About Josh Eyler

After receiving my Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Connecticut in 2006, I moved to a position in the English department at Columbus State University in Georgia. Although I was approved for tenure at CSU, my love for teaching and my desire to work with instructors from many different disciplines led me to the field of faculty development and to George Mason University, where I served as an Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence from 2011-2013. In August of 2013, I moved to Rice University to take a position as Director of its Center for Teaching Excellence. My eclectic research interests include brain-based learning theories, Chaucer, and disability studies.

Lessons from a Toy: New (to me) Research on Pedagogy and Cognition

Now that the summer has brought with it the slowing-down that is the hallmark of the academic calendar at this time of year, I have found some time to work on my book that explores the ways in which understanding the biological basis of learning* can benefit those of us who teach in the Humanities (the book proposal can be found here).  As I was doing some research the other day, I came across a fascinating article from 2011.

In it, a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists from UC Berkeley, the University of Louisville, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard report on an experiment they conducted with 85 children between the ages of 4 and 6.  The children were divided into four groups, with each group experiencing a different experimental condition.  Each condition involved the use of a specially designed toy.  In the first group,

the experimenter said, “Look at my toy! This is my toy. I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” The experimenter then pulled the yellow tube out from the purple tube to produce the squeak sound. She said, “Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!” and demonstrated the same action again. (325)

In the second group, the experimenter began the same way but interrupted herself before the second, reinforcing demonstration of the squeaking function and left to attend to other matters.  For the third group, the experimenter appeared to suddenly discover the toy, wondered aloud about how the toy worked, and “accidentally” discovered the squeaking.  The reinforcement demonstration was completed in this condition.  Finally, in the fourth group, the experimenter simply showed the toy to the children and walked away.  As the researchers note, “In all conditions, the experimenter then said, ‘Wow, isn’t that cool?  I’m going to let you play and see if you can figure out how this toy works.  Let me know when you’re done!'”

Can you guess where we’re headed here?

The first group–the one where the children were intentionally instructed as to the function of the toy–played with the toy for less time and did less with the toy than all of the other groups.  They explored less and tried out fewer possibilities.  The results, in fact were not only statistically significant but impressively so (326).**

The researchers suggest that direct instruction, while valuable for conveying specific information, had a negative effect on the desire to find out new information.  Part of this may have to do with the cues given by teachers that point out significant information.  As proponents of natural pedagogy point out, though, this response may also be evolutionary.  Human beings, that is, may be hard-wired to process information from teacher figures in ways that are the most advantageous for accomplishing essential tasks.

I was drawn to this article because I think it has implications for higher education.  Although our brains change and mature dramatically as we age, the mechanisms by which we learn do not necessarily shift as much as we might think.

Certainly, these findings would add to the recent (and not so recent) mounting evidence on the ineffectiveness of lecturing straight through from the beginning to the end of class.  But might it not also suggest that presenting only one possible side to or perspective on an issue, even in discussion-based courses, contributes to shutting down our students’ innate curiosity and desire to research a question further?

In the end, higher ed’s lesson from the toy might be this:  relying too heavily on direct instruction may be good for teaching to the test but not for our students’ learning overall.


*Many thanks to Christina Petersen who, in a recent email exchange, convinced me that “biological basis of learning” is much more appropriate and accurate than “brain-based learning,” which is the more common nomenclature.

**There was a second part to the experiment, too, that involved the ways in which the children processed instruction directly from adults, indirectly from adults, and from children that would make for another post entirely.


Saying Goodbye to Medieval Studies (for now, at least)

Every May I attend the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.  It is both a chance to engage with the field that captured my mind and my heart almost 15 years ago, and also (even more importantly) to reconnect with some very dear friends of mine.  This year’s conference will be a bit different for me, though, as it marks–at least for the foreseeable future–an ending point to my career as a medievalist.

Three forces have converged to lead me to this ultimately inevitable realization:

1. Quite simply, my research interests are changing.  I do have two books under contract, but neither of them has to do with the Middle Ages.  One focuses on the scholarship of teaching and learning and the other on disability in the Oz narratives.  When I have time to write, I tend toward my interests in pedagogy and in children’s literature now.  This is certainly not a bad thing, but it definitely marks a new direction for me as a scholar.

