One of my former colleagues, Jim Parry, once made a very perceptive observation about how we teach philosophy and I have been quoting it ever since. He said that we teach philosophy by osmosis. If philosophy is about reasoning well then we teach people to reason well by exposing them to good (and bad) arguments, discussing what makes them good (or bad) and hoping that our students develop the ability to produce new, good arguments and recognise bad ones from the process. Because of this there is no essential philosophy curriculum which should be shared by everyone teaching the topic. Some thinkers, some theories and some ideas tend to crop up more than others, but should one institution decide to forego the teaching of Plato for the teaching of Aristotle, or to replace a political philosophy elective with a medical ethics elective, or to have an overall focus on the philosophy of mind and epistemology to the detriment of metaethics and normative theories, there is no reason for pedagogical concerns. A good argument is a good argument no matter what form its content takes, and the skills learnt in constructing good arguments can be applied to any topic.

The best way to teach reasoning skills is to engage with the student’s thoughts directly and to do so frequently in one to one tutorials. This allows the teacher to tease out the student’s ideas, place them in the context of the literature, challenge inconsistencies, bring up objections, and guide the student through the development of a convincing argument. The worst way to teach reasoning skills is to merely present arguments in a way that makes the student a passive recipient of information, e.g. arguments are merely presented to a large, passive audience. What we want is for students to engage with the ideas, not merely listen to them. Engaging with ideas involves understanding them, criticising them, accepting or rejecting them, advancing and further shaping them, and not simply repeating or mindlessly regurgitating them. The worst method for teaching philosophy is large group lectures with no opportunity for individual feedback or engagement.

Unfortunately lectures are also the most cost effective method of teaching, while one to one tutorials are all but impossible to fund in modern academia, especially at the undergraduate level. The most popular compromise solution are small group tutorials which offer some opportunity for all students to contribute to the discussion, however, as with most teaching practices, the success or failure of this method is down to the skills of the teacher. Small group teaching is a very specialised type of teaching that requires particular teaching skills.

As an undergraduate I was taught in two-student tutorial groups. Students took it in turns to write a 3,000 word essay each week and the one hour discussion focused closely on the merits and demerits of the arguments in each essay. As a graduate student I followed a similar pattern but with even closer scrutiny of the minutiae of my work by my supervisor. Small group teaching is significantly different from this approach. In a group with 12-20 students it is impossible to concentrate so closely on one person’s train of thought. In small group teaching some students remain silent through-out the term, giving their teachers no indication of their level of interest or comprehension of the materials discussed. Small, infrequent offerings to a group discussion are the kinds of contributions most students make in such discussions and as such it is impossible to tease out, challenge and refine one person’s ideas in detail. Furthermore, group discussions can get easily derailed. A lively discussion, with everyone contributing is not necessarily a successful teaching session. Of course getting the students to make contributions to the discussion is a prerequisite to a good teaching session, but in addition the teacher must be skilled in guiding this discussion. The teacher is responsible for making the discussion purposeful, i.e. concentrated on critically examining the details of arguments.