Thoughts on Thought Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico. He can be contacted through his faculty webpage at https://www.csuchico.edu/pols/people/tenure-line-faculty/irish-adam.shtml.

During graduate school I worked at the University of Illinois’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. Fresh from Teach For America and surrounded by EdD’s, I internalized the pedagogical research that supports active learning. As I sifted through the variety of techniques – each promising a marginal gain – I began to fill my lessons with more and more learning activities. Initially, this strategy of accumulation worked. It differentiated me from other TA’s, won me teaching awards, landed me a teaching post-doc, and then a tenure-track job at a teaching-focused university.

Yet designing and teaching classes that leap from activity to activity can be exhausting – start with a quick write, then a mini-lecture, next a think-pair-share, now group discussions, back to whole class review and on and on. Lately I find myself asking: does including more learning activities equal better teaching?

My suspicion is that, in many cases, less may be more.

Consider the humble thought experiment. A student imagines a given scenario and reasons. Popular among ancient Greek philosophers and turn of the century physicists alike, thought experiments persist in today’s classrooms. For example, Harvard professor Michael Sandel begins his popular course – Justice – with the Trolley Problem. You are aboard a runaway trolley, standing at the controls. You could turn the trolley down a sidetrack and kill one lone worker or allow the trolley to barrel into five workers straight ahead. What is the right thing to do? Every semester in a packed lecture hall, hundreds take hold of the trolley controls, reasoning about justice – no trolley required.

But could a well-crafted thought experiment generate enough discussion for an entire political science class? I have found Peter Singer’s “drowning child” experiment pairs well with foreign aid and John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” drapes easily over discussions of welfare state politics. Beyond borrowing from philosophers, we can create our own thought experiments: Imagine you awoke this morning to find that five years had passed and the U.S. is no longer a democracy. What events do you suspect caused US democracy to collapse? In this authoritarian U.S., how might your life be different?

I recently designed a thought experiment to encourage thinking like a multi-national corporation (MNC) – a perennial difficult perspective for my students.

“Imagine that you just had a striking insight. You figured out something the world desperately needs. Fast forward through time. See the montage of days and nights spent building up your business, hiring and firing people, spending your first million dollars. Who bought a massive house? How about a nice car? Chartered jets for vacations abroad? Where did you go? Good.

But wait, the global economy is highly competitive. Earnings statements are due every quarter. Your company has taken on shareholders. They want more profit, more growth – so you opened offices and factories abroad. Still your competitors are circling, threatening to steal customers or that next big contract. The media is digging into your business practices. If you want to keep your job as CEO, you have beat your competitors. Can you see yourself sitting at that gleaming conference table, leading this month’s global strategy meeting?”

In the hour-long discussion that follows I ask what sort of business empires my students imagined building. From there we explore the overlapping and conflicting interests of MNCs and host states. Repeatedly, we return to their imagined Facebook-like successes to analyze the fraught international relations of MNCs.  Beyond examples from the reading, this activity lures student into the position of a CEO – one perhaps willing to fight against environmental or labor regulations. 

In my experience, doing more with less via thought experiments slows down the classroom. Students need time to create a rich narrative to draw from, whether they are steering a trolley, wandering an authoritarian U.S., or running their own MNC. Likewise, professors must spend time crafting and then presenting robust narrative structures that students can inhabit.  For example, see how Sandel builds tension in the trolley problem.

What if the next time you sat down to plan a lesson – a coffee cup steaming beside your keyboard, notes and books scattered about – you tried building that lesson around a single activity? Imagine that.

One thought on “Thoughts on Thought Experiments

  1. I like to use a thought experiment in my Intro to Political Science class to introduce Hobbes and Locke and the state of nature. I refer to this discussion as Gilligan’s Island vs. Lord of the Flies. In the second or third class meeting when we still don’t know each other, I ask students to imagine we were all on a plane that crashed and left us stranded on a desert island. We have no major injuries, we find fresh water sources, coconut trees, materials to make fishing nets and build huts, so there’s no immediate danger. Two weeks go by and there’s no sign of possible rescue.

    What will life be like on the island? What roles and rules will we create? How will we treat those who don’t want to participate in keeping the signal fire lit or rounding up food? Will we need a leader, and if so what qualities should we look for?

    The response typically divides into those who want a strong system for keeping order and those who believe we will be pretty cooperative and reasonable without much imposed structure. Some of the latter students change their perspective when they discover that I have been hoarding coconuts. Others become concerned when the leader demands to build their hut on the site with the best breezes.

    We move from there to discuss how views of human nature feed into ideology, and how a view of human nature as more self-interested (life without a strong ruler is nasty, brutish, and short) leads to a different preference than a perspective that the ability to reason engenders cooperation.

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