An Ode to the Photocopier

Sounds have a strange power.

Whether it's the ringtone on my Nokia 3310, or the chime that played whenever I switched on my Nintendo 64, sounds have the power to fling me into a deep and pleasant nostalgia.

But there is one sound I long to forget; the short, repetitive bleep of a photocopier alerting me to a paper jam. Piercing through my ears at around 8:58am, these four bleeps are roughly translated:

"You shouldn't be photocopying teaching resources two minutes before class. Sort your life out or I will chew up what's left of your worksheets, dignity and sanity."
Photographer: Divine Harvester. Used under Creative Commons.
"Oh, and by the way, I'm low on toner so good luck reading whatever I've already printed."

As a newly qualified teacher, there was one thing I hated more than photocopiers... Textbooks!

I had worked in many schools that distribute textbooks to their students and so I had tried my best to incorporate them into my teaching. But even on a good day I didn't like them; the authors often seemed to confuse simple as possible explanations of complex concepts with simplifying them to the point of inaccuracy.

And one morning, at 8:30am, I had enough. I decided to completely abandon these textbooks and design, write and print my own material for my 9:00am class.

This is what I learned.


Vacuum packed for freshness

First, a disclaimer: not all textbooks are bad. But, good textbooks are difficult to write. Especially for subjects I teach, such as philosophy.

This is because ideas and concepts that make up a curriculum in a subject like philosophy (and many others!) often emerge out of a long, and sometimes complex, intellectual heritage. This context can complicate students engagement with these ideas and concepts as they struggle to understand how and why they developed.

In bad textbooks, this problem is eradicated altogether by treating ideas and concepts as matters of fact, making them easier to regurgitate on demand. The context of these ideas might be retained in a diluted form, but as examinations grow closer it is replaced by a focus on formulaic ways to succeed in an assessment.

Time and time again, I have seen students who struggle to understand the more complex things on the curriculum cling to their 'knowledge organisers', revision guides and textbooks because they offer them a way out - they turn rich, dynamic and complex knowledge into digestible information.

As a result, some students might do quite well in some of their written examinations. They might even be able to meaningfully talk about some of the things they have studied. But, to what extent are they engaging with the disciplines of the subject? Do they really understand what they are saying in more than just a descriptive way?

Building a curriculum for public education is a multifaceted challenge, and there is a finite amount of time to explore a seemingly infinite amount of context. However, vacuum packing rich and complex human knowledge as unrefined information is an unnecessary, albeit tempting, step.

To paraphrase Einstein, as educators we must be careful to make sure human knowledge is presented as simply as it can be, but this doesn't mean simpler than it actually is. If we totally forget that the production of knowledge is, in parts, necessarily contextual and complicated then we will be forever stuck with blogs peddling,

"Top 5 things you need to know to MASTER philosophy"
"10 things every successful teacher needs to know"
"Open heart surgery in 135 simple steps"

An integral, unalienable aspect of any concept or idea is the part it plays in humanity's "unrehearsed intellectual endeavour" - a conversation that has a past, present and future.

As with any conversation, ignoring a complex past for the sake of a simplistic present runs the risk of a stagnant and unproductive future.

I propose that facilitating students access to this conversation, even in a seemingly minuscule way, is what every educator strives to do and textbooks sometimes get in the way.


I Tweet, Therefore I Am

All of this is easy said. But, it was 8:35am and I had no idea what I was going to do for my 9:00am class on Descartes. Rather than trying to implement these grand ideas, I found myself browsing Twitter, fantasising how great life would be if I weren't a teacher.

And then it hit me. What if Descartes had Twitter?

Descartes. Image in the Public Domain.

What would he tweet? Who would he follow? Who would he retweet?

All my students knew about Twitter - they grew up in a world of 280 characters, likes, followers and hashtags. So, I very quickly designed a Twitter-looking page for Descartes on Microsoft Publisher.

I made it look as though he had just tweeted "Cogito ergo sum" (original, huh?), followed by a series of blank comment boxes from a variety of philosophers who had criticised his ideas, such as Kierkegarrd, Williams and so on.

Descartes didn't have the historical opportunity to respond to many critiques against his ideas. But, it is within this transhistorical context, a dialogue across time, that different ideas emerge. I wanted students to feel what that was like, and how it differs from simply remembering facts.

Students were allocated different philosophers to embody - they had to tweet, like, comment, retweet and hashtag as though they were them, cognitively empathising with their ideas. They had to recognise an intellectual conversation in philosophy by literally enacting it.

Now, this is not a simple task. I required to students to justify why they think Descartes would comment in the way they suggested, with reference to his texts. But, something clicked with the students. They began to recognise that the ideas they were studying in philosophy were not static matters of fact, but were emerging through dialogue, a great conversation of humanity.

As you might expect, there were some errors, misunderstandings and over-simplifications made by the students. But, as their teacher, I could read their tweets and see, quite precisely, where these errors were occurring and intervene appropriately.

"Why would Descartes retweet this post?"
"What makes you think Kierkegaard would say that, didn't he write this?"

This activity certainly had its pitfalls, notwithstanding having to photocopy hundreds of badly designed Twitter profiles for long dead philosophers. It's certainly true that reading the 280 character tweets of a philosopher is no replacement for reading their texts.

But, learning to be part of a dialogue, empathising with the way philosophers might think by virtue of reading their texts, helped my students to recognise that ideas and concepts they had studied didn't simply appear in a vacuum to be recorded in a textbook. They have an intellectual context that is, at its heart, dialogic.

I'm still not entirely convinced by definitions of 'criticality' used in classrooms today. But I think that the capacity to cognitively empathise with authors, texts, ideas and concepts, bringing them into a dialogue that was historically impossible, is a step in the right direction.

I'm not suggesting that students need to learn the totality of intellectual context in order to graduate from school. But, with some small adjustments, we are able to help students see human knowledge for what it is; rich, dynamic and dialogic, not simply matters of fact.

After all, the future of humanity's great conversation rests with our students.


A few years later I suggested, to some much older students, that an effective way to revise for their examination might be to tweet like a philosopher for a month, responding to the world around them.

'Hume's' tweets were exceptionally funny - but that's the topic for another blog.