Constrain, Apply, and Release

by Lukasz Kurowski, Professor of Philosophy and Social Sciences

Over the past few years I have noticed that in the age of social media and the world of Google our students appear to have lost specific analytical abilities (or perhaps they have never acquired them), namely the vital need for reflection upon particular ideas or concepts and then applying what is learned from those reflections upon specific questions.

Here is a simple example to show how this problem presents itself in my classroom. I teach a class called Philosophy of Love and Sex and one of the tasks in this class is to analyze the concept of ‘sexual activity’. At first students treat this exercise rather lightly. They laugh and joke because they think that it is trivial type of question, but then quickly realize that what seems unchallenging at first is actually quite difficult to articulate. It is at this juncture that they begin to realize that they have no idea what a sexual act is and are at a loss how to construct a working definition.

With this as the starting point, I assign the following task: state the necessary and sufficient conditions for a sexual act. I give them examples of what it means for something to have necessary and sufficient conditions. For example: water = H2O; gold = an atomic number of 79, etc., and then it is their task to analyze what conditions constitute a sexual act. Yes, I do realize that it is highly contentious to think that there are clear examples of natural kinds (necessary and sufficient conditions) in biology, let alone social sciences, but that is not the point of the exercise. The point is to have the students think about what constitutes a sexual act and what does not; what are good examples to support a definition of a sexual act and what are not.

After a good round of discussion we form a list of ideas that may be part of a definition, such as intention, body part, pleasure, sensation, consent, reciprocity, etc., I then leave them on their own, and this is when the panic sets in. The first thing they do is start typing “necessary and sufficient conditions for a sexual act” into the Google search engine and, and whatever other sites they can think of in the moment. And what do they get? A maze of ideas from which there is no clear exit. Unfortunately, their first intuition is not to sit and think (reflect) but to find help outside of their own capacities to analyze ideas. At that point I constrain them, not physically but mentally. I tell them to sit for ten minutes on their own. I don’t want them to have any additional information flying in and out of their minds, but rather, I want them to reflect on what is being asked of them.  Afterwards I ask them to share their ideas with their classmates for another ten minutes or so, then I pose the question again: What do you think are the N&S conditions for an act to be sexual? This ends up being a written exercise limited to a one-sided, double-spaced, page.

So what are the advantages of restricting their thinking to one or two specific ideas only, rather than letting them surf the web for clues and possible answers? If they surf the web, they get lost very quickly because they don’t understood what they are looking for. Any information is not critically analyzed information, but this is what Google gives them. By restricting them to their own thoughts they start developing analytical skills actively. By asking them to write down their ideas and examples they are forced to string them in a logical and systematic fashion, but only their own ideas. Once students do this, they have a better grasp of what the task is about and, even more importantly, what their thoughts are and whether they are any good. After this task is done, I let them browse and discuss among themselves for additional examples.

So what are the results? Positive. Students speak with more confidence; they understand how specific examples support or undermine their positions; and they start thinking creatively about the application of their ideas and the ideas of others. And lastly, I see that they take joy in taking ownership of their newly developed reflective skills—this tells me that these skills will stay with them and most likely will be used in other educational and non-educational settings, which is what we want them to do.