Imagine Microsoft invents an ultra-realistic toy guitar: It lets you do something a bit like what we call "playing air guitar", but unlike an air guitar, Microsoft's toy will make you sound like Jimi Hendrix. How could you improve the public's guitar skills, if people who can't strum a chord to save their life were indistinguishable from talented guitarists? How would teachers know when a student had mastered a simple strumming pattern? How would they diagnose errors? In the real world, many college students do something in their midterms and final papers that looks like engaging with an argument. And sometimes things are as they seem. But the woolly medium of student prose often masks deep problems in students' understanding. It's hard for their teachers to detect these problems because, like a Microsoft guitar, prose creates misleading evidence of student ability, and the curse of knowledge makes it even more difficult for instructors to assess students' true understanding.
My colleagues and I have found that a technique called "argument visualization" can help students and instructors to overcome these challenges. You can read about our experiment with first-year college students in seven small (15-student) seminars at nature.com, and you can see some students in action in the short video below this text. In my CMU class, Visual Intro to Philosophy, I'm exploring ways to promote similar benefits in the context of a large, lecture-based course that's open to all students. I also collect materials for beginners on my website, PhilosophyMapped, and I will soon launch another site, ArgumentBase.org, which provides an organized and searchable Wiki-like resource for sharing and collaboratively refining short, intriguing argumentative texts. I hope these materials will help teachers integrate argument visualization into their classes and provide members of the public with interesting arguments for practice and thinking.
Games for improving discussions
Most people's attention will drift after 20 minutes of intense concentration, so interspersing discussions with 2-4-minute games can improve learning. In the video below, CMU students in an upper-level seminar on moral psychology take a break by playing "Whoosh!". This game is about spontaneity and attentiveness. It helps students be more aware of their classmates and feel less anxious about contributing to discussions. It's also super fun.
In the first meeting, start with the simplest move, "Whoosh!", which passes the energy along in whatever direction it's traveling. Students should focus on keeping the energy moving smoothly around the circle. Next meeting, introduce "Boing!", which bounces the energy off a player's chest, changing its direction. Then, introduce "Zap!", which zaps the energy to anyone in the circle who can't be reached using one of the other moves. This move keeps everyone on their toes (see what happens when a student takes a glance at her watch in the clip below) and is useful for breaking any "Boing!"-loops that might occur. Once students are comfortable with the basic moves, challenge them to invent new ones and to experiment with motion. This semester, my students invented "Yip!", a move that skips one person; "Yippy", a move that combines two "Yips"; "Ba-Boing", a combination of "Boing!" and "Yip!"; and "Yoink!", a move that intercepts a "Yip!" or "Yippy!" and zaps the energy to another player. It's also fun to play with the volume and speed of the game, for example, by playing silently or in slow-motion.