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Aristotle in the Active Classroom: Group Activity Success

I am a little more than one week in to teaching my ancient survey. This is my second time starting with Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I know that sounds wild, but I think Aristotle sets up principles that make it easier for students to see what the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod are doing, and he gives us a lot of vocabulary for thinking about what counts as knowledge. My theme for the course as a whole as a search for a good measure. I like to frame the beginnings of Greek thinking as the opening up of and taking seriously of the question of whether we have or need proper measures for living and knowing. I teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Protagoras after Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod and then I come back to the Nicomachean Ethics at the end. I think it works well, but I’ve been trying to find ways to get students to engage more actively with the texts earlier on in the semester, especially since the Metaphysics is hard. 

I’ve also been recently inspired by colleagues at Ball State whose workshops I attended when I gave the keynote at the Conference for Pre-College Philosophical Engagement in April. Matthew Hotham and Jen Howland both ran workshops where they had students do an active exercise in order to think through some complicated concepts. Jen set up a capitalist regime where only she owned the means of production and the rest of us had to fight with one another, organize against her, get co-opted as law enforcement and snitches — what started as just a simple claim she made at the beginning articulating the terms ballooned into an intricate representation of how capital works including how it draws on principles of competition and insecurity in the community. It was very cool. I was not able to pull something like that off in the discussion of the law of non-contradiction. What I did was more like what Matt did in his group. First he asked students to define a religion. Then he gave out packets that included a slip of paper that described a religion and asked people to decide whether it really was a religion and to think about what standards they used to make that judgment. It forced students to think about why they used the standards they did and whether they should always apply.

I did something a little bit like that. I printed out ten slips of paper with various claims from the second half of Aristotle’s Metaphysics IV. These were claims that Aristotle uses as examples to say either that the person was violating the ban on contradiction or was invoking it even if they claimed to deny the need for such a ban. For example, the first one was, say something that is meaningful to you and to someone else. Aristotle says to do this and thus to differentiate oneself from a plant is to invoke the law of non-contradiction. Another one said, to avoid tripping in the well, an action that implies that you are stating that tripping in the well is bad, not not-bad. I divided students into groups and asked them to explain how the claim on their paper either violated the ban or invoked it. We started the exercise on Wednesday when they had only read the first several chapters of IV where Aristotle sets up the need for the starting-point of theoretical knowledge and then articulates it. Then students had to read the rest of the book where Aristotle says he can’t demonstrate the truth of the claim but he can refute anyone who denies it. Students then had to reference the reading to explain how their claim would violate or invoke the ban on contradiction.

Look, understanding Aristotle’s arguments about the law of non-contradiction is hard. I was leading a text seminar at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum this summer where I spent time talking about this with graduate students and we collectively struggled through the argument (ok, some of us — not me — thought it was self-evident in a this-doesn’t-even-need-an-argument way). So I know I am asking a lot of my students to work through this argument. But I think it is important, one, because it is good practice to think through logical claims about why Aristotle thinks all thinking depends on denying contradiction and two, because it sets up Aristotle’s view that knowledge is of what is and so we cannot say or know things that are not and cannot be.

One thing I was struck by this morning is how much students got talking to one another. They had a lot to say and I had to stop them before the din in the room dropped off. Another thing was that doing this work helped them see what their questions were. After discussing, each group was asked to explain. I had made Canvas Pages slides that I put in a Canvas Module in advance with each claim, a short summary of Aristotle’s argument about that point, and the reference in the text. Afterward a student came up to me and asked if this was like the principle of explosion that he learned about in logic. I’m not a logician and I tend to resist thinking through named theories, so I told the student the truth–I didn’t know what that was. He explained it to me, including using symbols from his logic class, and I said, yes that sounds like exactly what Aristotle is concerned with. I told him Aristotle would take it further–not just that everything follows, but really that if everything follows, nothing follows. So it also worked to get students to connect the work they are doing now to what they learned in previous courses. I think it worked in part because the task wasn’t to answer some questions about Aristotle but to take some claim and explain how the Aristotle reading would explain the implications of the claim.

I think I have a couple more ideas like this up my sleeve to get students to work to develop their categories for judging and thinking through the concepts they already have, and to see the reading as a resource for a problem they have to explain. I want them to experience the work of thinking, the difficulty and satisfaction of figuring things out, and the wonder that prompts the philosophizing.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. C.W. #

    Thanks for this – it’s always good to see teaching posts in Philosophy!

    September 6, 2018
  2. This is wonderful to read. I have been tentatively trying similar methods with groups of high-school students, either in their classrooms or for those pupils that may visit university for open days and taster-sessions. Even within academic talks, the hands-on, collaborative ‘task’ has proved fruitfully disarming. Language becomes cleaner, less technical, and the point of an inquiry self-evident. I feel I am talking to people in an actual conversation with a shared goal (rather than ‘at’ people). Thanks for your inspiration; I’m sharing this post with other graduates at Oxford. – James Matharu

    September 19, 2018

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