Using Props in the Classroom

Trying to figure out these three guys
developed into a discussion in which
Lonergan’s “four levels of conscious operations”
were identified, no less.

Hands-on philosophy, you say?

Philosophy teachers don’t usually get many chances to teach “hands-on.” We learn by reading heavy texts, we improve our understanding of subtle points through long discussions, and our teaching is most often very discursive, with nothing for our students to hang on but words, arguments, the records of past experiences, and–if we are feeling generous–flat images on a flat screen.

That’s why I love the look in the face of my students when I bring an actual object to class. What I call a “prop.”
I discovered this when trying to explain Aristotle’s Theory of Abstraction in an introductory class. I was fascinated then by how my kids–barely toddlers at that point–would recognize a basket for bathtub toys (a thing made of yellow fabric, hanging from the wall with suckers) as a “fish,” which is what it was shaped like. This they did without any prompting from the grownups, showing a capacity for relating abstracted images to a “model” at surprisingly early age!
Since I was going to talk about this in class, I borrowed one of my kids’ toys–a very cute squeaky shark.
When I took it off my bag, planning to pass it around while asking the question, “Is this a shark, or is this not a shark?” a girl sitting at the front spontaneously exclaimed:
“That is so cool!!!”
Man, were they starving to hold something in their hands! They passed it around twice.
Since then, I’ve been looking for ways to break the monotony by bringing other objects to class.

My favorite is a mate (pronounced “mah-teh.” Not “maté,” as you’ll find it spelled out by most tea companies. That accent is made-up) with its stand, and its bombilla. (Picture above). I use them to make students discover by themselves the “four level of conscious operations,” described by Bernard Lonergan in his work Insight.

If you’ve been to Argentina or its neighboring countries, then you’ll know that mate is a type of tea (different family, probably; I’m not being technical here) served in a recipient made from hollowed gourd, called, also, mate. This is stuffed with the leaves, hot water is poured in it, and you drink it through a metal straw called “bombilla” (also pictured above). It’s a social drink: once you’ve drunk, the host fills it up again, and passes it to the next guest (drinking, yes, from the same bombilla).
My students (I teach in Chicago) normally don’t know this. So when I pass around these objects, they look immediately puzzled. It’s an almost complete unknown at first. They touch, tap, examine, smell, use almost all their senses. They note their observations out loud. (First level: experience.) They formulate theories about their use (“is this a musical instrument”?) They try to put the different objects together in a meaningful manner, finding sometimes that the mate fits perfectly on the stand. Test names, relate them to things they know. (Second level: understanding.) They discuss their theories, weigh them, criticize them, look at me for a hint. (Third level: judgment.) They look with interest when I tell them that mate is really good if you want to pull an all-nighter, and squirm when I tell them that they’d have to drink from the same bombilla, or make up a really good excuse if they don’t want to offend their host. (Fourth level: value judgment.)

Most importantly, they look unanimously awake.

Trust me: It’s really worth a try.
Alfredo Mac Laughlin
* Have you used an unusual prop in one of your classes? Tell us of the context, the reactions you got. When I collect enough of these, I’ll cast them into another post. *