates as part of good classroom teaching can then lead on to some of these more profound ‘meta’ questions which require more time and further research to explore properly.

At a time of real pressure on resources, when we are expected to do more with less, can we fit such programmes into an already overcrowded curriculum? Taylor makes the point that we do need to dedicate time to actually teaching students the research, analysis and dialectical skills they need before we can expect them to move on to apply them more independently. “If we really value that outcome, we ought to be prepared to invest the resources.” If this approach is consistent throughout a young person’s education, the investment will be worthwhile and it will be enhancing rather than competing with ‘other’ educational priorities.

A project-based philosophy programme

Taylor offers a good model of what a planned programme might look like, combining both taught elements and guided student research. The aim of the taught programme is to develop students’ research methods and their skill in honing their own ideas and defending them in discussion. This is the opportunity to introduce a range of interesting case studies which can also serve as a way into specific potential project ideas for some students. His suggested case-studies include: nature and nurture, the ideal society, the limits of knowledge, justice, warfare etc. and can all be used to introduce and explore key ideas and philosophical methods.

In the personal research phase, responsibility is shifted towards the student; they can apply the skills they have acquired as they move into a more personal, albeit guided, critical relationship with the knowledge and ideas they are finding for themselves. Taylor goes on to offer advice on every aspect of project management, from defining a research question through structuring, researching, evaluating, discussing and drafting a student research project.

Being a philosophical teacher

Taylor argues that if we want our students to be philosophical learners, we need to be philosophical teachers “taking every opportunity to probe, question and challenge the things our students say, until they get the message and begin the process of examining their ideas for themselves.” It also means keeping ourselves immersed in a stream of fresh thinking – for example he recommends philosophical reading groups for teachers to help keep them intellectually refreshed.

Think Again is highly recommended for anyone who wants to develop their students’ ability to think and research more systematically. It is a thorough and accessible starting point for the journey towards becoming a ‘philosopher-teacher’ – and we certainly need more of those if we are to nurture the kind of ‘philosopher-students’ who can rise to the urgent challenges facing the next generation.

See also:

More sixth formers doing research projects (February 2016)

Valuing student research (March 2015)

Promoting a sixth form student research culture (September 2014)

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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