2.  Logistically speaking, my opportunities to teach medieval courses are very limited.  I do facilitate graduate seminars on teaching, and I also teach in Rice’s wonderful Program in Writing and Communication, but a course on medieval literature will be rare to say the least.  I miss teaching Chaucer above all else, as I have seen many students utterly transformed by their study of the poet.

3.  As a full-time administrator, I have not been able to find the time to keep sharp the kinds of skills you need to be a successful medievalist: language study, paleography, etc. When it comes to staying current on the latest research in journals and books, I again have found myself doing so with the teaching and learning literature, but less so with medieval scholarship.  This, more than anything else, has been a signal to me.

When I moved from my faculty position into administration, I knew that there was potential for some of this to happen.  What I didn’t expect was how much my research interests would shift and–quite frankly–how hard it would be to find ways to teach medieval courses.

So, what now? I will still attend Kalamazoo every year.  In addition to seeing those aforementioned friends, I still wish to organize and moderate panels for the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages.  It is important to me to see this small field thrive and to give a platform for scholars who are asking important questions about the subject.  I won’t be producing new research in the area, though.  That is a somewhat bittersweet acknowledgment, but an important one nonetheless.

I am extraordinarily proud of the work done by my students in the medieval courses I have taught over the years (especially those at Columbus State University in Georgia), and I am grateful for the time that I spent deeply embedded in this field if for no other reason than it allowed me to meet some of the most important people in my life.  It’s time now, though, to see where these new paths are going to lead me.  I may someday return to my medieval work, but I’m just not sure.  I’ll always keep a weather eye on what’s happening in Medieval Studies in order to celebrate the great work of all those who devote themselves so completely to this wonderful field.

Before I end this post, I want to say one more thing:  medievalists often get a bad rap as being intellectually myopic or solitary scholars or even out of touch with other disciplines.  I have rarely ever found any of these to be true.  For me, the spirit of Medieval Studies will always be embodied by the time I spent as a graduate student in the Charles A. Owen, Jr. library at the University of Connecticut learning and laughing with Frank Napolitano, Andy Pfrenger, John Sexton, and Kisha Tracy. We shared our work, hashed out our ideas, and–through this field–grew as scholars, teachers, and individuals.  I can’t think of anything that better captures the generous spirit of Medieval Studies and those who work within it.


Cooking, Teaching, and Gratitude

As it is the holiday season, I have been reflecting on all the things for which I am thankful.  Of course my family and friends are at the top of the list, but–in terms of this blog–I have been thinking about those people, both inside and outside academia, who have taught me something about what it means to be an educator.   It’s true:  not all models for outstanding teaching are found in universities and schools.  There is much to be learned from other professions about good teaching as well.  For example, I have mentioned more than once on this blog the debt I owe to coaches I had during my time as an athlete.  Also, I once learned a very important lesson about empathy and about multiple approaches to learning when I worked at a plastic factory during the summer before my junior year in college.

In this brief post, though, I want to  highlight someone who has been an important influence on my own pedagogy:  my cousin, Andy Little–the rock star chef of Josephine in the 12 South neighborhood of Nashville.

Cooking and teaching might, on the surface, seem like different pursuits.  Not for Andy.  He sees a meal as an educational experience, where anyone who eats his food can learn about what it means to have respect for ingredients, how food is as much about a sense of place as it is about taste, and why cultivating relationships with farmers and other providers is so essential.  In a sense, each dish that comes out of his kitchen is a small interdisciplinary seminar on food and society.

Andy has done a bit of teaching in his own right and freely shares his knowledge with experts and novices alike.  Like all good teachers, Andy believes in the importance of reflection.  It was his love of the notebook that finally convinced me to get my own and start writing down my ideas for teaching and research.  He is also a staunch advocate for critical thinking.  Perhaps most significantly, he believes that perfecting the art of simplicity is the height of creativity.  There are lots of things we can try in our classroom, but I think what Andy has taught me is that we need to get the simplest acts of teaching right before we should try to incorporate more bells and whistles.

