Philosophical Stories for Teachers

Association of Theological Schools
1997-98 Teaching and Learning in Theological Education Program

Project Title:
"Enhancing the teaching of Western philosophy
to entering seminary students by using
stories about philosophy and philosophers
optimized for concrete thinkers"

Wesley J. Wildman
Boston University, School of Theology
745 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215

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Contents of this page

1. Goal of the project
2. Background: the course
3. Background: the class
4. Theoretical framework: the literature in learning styles
5. The problem
6. A project to help concrete thinkers and learners
7. Project results
8. An example: Mildred and Renée
9. Just show me the stories!

1. Goal of the project

The goal of the project is to increase the effectiveness of a first-year seminary course in Western philosophy by introducing scrupulously researched and carefully constructed stories that are optimized for conveying abstract philosophical ideas to the many concrete thinkers in seminary. Since this challenge is widespread in seminaries, in part because of the nature and background of the student population, the results of this pedagogical experiment should be of use to teachers of philosophy and theology in other seminaries. This web site is designed to disseminate information about and examples from the course for interested teachers.

In the 1996 version of this course, I concentrated on increasing the effectiveness of illustrations used in the lecture phase of this course. It is important to note that is not what this project is about. Discovering and constructing stories about philosophers and philosophy that will help concrete thinkers grasp abstract philosophical ideas accurately and memorably was and is a far more difficult task. The aim is not merely to entertain, to increase attention, or to engage the imagination; rather, the stories must convey subtle philosophical concepts.

2. Background: the course

"Western Philosophy in Theological Perspective" is a Fall semester Boston University course. It is grand tour of major figures and themes of the Western philosophical tradition, focusing on their influence on theology, and customized for the entering class of seminary students. The course is not typical of the "Intro to Western Philosophy" species in two respects. On the one hand, carefully selected, bite-sized chunks of primary texts in English translation are read for each class. The very act of encountering such great literature is an important and potentially transformative experience. On the other hand, everything in the course is aimed at illuminating connections between philosophy and theology. The course thus serves as preparation for the students' first theology course in the following semester.

The double contention underlying the course is that ideas are important and powerful, and that understanding ideas is an essential aspect of learned ministry, which-in the finest tradition of Methodism-is the aim of ministerial training at Boston University.

3. Background: the class

Teaching the first-year seminary class is a pedagogical challenge. A wide variety of students enter this seminary (and most other seminaries, too). Some of the dimensions of this variability are:

  • roughly even mix of sexes;
  • diverse racial-ethnic background, and a corresponding variety of primary languages;
  • large age range: from those just out of college to people in their 50s moving into ministry;
  • varying careers and educational paths: from technical science to the humanities, and from business to the "I don't really know what I want to do with my life yet" folk;
  • different backgrounds in philosophy: from those with undergraduate degrees in philosophy to those who say they have never had a self-consciously philosophical thought in their lives(!); and
  • wide range of learning styles, as the previous points suggest, complicated by a large number of often undiagnosed learning disabilities.

4. Theoretical framework: the literature in learning styles

Much has been done already to sensitize the design and execution of this course to the diverse individual learning styles of class members. In this process, I have been greatly influenced in my thinking about pedagogy by the research and literature in learning styles that has been available since the early 1980s. I have in mind particularly works such as:

Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983); and Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice (1993);

Rita Dunn and Kenneth Dunn in various combinations: Dunn and Dunn, Teaching Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles (1978); Kenneth Dunn, "Measuring the Productivity Styles of Adults" in Student Learning Styles and Brain Behavior (1982); Rita Dunn, "Learning; A Matter of Style" in Educational Leadership (March, 1979); Rita Dunn, "Learning Style: State of the Science," in Theory Into Practice (Winter, 1984); and

Marie Carbo, "Learning Style: Key to Understanding the Learning Disabled," in Learning Styles Network Newsletter (Autumn, 1981a).

Of the many ideas to which I have been introduced through such literature, the elementary yet crucial distinction between concrete and abstract thinkers is essential to the conception of this project. Abstract thinkers take to philosophical ideas relatively easily. Concrete thinkers, by contrast, have a stronger need for a learning environment in which an important abstraction can be introduced and mastered in stages, with due attention to its relevance for their lives and work. The research on thinking and learning styles complements and enhances common sense judgments about feasible techniques for conveying abstract concepts to concrete thinkers. In relation to this course, a particular type of story is the key.

