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[PT] Guest Post: Going through the motions with the best intentions

March 2, 2011

This is a guest pseudoteaching post from my friend and incredible Religion, Ethics and History teacher Terence Gilheany about how PT can crop up in the middle of discussions in humanities classes.

Some of my students did not learn any Applied Ethics last Thursday. It was the third meeting in our unit on reproductive ethics, and for each meeting we had read a different ethicist’s argument. For this meeting we had examined a “classic” defense of first-trimester abortion. The students energetically discussed the ideas, exploring the author’s position. Students challenged other students’ claims, beginning sentences with, “Well, but couldn’t one reply that…” I felt like students were learning. An observer seeing only that class would likely have believed that students were learning. I suspect that many students thought they were learning.

Why then do I, upon reflection, believe I pseudotaught? Three background factors might help you identify the mistake I made. First, months ago we had investigated animal rights, and in doing so we had read a defense of the idea of a sliding scale of self-awareness. While we had had this conversation primarily in animal context, the central claim of that previous reading was the same as last Thursday’s author. Our discussion had even referred to cognitively limited humans and human cognitive development generally. Second, most of my students default to a utilitarian perspective sympathetic to the views of both these authors. Third, most are curious and politically aware enough that they will have discussed the question of abortion before in moderately rigorous bull sessions.

Given these conditions, you can probably guess why the discussion I facilitated in Applied Ethics now strikes me as pseudoteaching. My students acted out an ethical discussion, rather than truly engaging in ethical reasoning and reflection. Student A subconsciously thought, “Ah, when faced with this subject I say X.” Then Student B subconsciously thought, “Ah, the standard reply to X is Y.” We had already had a more complex version of this same conversation. Also, my students are familiar enough with these debates, and shared the author’s position closely enough, that they were not really questioning their own or others’ positions. They were, with the best of intentions, going through the motions.

Now this does not mean, as previous writers in this series on pseudoteaching have noted, that in fact no students learned anything. As Professor Allain notes, “I can do something that could be both pseudoteaching and facilitating learning.” Some of my students might have needed the practice of constructing these arguments again. If, however, my intention was for them to practice having a conversation we had had previously, I should have been aware of that myself, and designed the unit more intentionally to develop precisely those skills.

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