Philosophy: Setting the Hook for Student Learning


Teaching is a little like fishing. You have to be very patient but if you stick with it long enough, there are huge rewards.

Usually the hardest part is setting the hook just right.

In the classroom we often feel like we are fishing without a hook, trying every strategy we can to get kids excited, asking questions and taking learning seriously. Despite our noble efforts, we fall short many times.  It’s usually not that our lesson was poorly conceived as a whole; it’s that we never got started in the right direction and so things just sort of… fizzled out.

So what is the best way to set that hook?

Bring in a little philosophy.

One of my most reliable (and fun) tools is Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher, which I’ve been using for many years now as a textbook in my philosophy class and a supplemental resource in government classes. This gem of a book (which can literally fit in your pocket) provokes, cajoles and entices students into considering deep, philosophical ideas in 60 bite-sized chapters. Some of the chapters carry questions that have vexed humans for a long, long time:

What is the right thing to do?  How do I know it?

Who am I?

Is happiness the purpose of human life?

These questions are the province of philosophy but you can find a home for them in any of your classes. Philosophy is that perfect hook. Its questions rattle the soul of teenagers and stretch across all subject areas in a way that makes learning fun, unsettling and relevant at the same time.

Here are two chapters “Do the Right Thing” and “Santa and Scrooge”RightThingToDo

Do the Right Thing” prods us to consider why we make the moral judgments we do. We often assume we are doing the right thing but never question what grounds we have for making that claim. This chapter forces students to uncover this slip of reasoning. As you read it, imagine using it to set the hook in a US history class before exploring and evaluating the moral decisions Abraham Lincoln made during the Civil War.

In “Santa and Scrooge” we are asked to consider whether being naturally good by giving things away freely (Santa) is morally superior to becoming good after overcoming the badness of our character (Scrooge). Imagine using this one right at the beginning of a unit on the presidency to get students thinking about how doing the right thing sometimes means that you must choose to follow reason over what you feel.

Here is the procedure I use with the book:

  1. Pick a reader and have him/her read the chapter out loud to class. (by the way, it is astounding how reading out loud has become a lost art– be prepared to teach students how to read out loud as the chapters don’t work as well unless students are in tune with the pronunciations of certain words.)
  2. Pick two students to react to the reading. A reaction could be to ask a question, make a comment, state a confusion, or simple ‘pass’ to somebody else.
  3. Leave two full minutes of silence after the read-a-loud for the reactors to process their thoughts.
  4. Let the discussion ride!  Warning — it is very difficult to predict how discussions from this book will evolve. You must be ready to adapt on your feet.

Previous posts have showcased lessons which integrate a chapter from the 60-Second Philosopher. Check them out so you can see how the book is used in the context of a lesson:

Can Intolerance be a Virtue? Huh?

Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Just for fun, I dug up an old clip of a student of mine talking about the benefits of this book. (I was thinking that interviewing students about the textbook would be a good recruiting tool to get more students into the class. It worked! I asked them “What do you like about the 60-Second Philosopher?”)

We need innovative tools to create a class atmosphere conducive to wonder and curiosity. The ageless wisdom of philosophy hiding inside this little book can do just that.

Don’t forget some of the other philosophy resources shared in a previous post.

If you end up using the book, let me know. I’d love to organize a Twitter chat on it assuming there is enough interest.

What books do you use to inspire questions?

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