At the 2017 APA Eastern Division Meeting held in Baltimore, Maryland, I attended a mini-conference on teaching. It had a nifty title: “The Teaching Hub.” I enjoyed it for the most part; however, two things became clear and concerning to me. First, the research/teaching divide in philosophy seems as alive as ever. The majority of graduate schools of philosophy in the U.S. still do not require their graduate students to take teaching seminars. Many philosophy departments still operate as if simply being a teaching assistant is sufficient to becoming a good teacher oneself. But of course it’s not; learning good teaching practices doesn’t come by osmosis alone. The lecturer for whom one is assisting may not be a model of stellar teaching. Also, lecturing well is not identical to running a smaller class well. At the mini-conference, a University of Chicago professor said that attendance was so low for a voluntary graduate teaching seminar he offered that the department eliminated it. He then noted that pedagogy is not that important anyway for Chicago grads. Fortunately, a professor from Harvard replied that given the job market in philosophy even Harvard Ph.D.s were not guaranteed of landing a job on research alone. To put things in perspective, the job market in philosophy is so tight that there were about 120 applications for my job at Santa Barbara City College.
Second, some recent trends in teaching philosophy seem not to fully take into account the diversity of college students, especially those in community colleges. “The Teaching Hub” offered a workshop on Team-Based Learning, or TBL for short. Here’s a short description of this teaching model:
Team-based learning (TBL) is a structured form of small-group learning that emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class. Students are organized strategically into diverse teams of 5-7 students that work together throughout the class. Before each unit or module of the course, students prepare by reading prior to class.
In the first class of the module, students participate in a “Readiness Assurance Process,” or RAP. Specifically, students complete a test individually (the “individual Readiness Assurance Test,” or iRAT); and then complete the test with their group members (the “group Readiness Assurance Test,” or gRAT). Both the individual scores and the group scores contribute to the students’ grades. The tests are typically multiple choice, and students often complete the group test using a “scratch-off” sheet and score themselves, reducing grading time and promoting student discussion of correct answers.
After the students complete the group test, the instructor encourages teams to appeal questions that they got incorrect. The appeals process encourages students to review the material, evaluate their understanding, and defend the choice they made.
On initial inspection—apart from the fact that there are far too many acronyms (!)—the TBL model sounds promising. It emphasizes team work and is very learner-centered—both wonderful things in a classroom environment. However, to be successful, TBL requires a fundamental homogeneity among students. Let me explain. Reading prior to class is required for these group tests and activities to function well. But I have students who face real difficulty with readings done on a deadline. Some are homeless, or are working multiple jobs, are single parents, disabled (intellectually and/or physically), have mental health problems, in and out of the courts, etc. Of course, when I teach I try to get students to do the required readings, and I certainly talk about the readings, but the success of any particular class cannot be dependent on all or even most of my students actually doing the reading. However, successful group work under the TBL model is dependent on such completion. Now take the “individual Reading Assurance Test.” It is timed. Some of my disabled students physically cannot take in-classes quizzes, certainly not under a time constraint. Some emotionally can’t take such quizzes. They need assistance and go to an on-campus testing center to take quizzes and exams. Those who are deaf or cannot speak also cannot fully participate in group activities. A few group activities per semester can work fine, but TBL requires group work daily. This is just not feasible and therefore undermines inclusivity in the classroom.
There is another aspect of TBL that seems problematic to me. It requires careful “criterion-based,” “strategic” selection of groups, since these groups remain fixed for the whole quarter or semester. Here’s the exact wording from http://www.teambasedlearning.org:
In forming groups, we recommend trying to do three things. One is spreading assets and liabilities (i.e., background factors that are likely to make a difference in students’ performance in this course) across the teams. Assets are often such things as attitudes toward and/or performance in previous course work, course-related life experience; liabilities often include such factors as no (or poor) preparation in related courses, language barriers, etc. … A second objective of the team formation process is to avoid pre-existing, cohesive sub-groups (e.g., a group of three students from the same fraternity and three students who did not previously know each other would probably struggle). For these two reasons, teams should not be self-selected. Third, the process you use for team formation should foster the perception that none of the teams was given a special advantage. Thus, we recommend using a very public team formation process.
I am concerned a bit about the competitive atmosphere that having fixed teams would most likely engender, but two other things seem more problematic. First, I am concerned with the recommendation that the team formation process be “very public.” Here’s my worry: in a highly diverse group of students, the only way to properly ensure fairness among teams—that is, “spreading assets and liabilities”—would be to venture into criteria that may constitute an invasion of privacy. Where are you from? Is English your native language? What other classes have you taken? Second, initiating the semester with a veritable ranking of students as to whom we judge would be better at doing philosophy than others rankles me. As an experienced teacher, I have often seen a student who has never before taken a philosophy class, or is an ESL student, do fantastically well, far exceeding many of her peers. Any kind of pre-screening seems presumptuous and borders on plain rudeness.
I would also add that it isn’t only in community college classrooms where there is serious diversity, or should I say, more diversity than an initial inspection reveals. In other words, even in the most homogeneous of classes, there is more diversity than meets the eye. TBL may sound good “on paper,” but in the classroom, I’m not so sure.