Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Instructive" Mistakes

Sometimes, and I don't think I'm the only one who does this, I present what I regard as a clearly mistaken or otherwise flawed formulation of a doctrine or argument in order to demonstrate (or allow the students to demonstrate) what is wrong with it. There are a couple of reasons. For one thing, philosophers can be very persnickety about formulating doctrines and arguments in highly specific ways, and this helps to explain why: if you formulate the doctrine in a careless manner, your doctrine (as formulated) will be susceptible to trivial or insubstantial objections that show the particular sentence to be false without touching the heart of the theory. I often do this to justify a use of a (somewhat) inelegant formulation when there is a clear alternative that is more elegant but which has silly consequences.

It can also serve as an interesting lesson in the history of ideas. If the mistaken formulation is taken from a historical source, it can help the students to get a feel for the history of an idea, and to see how the idea has evolved and changed over time, (hopefully) becoming more sophisticated and awesome.

But I have started to worry that this technique is counterproductive, because some students, once exposed to a mistaken formulation, can never be convinced to let go of it. These students walk away from the discussion thinking that (I have taught them that) principle X or theory Y or argument Z is this garbled or self-contradictory piece of garbage, when the point was supposed to be "it's not that piece of garbage, its this piece of awesome, and here's why." And so the worry is that presenting instructive mistakes is unnecessarily confusing to (some) students, which seems to me to constitute a prima facie reason not to do it.

But it also seems to me that it is unlikely that careful and conscientious students will fall victim to this kind of confusion; and that such a student might well benefit from instructive mistakes; and that if that's true then this sort of thing might make a useful diagnostic tool; and that it is not possible to remove all potential sources of confusion from a philosophy class; and that I am probably overthinking this the way I overthink everything.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

I am probably overthinking this the way I overthink everything.

Yes, but it's been very instructive.

Anonymous said...

when i used to teach, if i thought my class wasn't paying attention, i would go through a lecture with false arguments included (like, Kant is a deontologist. which means we should only care about consequences or 'descartes is an evil demon') and then tell them that some of what i said was flatly contradicted by the reading. i then challenged them to tell me what it was. and i would really not tell them until someone starting catching on.

its hard to tell if this method paid off come exam time, because the students that made the same mistakes might have just been dim anyway.

if nothing else, it is a pretty fun method, especially when you say "one of the wrong things i said in lecture will be on the test". clearly it can't be a point of minutia, but i think it was instructive.

Joshua said...

Sounds like a good method to me. But if you're worried that some students are getting stuck on the "bad" formulations, maybe you should think about how to make the distinction more clear.

For instance, you might summarize the overall discussion (just before you move on to something else), by having two columns on the board: the "bad" formulations of a view and the "good" one. Make the distinction visual. Or you might offer a handout summarizing the "WRONG" views and why they're wrong, and how they led to the "RIGHT" view (again, making the distinction visually, too).

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Fine tuning one's teaching takes some doing, and I've found that if you like something, make minor tweaks before abandoning it.

Anonymous said...

I second Joshua's recommendations. If the problem is that the student's don't remember which is the bad formulation and which is the good one, then make up a mnemonic device, color code a handout or PP slide, have a little chant handy, or something of that nature. Make it hard for them to misremember the point, rather than throwing out the very useful strategy altogether.

BunnyHugger said...

When I teach intro, I inevitably have students try to tell me on an exam that compatibilism (with regard to free will) is the idea that "some actions are determined and some are not determined." This has happened so consistently over the years that I started including it in a lecture: I say "some people think compatibilism is [this], but that is wrong." Sometimes I write the mistaken formulation on the whiteboard and then cross it out with a big red marker while reiterating that it is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Unfortunately, it has not noticeably reduced the incidence of people putting exactly that wrong thing on exams. I have expressed my astonishment over their persistence in getting this wrong to a few different people -- both philosophers and non-philosophers -- and they all told me the same thing: education theory says you are not supposed to tell people something wrong in order to explain that it is wrong, because they will remember it later but not remember that it is wrong. I have trouble buying that; they were doing it before I "put the idea in their heads" and my discussion of it doesn't seem to have made it any worse. It also hasn't made it any better.

This is one of those things that makes me want to bang my head against a wall.

zombie said...

I have encountered this when trying to explain fallacies. I can't tell you how many times student come away thinking that philosophers intentionally use fallacious arguments. I explicitly tell them: "this is a mistake. Descartes did not mean to make a mistake here..." or some such. But it persists. They also seem to get very confused by the use of analogies. Mostly this shows, I suspect, that they are really just not paying attention.