5. The problem

It is relatively easy to determine who are the concrete thinkers, since even a brief conversation with a student about a concept they find troubling or about their progress in the course discloses strong indicators. Given this kind of non-scientific evaluation of the class, analysis of course grades indicates that concrete thinkers do worst with this course material.

This seems unnecessary to me. I am ready to allow both that philosophy and theology are more congenial to some people than others, and that some will learn abstract ideas more easily than others. However, I am less willing to yield to the common assumption that concrete thinkers can safely be assumed to be among those less suited to philosophy and theology. In fact, my experience teaching this course suggests otherwise: concrete thinkers have often been among the most enthusiastic members of this course, in part because they had never previously realized that abstract ideas were both exciting and intensely practical for life and ministry—that they could relate to abstractions. Moreover, the research in thinking and learning styles supports that contention, especially by drawing attention to the tendency of many educational processes to identify the difficulty concrete thinkers have in learning about abstract ideas with their interest in and aptitude for them. This is a false assumption fostered even in the self-interpretation of students themselves.

I am arguing that it is a prejudice to assume that concrete thinkers are less suited to philosophical ideas. Suitability must be settled on a case by case basis, and not as an inference from learning style. However, I am not contesting the more obvious fact that concrete thinkers have difficulty approaching philosophical and theological abstractions, no matter how potent they may prove to be for analysis and transformation of lives and societies in ways that concrete thinkers appreciate as much as anyone. Their experience of alienation in many educational settings that deal with abstract ideas may be unnecessary in principle, but it is genuinely difficult to address effectively in practice.

This is no small problem in a seminary setting with so many practical business people, or other second-career folk, many of whom have little or no background in philosophy. Success in tackling this challenge at Boston University may prove useful elsewhere.

6. A project to help concrete thinkers and learners—and everyone else, too

This project adopted the hypothesis that stories ought to be a central feature of any strategy for helping concrete thinkers to grasp abstract and important ideas. These stories cannot serve merely to amuse or to help people concentrate; they must actually convey philosophic content. The principle is the same as an effective illustration in a talk or sermon—a far more difficult proposition than even most preachers and public speakers assume, as the literature in rhetoric and homiletics has been at some pains to demonstrate. (See David G. Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (1987), for example.) Discovering and creating the right stories is really quite difficult to do, therefore, even as bad or "slightly-off" sermon illustrations are common. Nevertheless, I think that this avenue for teaching abstract philosophical ideas has been greatly under-explored, and I would like to redress that lack.

To explain what I mean by effective stories, and why they are difficult to find and construct, consider the following examples of stories about philosophical figures that help to explain abstract ideas. Each illustrates a principle for constructing stories well suited to the needs of concrete thinkers.

First, while many entertaining stories can be told of the life of Descrates (pictured at left), one is useful for explaining his fascination with clear and distinct ideas as a path to certain foundations for knowledge. It is the story of a mathematical dream he had as a young man, a dream of a perfect philosophy that had all the certainty of mathematics. To tell this story in the right way is effectively to convey the passion of his philosophy; it is biography and philosophy all at once. Most stories about a thinker's life are of little philosophical use, however, and this leads to the first principle: biographical stories typically do not convey much philosophic content, as useful as they are for other purposes, and thoughtful research is necessary to construct appropriate stories.

Second, Zeno's story of Achilles and the tortoise can be used as a way to explain how Parmenides (pictured at right) could possibly have thought that motion is ultimately illusory. Some pre-Socratic background must be in place first—especially regarding the problem of being and becoming—but then this story can be acted out with people playing the three characters (Zeno as narrator, Achilles, and the tortoise). The result is hopefully the illumination of one of the subtlest debates of ancient Greek philosophy: real motion presupposes the intuitively paradoxical result that an infinite sequence of positive numbers adds up to a finite number. This made no sense to Zeno because of his rejection of the infinite divisibility of space, wherein lies both the solution to and the ongoing interest in this philosophic problem. In this case, it is the acting out of a simple drama that drives home the Zeno's point for concrete thinkers, and the image stays with them whenever they think of the otherwise obscurely abstract assertions of the Eleatic philosophers about the illusoriness of change and motion. Parmenides is thereby resuced from the garbage heap of ridiculously abstract and irrelevant philosophers, which is where many of my students might otherwise be inclined to consign him. The second principle is that dramatic enactments of philosophic concepts help concrete thinkers understand the issues.

