Learning by teaching

Student work can illuminate teaching, writes Diana Senechal, who presents three students’ philosophy papers on Gotham Schools. She teaches at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, a selective public school in New York City partnered with Columbia University. In the school’s Philosophy for Thinking program, “ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy.”

She asked students to write about an ethical dilemma in their own lives or in a work of literature. A 10th-grade boy began:

While I was about to start this assignment, I spent about twenty minutes stressing over the fact that I couldn’t think of anything that made me question ethics. I complained to my mother that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I then asked her whether I should ask Professor Senechal whether I could make it up. Mom raised her eyebrow. “Is that ethical?” she asked.

He turned his dilemma about the assignment into the topic of the assignment, Senechal writes. He went on to analyze philosophical positions on lying, such as “Kant’s argument that any lying results in loss of dignity; utilitarian arguments that lying may be acceptable if it is used to a good end” and more.

He concludes that he is somewhere between Kant and utilitarians. Implicit in the discussion is his decision, for this particular occasion, not to lie.

“Real-life applications of philosophy need not be shallow, if the philosophical thought is strong,” Senechal decided.

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