It is worth noting that Andy’s parents were both teachers, so he may have picked up a few tips of the trade along the way.  I’ve looked up to him for a long time, both for the person he is and the professional he has become, and I am grateful to him for what he has shown me about successful teaching.

Tips for Writing the Teaching Philosophy

The beginning of the academic job market is in full swing, and I wish all of you who are in the process of putting together applications nothing but the absolute best of luck.  Remember to focus on what you can control:  the strength of your application materials.  I have often told the graduate students with whom I have worked that wondering (and worrying) about how, when, or why search committees make their decisions is akin to stressing about whether or not a piece of space debris will fall out of the sky and damage your car.  That is, you have absolutely no control over much of the process beyond the strength of materials you send out in response to an ad.  There is a bit more agency in the interview stages of the process, but–even then–it is impossible to predict how search committees will respond.

In the spirit of helping with those materials, I have written about the job market before.  In the past I have even offered to review any application materials from graduate students across the country *for free* (an offer that still stands to this day).  Today, though, I thought I might offer a few tips for writing the omnipresent “Statement of Teaching Philosophy,” the very title for which sounds as if you need to compose some sort of ethereal magnum opus about pedagogy, which could not be further from the truth.

I originally wrote the following tips during my time working at George Mason’s CTFE, so they are also linked to the website for that office:

What is a Teaching Philosophy?

A teaching philosophy is less lofty than the name implies.  It is, quite simply, a document that describes what your goals and values are as a college teacher and what you have done in the classroom to implement these and to foster student learning.  Teaching philosophies can be two pages long (but never three).

Why Would You Write a Teaching Philosophy?

  • For the academic job market.
  • For a teaching portfolio (awards, grants, fellowships, etc.).
  • For your own professional development.
  • For the benefit of your students.


  • Illustrate who you are as a teacher as concretely as possible.
  • Use actual examples of classroom practice.
  • Show an awareness of different pedagogies.

Do Not…

  • Use jargon.
  • Rely too heavily on sentimentality.
  • Begin or end with a quote.
  • Ramble or go on tangents

Keep These Over-Simplified Maxims in Mind When Writing a Teaching Philosophy:

  • Be specific.
  • Be memorable (in a good way).
  • Be concise.

To this list, I would now add:  Include a title that cleverly captures the essence of the document.  Why?  Your number one goal here is to make sure that the search committee reads this finely-crafted piece into which you have poured countless hours of work.  The problem is that search committees are seeing hundreds of applications, all of which include a teaching philosophy that simply says “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” (or something similar) at the top.  After a while, these all start to blend together (if search committees are still reading) which is *not a good thing*.  Having a title can make yours stand out from the crowd, which–in turn–can help to ensure that it gets read.  Once they have read it, make it stick with them by following some of the guidelines above.

I cannot stress enough that the most important element of the teaching philosophy is the specific detail about your actual classroom practice and course design.  For example, what is one of your most effective assignments?  Why has it been so successful? This is the kind of detail that can help the committee get a picture of who you are as a teacher even though they have not physically met you yet.  When the committee gathers around the table, you want at least one person to be able to say, “Oh yes, that’s Jane P. Awesome-Candidate, who did that really cool thing in her Introduction to Literature class.”

Ultimately, as I was recently discussing with my friend Jim Donahue, I wish committees requested teaching philosophies later in the process so that they might be more effective.  In any case, I hope I have shown that writing one needn’t be either scary or frustrating.  Good luck to all!

The Ghost of Mr. Keating

I.  The semester is just beginning at universities all across the country.  As classes open and faculty development programs launch, a familiar specter from the hallowed halls of popular culture begins to lurk:  the ghost of John Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society.  But it’s not so much the character itself who does the haunting (although the idea of a frenetic Williams running back and forth is a bit terrifying) as much as it is the idea of what the character represents.  Mr. Keating has become a symbol for the inspiring teacher who changes students’ lives, who makes their lives mean more by having taught them.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but in the process of becoming more of a representative abstraction the image of Keating has had an impact on our perceptions of teaching.

II.  True Story #1:  I have wanted to teach since I was 5 years old.  My sister tells a funny story about how I tried to teach her to read when she had reached the advanced age of 3 by giving her one of my Hardy Boys books and a dictionary, telling her that she should look up any words she didn’t know.  We didn’t get very far.  So it was that my first foray in fostering experiential learning ended in a dismal failure.  Undaunted, though, I continued to pursue my goal of teaching.