Finally, a debate between Socrates (pictured at left) and Protagoras the sophist, acted out by competent people, is an ideal way to present their disagreement over the extent to which human reason is capable of apprehending and understanding the world. An example of such a debate is provided on this site. The principle in this case is that personalizing debates about subtle philosophic concepts helps concrete thinkers understand and recall the relevant ideas as well as the senses in which they are important.

7. Project results

The research into the stories ran alongside of, and a little ahead of, the course material for the Fall, 1997 edition of "Western Philosophy in Theological Perspective." I recruited a brilliant doctoral student called Sharon Ciccarelli to do the research and write most of the stories. She had the crucial skills: a solid understanding of the problem I have described, a good pedagogical imagination, a creative flair for writing, an impressive grasp of philosophical subtleties, and willingness to work hard on honing ideas for stories into viable stories for public consumption. The students and I loved these stories, so we called them "Ciccarelli Creations" in the classroom to have a convenient, even ritualized, way to express our sense that "Now, something special is about to occur."

Student evaluations report that the stories were a tremendous success. The class already and always focuses on responsiveness to a variety of learning styles but the stories gave the teaching staff (me and the two teaching assistants) extra flexibility in dealing with concrete learners for whom philosophical abstractions are initially irrelevant or perhaps even unapproachably perplexing.

8. An example: Mildred and Renée

An example will help to convey this point. I have thought long and hard over the years about how to convey Descartes' excitement for his philosophical method and about how to drive home the importance of his philosophic achievement. I have used illustrations and schematizations. I have had TAs work through hands-on examples with students in sections. And these approaches have been successful to some degree. But there is nothing quite as effective as the following story, one of the many Ciccarelli Creations.

- = - = - = - = - = - = - = -

Back to Basics

Mildred had her head stuck in the closet and was tossing items of clothing out into the room in a reckless fashion. Renée was struck in the face by a maroon and white striped cardigan as she came in.

"What on earth are you doing?"

"Rethinking my wardrobe," Mildred replied with a muffled voice, and then pulled her head out of the closet. "I have nothing to wear," she continued. "I hate my clothes. Nothing matches, nothing fits, nothing is ever appropriate."

Renée peered into the closet. "Where'd you get all this stuff, anyway?"

"I dunno. A lot of it I get on sale. But some of it has been there forever. I've just always had it," Marie concluded vaguely.

"So what are you going to do?"

"Give it all to the thrift shop and start again." Mildred ripped several dresses off their hangars.

Renée stopped her friend. "Now don't do that," she said. "Some of it may be useful. What you need to do is get back to basics."

"Basics?" Mildred emerged partially from the closet.

"Sure. The classics. Things that never go out of style. I bet you already have some right in here." Renée started to rummage through the closet.

"How do you know?" Mildred sounded doubtful.

"The point is, how will you know. You just will. You will recognize a classic article of clothing right away. Clear as clear."

"Well, I will if I can ever find it in this mess. I'll have to pull it all out just to begin." And Mildred began to throw more things out into the room, adding to the general confusion.

STOP!" Renée shouted.

This was so unlike her friend's normal behavior that Mildred did just that.

"You need a plan. A method." Renée spoke again in her normal, quiet voice. "Let me make a suggestion."

"Well, I wish you would." Mildred pushed a strand of hair away from her eyes.

"First, don't settle for anything but the basics. Don't be tempted by a fabulous velvet-trimmed jacket that might be great if you only had the right slacks to go with it and the right occasion to wear it. Ask yourself if it is unquestionably a classic. If it isn't. . ."

"I know!" Mildred cried. "Throw it out."

"NO!" Renée said. "Of course not. It may come in useful, or I might want it. Just put it over here, on the bed."

