Teaching a new course requires metacognition

by John Draeger, SUNY Buffalo State

One of the joys of being an academic philosopher is the freedom to explore new ideas. For example, the recent retirement of a colleague left a gap in my department’s usual offerings. I agreed to take over a course on the philosophy of love and sex. While I have written scholarly articles on related topics, I confess that teaching this new material had me feeling the sort of constructive discomfort that I seek to foster in my students (Draeger 2014). As a result, I experienced a heightened sense of awareness concerning what I was doing and why. In particular, I came to believe that teaching a new course requires metacognition.

As I sat down to construct the course, I was guided by the thought that philosophy can help students learn to have careful conversations about ideas that matter. With respect to this new course, I wanted students to learn to ask tough questions. Can we really promise to love someone forever? Can sex ever be meaningless? Is becoming emotionally attached to someone other than your partner worse than sleeping around? Is it possible to love more than one person at the same time or does romantic love require some form of exclusivity? Such questions prompt students to consider whether commonly held beliefs are actually justified. If these views withstand scrutiny, then students have the conceptual resources to offer a proper defense. If not, then students can begin searching for ideas worth having. Such questions can also open up a larger conversation about related concepts (e.g., trust, intimacy, respect, jealousy, loyalty).  Because much of the course material was new to me, I had not always thought through the various permutations and implications of each philosophical position. I often found myself learning “on the fly” along with my students as I reflected on my own assumptions and preconceived ideas in “real time” while the discussion unfolded in front of me.

In an earlier post (Draeger 2015), I argued that “critical thinking involves an awareness of mode of thinking within a domain (e.g., question assumptions about gender, determine the appropriateness of a statistical method), while metacognition involves an awareness of the efficacy of particular strategies for completing that task.” As I reflect on my philosophy of love and sex course, I realize that my heightened awareness contained elements of both critical thinking and metacognition. Because the material was largely new to me, I was more aware of my own critical thinking processes as I engaged in them and more “tuned into” what my students were grappling with (e.g., assumptions about love and sex, related concepts, implications of the view we are considering). I also found myself metacognitively evaluating whether my students were critically engaged and whether my choices were moving the conversation in philosophically fruitful directions. I like to think that this sort of monitoring happens in all of my classes, but I was acutely aware of its importance given that the material was unfamiliar and my discussion prompts were untested. Moreover, I like to think that I never resort to autopilot and that I am always keenly aware of fluid learning environments. However, because the material was so fresh, I could not help but engage in self-regulation. I did not have a reliable stock of examples and responses at my fingertips. Even more than usual, I found myself making intentional changes to my approach based on “in-the-moment” feedback from students (Scharff 2015).

Teaching a new course always rejuvenates me because it reminds me how much I love to learn. As the teacher, however, I was responsible for more than my own learning. Effective teaching requires thinking about the critical thinking processes of all the learners in the room, including my own. It also requires monitoring fluid learning environment and making intentional changes (often in-the-moment changes) if students are to have careful conversations about ideas that matter (e.g., love, sex). While teaching with metacognition is generally a good idea, this semester taught me that teaching a new course requires metacognition.

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Draeger, John (2015). “Two forms of ‘thinking about thinking’: metacognition and critical thinking.” Retrieved from http://www.improvewithmetacognition.com/two-forms-of-thinking-about-thinking-metacognition-and-critical-thinking

Draeger, John (2014). “Cultivating a habit of constructive discomfort.” Retrieved from http://www.improvewithmetacognition.com/cultivating-a-habit-of-constructive-discomfort
Scharff, Lauren (2015). “What do we mean by ‘metacognitive instruction?” Retrieved from http://www.improvewithmetacognition.com/what-do-we-mean-by-metacognitive-instruction/

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