True Story #2:  I was 12 when I saw Dead Poets Society, and it struck me in a profound way.  For the first time, I had a framework into which I could place my desire to be a teacher and a language I could use to speak about it.  I wanted to inspire students, I would tell people.  Inspiration became my goal, and it was a dominant lens through which I viewed teaching.

True Story #3:  I went to graduate school at the University of Connecticut.  Shortly after I began my program, I met Sam Pickering, one of the faculty members in the English department.  Sam, it turns out, had once taught in a private school in Nashville, and–although he only worked at the school for one year–his teaching greatly influenced a student named Tom Schulman, who would go on to write the screenplay for Dead Poets Society.  Schulman has credited Sam with being the model for Mr. Keating.

III.  Given all of this background and my current position as a director of a center for teaching and learning, you might think that I would be a Keating evangelist, spreading the word about inspiration wherever I go, right?  Definitely not.  I freely, and unabashedly, admit that the film stoked my desires to be a teacher in unquantifiable ways, and I will always be very grateful for that.  But as an instructor myself and as someone who works with faculty and graduate students who do the hard work of teaching in their classroom, labs, and offices, I recognize the difficulties posed by the ghost of Mr. Keating.  The potential danger of the Keating figure is that teaching comes to be viewed by students, faculty, parents, and society as something that is about inspiring students rather than helping them to learn.  This, of course, is a misguided notion about what happens in the classroom, and it can set an impossible standard for teachers to live up to.  In the face of the pressure to change lives, it can become all too easy to feel incompetent, and teaching is hard enough without questioning ourselves at every turn.

Inspiration is wonderful; in fact, I have been inspired by many teachers (both past and present), and many people I know have been inspired by teachers they have had.  The trouble is that inspiration cannot be planned, nor can a conscious effort to inspire guarantee that it will happen.  Students can be inspired by any manner of things that happen in a classroom, both profound and mundane, but inspiration is always highly individualized.

I am not willing to throw inspiration out the window entirely, though.  Instead, I have a compromise.  We should focus all of our efforts on constructing courses, curricula, and environments that foster transformational learning experiences, where students learn deeply through authentic assignments.  If we pair this pedagogical approach with empathy, then we are demonstrating respect for students and an understanding that we are teaching human beings, all of whom are on their own journeys through learning and life.  If we emphasize these elements, then inspiration may occur.  Even if it does not, we have privileged something that may last longer:  learning.

William Pannapacker, writing as Thomas H. Benton, describes the enduring hold (and–to his mind–the damage) the Keating mythos has had on the English majors he advises who wish to go to graduate school in “Goodbye, Mr. Keating.”  Here is where I diverge from Pannapacker, though.  I think it’s great if students are inspired to be teachers and/or academics by Dead Poets Society.  We just need to make sure that they go into the field with their eyes open and that this inspiration is eventually complemented by a rigorous study of teaching techniques.

In the end, I am aware that this is a lot of weight to place on a fictional character.  There are other Keatings out there in popular culture (I’m sure you are already making a mental list of them), so I don’t really mean to single him out as much as what he represents.  I think it would be even better if, ultimately, we looked to those teachers on our own campuses who are doing outstanding work in their classrooms every single day as our models.  If inspiration is anywhere, I’m pretty sure it’s there.

Update: New Position at Rice University

Just a short post to announce that I have officially accepted a new position as Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University.  It is a very exciting opportunity, and I will begin on August 1st.  I’m sad to leave my Mason colleagues and students, but I’m eager to take on this new role.

Academic Friendships

Academic friendships, by which I mean friendships or acquaintances that begin through a shared involvement in academia, are an underrated resource for developing as teachers.  The recent International Congress on Medieval Studies that I attended in Kalamazoo, Michigan really brought this idea to the forefront for me.  In addition to hearing some fantastic new scholarship on medieval literature, the really great thing about this conference (which I attend every year) is the chance to see some of my best friends in the world, most of whom I met in graduate school.  This year, I was truly struck by how much I have learned from them about teaching and how their advice and suggestions sustain me as a teacher.