"And you say I will know, for sure?"

"No question about it."

"Well, I better get started right away, then," Mildred moved toward the closet again, quite excited about the new plan.


"What now?"

"That was only part of the plan," Renée explained. "The second part of the plan is to sort everything out in an organized way so you can see what you actually have and discover your classic items. Right now this place is such a mess, you'll never find anything, and you'll be discouraged before you start."

"Is that the whole plan?" Mildred asked humbly.

"No. Later on, maybe tomorrow, after you come up with your basic items--and there won't be very many, believe me, just a few key pieces--then you can begin to put together a decent wardrobe again, perhaps using some of the stuff you put on the bed, and maybe purchasing some new things. Only this time you'll start from your basics and go from there. That's the reasonable way. No more buying things on impulse." She gave Mildred a severe look.

"Oh, it will be such a relief," Mildred sighed. "I've been so muddled about what to wear."

"Follow this plan," Renée said grandly, "and you'll never be confused again. But you have to follow it exactly. No getting lazy, no deviations, no sentimental favorites. Be ruthless."

- = - = - = - = - = - = - = -

When Renée returned several hours later, Mildred had made great progress. She had organized her clothing and accessories by season, style and type, and was now contemplating a corduroy jumper. She looked up at Renée excitedly.

"I did just what you said. So far, though, I haven't discovered anything classic." And she nodded over at the bed where she had placed rejected candidates in various piles. Renée gave her an approving smile.

"I can't wait until I do," Mildred continued. "I mean, this will really be a breakthrough!"

The minutes passed, until, finally, Mildred held up a navy wool blazer. The two women, who had been chatting animatedly, fell silent. Mildred looked over at Renée, a strange gleam in her eyes.

"This is it. I've found it. There's just no question about it! This is a classic piece of clothing." Mildred was triumphant.

Renée congratulated Mildred. She was very positive about Mildred's accomplishment. "This will be your key to a whole new world of fashion. The modern woman, well-dressed for any occasion. It will mean a whole new you."

Mildred looked happily at her blazer, but then voiced a new concern. "A whole new me. I hope you're right. I just hope that when I come up with these three or four "classics," it'll all hang together in a total look, an ensemble. I don't want to represent Ms. mix and match. You know what I mean--the kind of person who never gets beyond separates."

But Renée never heard her. She had already left the room.

- = - = - = - = - = - = - = -

Here we see not only an astonishingly accurate portrayal of the steps and significance of Descartes' method, but we also have an indication of the meaning of clear and distinct ideas, a suggestion of Descartes' vision of what it means to be what we call "modern", and right at the end an amusing and penetrating critique. This is something the students are unlikely to forget (ever!). Most importantly, it gives concrete thinkers a degree of access to key ideas in Descartes that is tough for them to achieve in other ways.

This also illustrates what I mean by scrupulously researched and carefully constructed stories that are optimized for conveying abstract philosophical ideas to the many concrete thinkers in seminary. These stories are extremely difficult to invent, much harder than might be imagined even by an experienced teacher. In the back and forth between my researcher and me, there was a great deal of fine-grained philosophical debate, many changes of direction, and sometimes abandonment of an idea because it was just "a bit off." The stories can only work because of the research and effort put into them. That makes them expensive to create compared to a quick and dirty illustration but we also get what we pay for.

I have no clear-cut way to measure the effectiveness of the stories in assisting the learning of concrete thinkers. I do have strong testimonial evidence that they achieved their goal. This has taken the form of the warmest personal expressions of gratitude you can imagine and strong affirmation of the story technique in student evaluations of the course. I also have evidence from grades: in a group of students that seems academically weaker than in previous years, with procedures, examinations, and standards held constant, the average grade rose a couple of percentage points, which is statistically significant. But it is hard to determine how much of that is due to the stories. Finally, there is the most enjoyable evidence: the excitement of people—concrete thinkers—who cannot believe that they love philosophy.

This has been a marvelous experience for me and for my students. I am grateful to ATS for its support of my teaching and of my and my students' learning.

9. Just show me the stories!

Go to the stories.

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The information on this page is copyright ©1994-2011, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.