For many post-secondary educators, innovative teaching approaches are context specific. Unlike elementary and secondary educators who typically have education degrees and whose teaching is thus informed by particular theoretical approaches, many post-secondary instructors teach “on the fly”:  we discover new approaches as ad hoc solutions to particular pedagogical challenges in particular courses and environments. What happens when those contexts change?

In 2008, I conducted research on the use of small-group teaching methods in lower division Philosophy courses. The project was called “Return to the Agora.” Agora is the Greek word for marketplace. In ancient Athens, philosophers would gather in the marketplace and debate ideas. I wanted to cultivate that kind of environment in the classroom — to get Philosophy students back to old school philosophizing. It worked well. Surprisingly well. And now I use group work in all of my classes.

Well, it’s time to bring the Agora to the Chinese Room.

My earlier study showed that well-structured small-group work effectively promotes students’ deep engagement with difficult course readings.  However, when I teach in Nanjing this summer, the intensity of the class schedule and students’ struggles with English will make it difficult or impossible for them to do their readings before class.

Is reading an intrinsic part of study of Philosophy, as many professors deeply believe, or is it a mere means to an end? Is it possible that carefully planned small-group work can constitute not merely a way “into” course readings, but, more radically, a way “around” them – a means of achieving deep learning when students are unable to do the readings at all?

This summer, I plan to extend my 2008 research well beyond my initial ambitions for it. I’m going to try to use carefully planned in-class small group work to give these Chinese students who mostly won’t be able to manage the readings a deep and rigourous philosophical education. If this experiment is successful, it will have implications not only for teaching abroad, but also for teaching ESL students and disabled students at home.

From the Agora to the Chinese Room. Yeah. That’s the plan. Stay tuned.