From John Sexton and Kisha Tracy, who blog regularly at MASSMedieval, I have discovered a host of activities to try in my literature classes–everything from innovative uses of wikis to debates over the death of Chaucer.  More than this, though, John and Kisha both cultivate an ethos as teachers that I strive to emulate.  They care deeply for the intellectual advancement of their students, for the creation of new knowledge, and for continually and meaningfully reevaluating their approaches.  This last point is particularly important.

Andy Pfrenger long ago showed me the value of reflecting on the syllabi and writing assignments we create for our students.  I have rarely come across a more thoughtful teacher than Andy.  His students are very fortunate, as am I.

I wrote a post a few months ago about empathy, which may never have been written if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with Frank Napolitano. It’s as simple as that.

Cameron Hunt McNabb is a pedagogical tour de force, a veritable whirlwind of creative energy, and she designs some of the most innovative assignments I have ever seen.  She has really challenged me to rethink any preconceptions I may have had about the kinds of work we want to see from our students.  Cameron reinforces much of what we know from the research about “backwards design”:  start with student learning goals and design everything else in order to achieve those goals.

Jim Donahue is the first person I met in graduate school who was so passionate about teaching that he could go into near apoplexy when he would hear people question the value of higher education.  That sort of commitment to an ideal is admirable.

Bethany Usher, too, is a model for what a teacher should be.  If the future of higher education was built by teachers like her, it would be a bright one indeed.

Recently, though, I have also been learning a great deal from my professional network on Twitter.  Lee Skallerup BessetteBrian Croxall, James Lang, Sean Michael Morris, Valeria Souza, Pete RorabaughJesse Stommel, and Robin Wharton* have all consistently helped me think about teaching in new ways, even though I have never met them in person.   Of those in that network whom I *have* met, Jeffrey Jerome CohenMartin Foys, Jonathan Hsy, Mark Sample, and Elaine Treharne have all been excellent resources for exciting teaching ideas.

I suppose what I’m trying to say through this brief post, besides “thank you,” is that this profession can sometimes be difficult, and it can be easy to feel as if we are working in isolation.  It is at these moments that our academic friendships can buoy us and give us just the insight we need to bolster our teaching.

*Update: I did recently meet Robin Wharton, actually, at the ICMS. I include her in this first list because she is such an influential part of the Hybrid Pedagogy team, which I regularly consult on Twitter.

Teaching with Twitter; or, Adventures in Student Engagement

If you had told me three years ago that I would someday not only be using Twitter in my classes, but that I would also be writing a blog post on what an incredible experience it’s been, I probably would have told you a thousand reasons why that couldn’t possibly be true.  I wasn’t very adept with technology, I didn’t have the time, students probably wouldn’t be into it, etc.  The list would have gone on, I’m sure.

Yet here I am.

This is my second year of incorporating the social media platform in my classes, and doing so has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as a teacher.  Why?  The level of student engagement in these classes is the highest I’ve ever seen, and–as a result–students have been performing exceptionally well.

There are lots of ways to use Twitter in the classroom.  Some, like my Mason colleague Mark Sample (who will–sadly for us, happily for him–be moving to Davidson College after this semester), utilize Twitter for individual assignments like live-tweeting a film.  Others use Twitter over the course of the semester for the purposes of student engagement.  I have done both, but I have used Twitter mostly to further students’ discussion of the texts we are studying in class.

I began the process of integrating Twitter into my classes last spring when I taught a general education Western Literature class, and I’ve continued to use it this semester in English 320: Literature of the Middle Ages.  Here is the section of my syllabus where I talk about Twitter:

The social media site Twitter has been gaining tremendous currency in the academic world as an instrument for sharing information, commenting on issues related to higher education, addressing issues in one’s particular field, etc.  As such, it has achieved acclaim for its use as a pedagogical tool to extend the work of the classroom.  We are going to use Twitter in this course as a complement to our other activities and to augment the analytical work of the class.  Beyond its relevance to the coursework, though, you are encouraged to explore the site as to its possibilities for professional networking for yourselves.  Certainly follow me (@joshua_r_eyler) and the other members of the class, but also follow leaders in your field.  Make connections!

