King Tracks Philosophical Connections – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

King Tracks Philosophical Connections

Philosophy is a demanding field of study, which Assistant Professor of Philosophy Rodmon King describes as: “Replete with abstract concepts, subtle distinctions and complex arguments.” These create barriers to learning that King is trying to knock down through a new grant-funded project, “The Phaneros Project: Integrating Digital Concept Mapping into Pedagogy in Philosophy.”

“In a typical semester, there’s usually a ton of material to cover – hundreds of years of philosophical developments. I noticed that from the beginning to the end of the semester the students weren’t carrying content forward and had a hard time seeing the connections between the different concepts,” explains King. “I set out on this project as a way to help them see the larger picture – that the different ideas, philosophies and arguments we were going through were connected.”

To literally show the students the connections, King is creating a discipline-specific concept mapping tool. While not widely used in the field of philosophy, concept maps are currently used in business, medicine, mathematics and science, among other fields, to present the relationships among a set of concepts, claims or ideas.

“Content maps are a tangible way to display how your mind ‘sees’ some certain content,” explains King. “By constructing a concept map, you must reflect on what you know and what you don’t know. This, in turn, facilitates discovery and understanding.”

By identifying and developing concept mapping techniques that will work with philosophical content, King is creating another pedagogical tool to supplement those currently used to teach philosophy. Students will be asked to try to represent how the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, for example, are connected and constructing the maps will force them to think about the connections between sets of ideas. When the maps are done, King says he can ask them what choices they made in the process and why.

“It allows us to comment on what assumptions are being made, how students are coming to the material, and this makes them aware of the content on a whole other level,” he says.

King applied for the grant to be able to take on the difficult process of integrating this tool into philosophy courses. The goal is not simply to use the content maps in a class, but to integrate the process into the philosophy coursework so that it becomes as much a pedagogical component as the literature, response papers, long papers and in-class activities. He spent most of the summer digging into content mapping literature to find examples of interesting ways to use it and integrate it into teaching philosophy.

He is now working with staff in the Center for Teaching and Learning and specialists from the Digital Learning Center on deconstructing course material to determine how to integrate the tool into his teaching “from the ground up.”

“There are a lot of tough decisions to be made as to how to use this in each course, and in both individual and group assignments,” says King. “We’re working to figure out how content mapping fits into a multitude of teaching modalities in a way that increases student learning.”

The final piece of the development stage is that which King refers to as the “toughest,” deciding what kind of digital tools he is going to use. While content mapping can be done easily with pen and paper, he notes students are more digitally focused and may find digital mapping tools more intuitive.

In the fall, student workers will test out different digital mapping tools to provide their perspective on the methods. Their feedback will be valuable in informing King what it’s like for a student to go through the syllabus and how the method will translate to the classroom.

King plans to then use content mapping in the spring as part of two courses he’s teaching.

“I want students to be able to move past the point where they are repeating things they’ve seen and read to where they make and support their own claims because it is part of their academic maturation to reach that stage,” he says.

Longer-term, he would like to see content mapping spread to other philosophy courses at the Colleges.

“We have to continue to evolve as educators and this is a good way,” says King. “Philosophy can be very conservative in how people want to teach it. It’s important for us not to be afraid of using digital tools, especially in ways that can really improve student success.”