11 roles of a philosophy teacher

In my job as a Philosophy Specialist Teacher I play a number of different roles.

1. Host

Since there are often many voices clamouring to be heard in the classroom, one of my main responsibilities is to create an inclusive atmosphere. In my role as host I am responsible for ensuring that my students feel comfortable. Students should not feel left out if they want to enter the discussion, and equally the quieter ones shouldn’t feel forced to speak although I will invite them to do so. I want to make clear that I would like everyone to feel welcome sharing their views.

2. Storyteller

The story is the most efficient instrument ever devised for hijacking someone’s attention. If I want to get my students attention, I will usually tell a story and this is my primary means for beginning to engage my students with the philosophy.

3. Referee

Philosophy enquiries typically fall flat for two reasons: either the students aren’t engaged with the philosophical problem itself or they are distracted by bad behaviour. While good behaviour isn’t sufficient for a good enquiry it could be argued that some level of good behaviour is necessary for one. In my role as referee, I enforce the rules of philosophy; namely, only one person speaking at a time and no disrespect of others’ views (although you can disagree respectfully).

4. Mediator

Disagreements are the lifeblood of philosophy. In fact, one of my students once said that if everyone agrees on something it can no longer be considered as philosophy. Since a good enquiry will involve a lot of disagreement, my role as mediator is to engage students with the substance of their disagreement without affirming one side or the other. This might involve merely pointing out where someone disagrees and inviting a response, or it might entail writing up opposing arguments to delve deeper into the reasons for the disagreements.

5. Midwife

Sometimes children have an inkling of an idea but find it difficult to put into words. In my role as ‘midwife’ in the classroom I help children to ‘give birth’ to their ideas. This often means following their chain of reasoning step by step and asking them questions to clarify for themselves what they think. The philosopher Socrates famously compared his role to that of a midwife in Plato’s dialogue The Theaetetus,

‘Those who frequent my company at first appear, some of them, quite unintelligent, but, as we go further in our discussions, all who are favoured by heaven make progress at a rate that seems surprising to others as well as to themselves, although it is clear that they have never learned anything from me. The many admirable truths they bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within’. (150c, Theaetetus)

6. Gadfly

Since philosophy is concerned with, as Michael Sandel put it, ‘awakening the restlessness of reason’ it is sometimes necessary to sting my students into wakefulness by saying something provocative. This keeps them alert and prevents them from getting complacent. I often adopt this role when there is an outbreak of consensus on an issue where there is usually considerable and vocal opposition. I might use the strategy of the ‘imaginary disagreer’ (Peter Worley, The Philosophy Foundation) by invoking an absent perspective or pretend to hold an opposing and deliberately controversial view for dramatic purposes. Socrates said that his aim was ‘to sting people and whip them into fury, all in the service of truth’ (Apology, 30e). Sometimes a sting is needed to shake us from our dogmatic slumbering, ready for a truth we weren’t expecting.

7. Numbfish

Philosophers are often motivated by a need to make sense of their doubts and confusions. As Arthur Schopenhauer noted, ‘A man becomes a philosopher by reason of a certain perplexity, from which he seeks to free himself.’ Sometimes I will deliberately lead my students to the point of confusion or controversy so that they may feel this need to untangle themselves from it. Socrates was a master at this. In one dialogue Meno turns to him and says,

‘Socrates, before I met you I used to hear that you are always in a state of perplexity and that you bring others to the same state, and now I think you are bewitching and beguiling me, simply putting me under a spell, so that I am quite perplexed.’ (80a, Meno)

Socrates claimed that it was necessary to bring others into perplexity so that they could *see* the problem clearly. Then, being aware of their ignorance, and their need to resolve the problem, they would be motivated to investigate further.

8. Coach

Since progress is often difficult to quantify in philosophy, students need to feel that they are improving and moving in the right direction. I often give my students encouragement before we start and give post-enquiry match reports as well. I will sometimes single out individual examples of improvement in a philosophical skill (e.g. Asking pertinent questions, giving a deeper argument, looking at implications etc) to model to the rest of the class as well. However, I will not praise the substance of their contribution but only the reasoning process that has gone behind it.

9. Clue giver

Often, around half way into a philosophical enquiry, I will introduce some philosophical terms, theories, or arguments that are useful tools for moving the conversation forward. Here my goal is not to take the discussion to a different place but to add further fuel to the fire and to motivate those searching for a deeper understanding. The authors Chip and Dan Heath describe the importance of such clue-giving as follows,

‘It’s no accident that mystery novelists and crossword-puzzle writers give us clues. When we feel that we’re close to the solution of a puzzle, curiosity takes over and propels us to the finish. Treasure maps, as shown in the movies, are vague. They show a few key landmarks and a big X where the treasure is. Usually the adventurer knows just enough to find the first landmark, which becomes the first step in a long journey toward the treasure. If treasure maps were produced on MapQuest.com, with door-to-door directions, it would kill the adventure- movie genre. There is value in sequencing information—not dumping a stack of information on someone at once but dropping a clue, then another clue, then another. This method of communication resembles flirting more than lecturing. Unexpected ideas, by opening a knowledge gap, tease and flirt. They mark a big red X on something that needs to be discovered but don’t necessarily tell you how to get there.’ (Made to Stick)

10. Curator

Students will frequently make remarks that are deserving of philosophical attention that others will fail to engage with. If I am alert and manage to note down the remarks (either mentally or physically) I can preserve the insight for further investigation in subsequent weeks. By writing down what my students say I can spot more connections and relate their remarks to the wider community of inquiry. It also has the beneficial side effect of motivating others to make noteworthy remarks as well.

11. Improviser

The basic principle of improvisation is ‘yes, and…’ Instead of rejecting or ignoring offers, the improv artist accepts that an offer has been made and runs with it. Similarly, in a philosophy inquiry someone might make a comment and I sometimes take the opportunity to make something of it, either posing a thought experiment or question related to it, or otherwise spinning off it. The facilitator shouldn’t be too anxious about steering the ship in the right direction. Rather, she should allow the discussion to flow and seek only to deepen the discussion already emerging.

‘Anyone who tries to control the future of the story can only succeed in ruining it. Every time you add a word, you know what word you would like to follow. Unless you can continually wipe your ideas out of your mind, you are paralysed.’ (Keith Johnstone, Improv)


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