Although we will sometimes use Twitter in the classroom, the bulk of your Twitter activity will take place outside of class.  You will be required to tweet a minimum of five times per week.  The only guidelines for tweets are:  1) they must have something to do with the class (i.e. a response to the reading, a link to a related article, a question, etc.); 2) they must be substantive; and 3) they must be respectful.  In addition to reading your tweets on a regular basis, I will be using an online archiving tool to keep track of Twitter activity.

You must use the hashtag #LitMA320 in your tweets so that they register as being a part of our class discussion.  Any tweets that do not incorporate this hashtag will not be counted, because the website will not record their activity.

I will hold a Twitter tutorial on the second day of class to answer any questions you might have.

This Twitter activity will be graded on a pass/fail basis.  If you tweet the requisite number of times (5 tweets per week X 15 weeks = 75 total tweets), then you will receive an A for this assignment.  If not, you will receive an F.

The students have really embraced this assignment in ways I never could have predicted.  It’s turned out to be both an extension of class discussions, which is what I originally envisioned, and a place to explore medieval literature, culture, and society in ways that we might never have broached in the classroom.  For example, students tweeted a lot about the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in an English car park.  This led to a vibrant discussion in the next class, which probably would have never occurred had the tweets not piqued the students’ interests.  Please check out our hashtag, #LitMA320, if you would like to see more of the discussion that has unfolded over the course of the semester.

I also incorporated a more specific Twitter activity during our study of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.  In lieu of a more traditional discussion, I asked students to do this:

1.  Describe your overall interpretation of the Knight’s Tale.  You can use up to 3 tweets for this, but no more.  Concision is the key here!  If you want to connect information from one tweet to the next, use the + sign at the end of a tweet.

2.  In no more than 5 tweets, discuss the evidence (including line numbers) you would use to justify this interpretation.

3.  Use an additional 5 tweets to comment on other colleagues’ arguments.

Note:  Be sure to use our #LitMA320 hashtag on all of your tweets.  The hashtag will also help you to locate the work of your colleagues.

Students had a lot of fun with this, and the results were phenomenal!  I was so impressed with the sophistication of their insights.

In short, it’s fair to say I’m a definite convert.  I plan to use Twitter in all my classes (including graduate student professional development seminars), and I hope to try new approaches to assignments as well.  I have discovered just how powerful the platform can be as a learning tool, and–as a teacher–that’s more important than anything else.

Teaching Student Athletes

I had an interesting conversation on Twitter last week with @Abigail_Scheg and wanted to write a short post as a kind of follow-up.  Dr. Scheg was at the Conference on College Composition and Communication and was attending a panel on student athletes.  One of her posts in the backchannel of this panel said this:  “Speaker 2: Student athletes are not just ‘basic writers’.”  Although I was not at the conference, I was following the Twitterfeed, and I immediately responded by saying, “Indeed. Athletes are just like any other group of students. So many variables here too: size of school, division, etc.”  Our conversation went on briefly for a bit, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts here.

As a former athlete, this is a hot-button issue for me.  Too often, athletes can be lumped together as one all-encompassing (and usually, the popular opinion goes, low-performing) group.  Nothing could be further from the truth, especially because there are so many differences in programs, schools, sports, etc.  Even on my own Division III wrestling team, we had good students, mediocre students, and not-as-good students, and this was at a college that certainly privileged academics more than athletics.  To assume, then, that athletes are a monolithic group that all approach learning in the same way is as fallacious as assuming that about any group of students.

It may be true that athletes learn differently from other students, but all students learn differently, so that could also be an easy red herring.  One possibility for effectively teaching athletes, though, is to use their vast domain knowledge (sports) to help them understand difficult course concepts.  I have taught many athletes in my career and used analogies and situations from their own sports to help them with course material.  I once taught a basketball player, for example, in a composition class.  He was having a difficult time with the logic of his argument and the organization of his paper.  After several attempts using traditional methods, I framed the question in terms of designing plays that would be successful on the court.  It didn’t work right away, but the student did start to see how he could use the parameters of logic he accesses every day in practice and apply it to his writing.

