Thought Experiment

Philosopher professor encourages faculty in all disciplines to liven up course sessions with radical but ancient teaching technique.

June 16, 2014

WASHINGTON – Sharon Kaye was having trouble describing what she does for a living while at a party a few years ago. The professor of philosophy at John Carroll University, a small Roman Catholic university in Ohio, said the old “philosophy is the love of wisdom” line wasn’t cutting it. So she posed a philosophical hypothetical dilemma to illustrate the value of her discipline.

The room was impressed. And it got Kaye thinking.

“I said, wow, if I could get that kind of reaction in the classroom…” she said.

Fast forward several years, and Kaye is knee deep into her new teaching style, which she presented here Friday at the annual conference of the American Association of University Professors. Kaye’s talk, called “Thought Experiment as an Interdisciplinary Pedagogy,” encouraged professors of all disciplines to incorporate into their teaching the philosophical concept of the “thought experiment.”

Dating back to ancient Greece, thought experiments are imaginary scenarios explored to create new knowledge, Kaye said. Classic examples include those from the Roman philosopher Lucretius, to get at truths about the nature of time and space: Imagine throwing a spear at the edge of the universe. Will it keep going or hit a boundary?

Here’s another example, posed by Socrates just before his death: “Do you really think you have the right to live in a country whose laws you regularly disobey?”

Of course, Kaye’s students didn’t know Socrates was the inspiration for that thought experiment when she posed it to her students like this at the beginning of a class this semester:

“You came to this room expecting a lecture, but this is a sting,” she said she told her students, all non-majors, introducing herself as “Agent” Sharon Kaye. She asked her students to hand over their wallets, cell phones and belts, and accused them of traffic violations (committed just about every time they drive), copyright violation (pirated movies and music), substance abuse (enough said) and more.

She asked students to turn themselves in to authorities, but many proclaimed their innocence. So Kaye asked the class to vote on their collective guilt, and watched them come up with sophisticated arguments for why they deserved to remain free citizens.

In another, more modern experiment, created by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, Kaye tells her students that they’ve woken up in hospital room to find that a famous violinist is attached to them by various tubes. The violinist is completely dependent on the student, and in order for him to live, the student will have to remain with him in the hospital bed for nine months. The experiment is way of exploring the complex philosophical arguments surrounding abortion, Kaye said, and sometimes students who originally feel one way about the hospital scenario are surprised when they realize their views on abortion differ. Students also debate whether or not the scenario is an apt metaphor.

“[They] have a lot to say about that, too,” Kaye said.

The professor’s class meets three times per week, and each Friday is dedicated to a thought experiment. She lectures on Monday and assigns quizzes on Wednesday, but to make time for the thought experiments, she said she relies more heavily on students to do readings outside of class, in a kind of “flipped” classroom model.

“Some of them won’t” do the readings, Kaye said, adding that the thought experiment model doesn’t please everyone. The professor said some students have written in course evaluations that they didn’t get their “money’s worth” out of a course because it didn’t feel like traditional instruction.

But Kaye said she’s committed to the new teaching model – even when she doubts herself – for its results, mostly “indirect.”

Kaye said it’s hard to tell just how the thought experiments are affecting student learning, but that students over all seem more engaged. And the quality of their writing has definitely increased, she said, attributing the shift to a deeper personal investment in course material.  

“If it’s a chore, it shows,” she said.

Kaye said she hoped those writing gains would translate to other courses with other instructors.

The thought experiment session was well-attended, and audience members came from fields as diverse as biology, psychology, history and student development (but not philosophy). Kaye said the thought experiment, although the “sine qua non” of philosophy, was applicable to many different disciplines.  

But Debu Misra, professor of geological engineering at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said he wondered how he could use thought experiment in his technical science classroom, where students need so much hard knowledge before attempting coursework.

In response, Kaye advocated her “flipped” classroom model, in which students take greater responsibility for learning content outside of class themselves, and use classroom time to practice it. She said an engineering thought experiment might ask students to develop a plan for saving people in two buildings, one flooding and one on fire, at the same time with a given set of random items to use as tools and equipment.

Another session attendee, Barbara Levy, who teaches ethical psychology within the Rutgers University system, said she’s been doing thought experiments with her students all along – but never knew to call them that. She said such critical thinking exercises, which have a more practical slant in her courses, given the subject matter, are more immediately applicable to certain disciplines than others. But she said higher education over all – no matter the field – needs more such “creative instruction.”

“What we have in education today is a lack of [promotion] of critical thinking,” she said. “So it seems like anything we can do to strengthen that is a good idea.”

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