This is one example from my own experience, and I would love to hear how others approach teaching athletes.  In general, though, I will say that domain knowledge may be an untapped resource for working with these students



Beyond Critical Thinking: Helping Students to Become Ethical Thinkers

Critical thinking–everyone knows students need to know how to do it, yet everyone defines it differently.  It gets mentioned as an outcome for higher education with amazing frequency, but there is very little in the way of consensus as to what it looks like or how to embed it in our pedagogy.

Many books and articles have been written about critical thinking, so you would think that we could pin a few things down regarding its meaning.  Do critical thinkers understand how to negotiate multiple points of view and to construct a response using evidence?  Yes.  Do critical thinkers, as Stephen Brookfield suggests in Teaching for Critical Thinking (2011), question their assumptions regularly?  Yes.  Can critical thinkers create a variety of hypotheses to explain a phenomenon and then analyze the validity of each?  Yes.*  Is critical thinking all of this and more?  There is no doubt about it.

The result of this multiplicity of meanings is that critical thinking, as a concept, has become so watered down and overly generalized that it is not very effective as a metric to gauge our students’ learning.  Perhaps, then, it is time to ask a new question:  WHY do we want students to develop critical thinking skills?  We, of course, want them to live happy, healthy, productive lives, and applying critical thinking skills to their personal decisions should aid in this pursuit.  But isn’t part of the answer that we also want them, in their professional lives, to make ethical decisions in their interactions with other human beings, global resources, the economy, etc.?

Because Mason’s new president, Ángel Cabrera, has devoted much of his career to being a leader in developing programs focused on responsible management education, we have been talking a lot about ethics here.  I think it is very important that we connect this discussion to our pedagogy.  I would like to see us shift our focus from teaching critical thinking to cultivating ethical thinkers.

Here is my formula for how that could happen:  Teaching ethical reasoning skills (which would involve much of what we commonly consider “critical thinking,” but is a more specific application of those skills) + acquiring global awareness + engaging with diverse groups + developing empathy = Cultivating ethical thinkers and actors.

Let’s take the last three parts of the formula first.  I’m not exactly sure how empathy is learned (I’m definitely not an expert in psychology), but attaining global awareness and engaging with diversity of all kinds–either in the classroom or in co-curricular activities or both–can certainly help students to think outside themselves and to endeavor to see things from other perspectives.  These kinds of experiences can also teach them about worldwide injustice and intolerance and non-western frames of reference, both of which can aid in the development of an empathic worldview and an ethical habit of mind.  General education programs at many universities already require classes focused on global issues, multicultural education, and/or diverse perspectives, so there are mechanisms in place to build a solid foundation for ethical thinkers.

The ethics piece of the puzzle is a bit trickier to implement.  Certainly some majors already have ethics courses on the books:  business majors, nursing majors, and–perhaps–some science majors are the most common.  But what about majors that do not feature these kinds of courses?  How do we ensure that ethical issues are being taught across the curriculum?

I have two suggestions. 1) Philosophy is, in many respects, the disciplinary home to ethics courses, so we could bring the philosophy departments at our university into general education more intentionally.  My experience has been that it is often the “Intro. to Philosophy” course that serves to fill general education requirements rather than courses that deal overtly and substantially with ethics.  Let’s add ethics courses to the mix then.  This is something that is definitely achievable, and I have a hunch that philosophy departments will not argue about the increase in enrollment.

2) The Humanities and the Arts, more generally, have much to contribute if our goal is to help students develop ethical habits of mind.  Every time students read about Odysseus choosing between Skylla and Charybdis in an English or classics course; every time a history class studies Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the atomic bomb; and every time art students are confronted with the case of Damien Hirst, who once killed 9,000 butterflies in the course of making work for an exhibition, they are engaging in the ethical reasoning process.  They have to work through a wide variety of issues, gather evidence, and make arguments using an ethical frame of reference.

These are only a few examples, of course, but I think that if we can move the conversation away from the vague platitudes of critical thinking to the more specific realm of ethical thinking, then we can create at least one pathway forward for higher education that would benefit both our students and the world around us.

*In fact, my Mason colleague Gheorge Tecuci has designed a computer program to help students develop this skill.