Teaching for Optimal Learning: A Pedagogical Entrée into "The Good Life Method"

By Evan Dutmer

The Good Life MethodThe Good Life Method

Suppose after a lot of personal experience and reflection you’ve come to love philosophy and think it’s important for living the good life. You are, for all intents and purposes, a convert, and, frankly, something of an expert in philosophy. But, like many converts, you want to spread the good news among novices, or, in other words, you’re wanting to reach those who don’t already think that, say, philosophy plays much of a role in the good life. How do you teach philosophy to gain a following?

In this post, I’ll be exploring ways in which Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko, through ‘The Good Life Method’ (as described in The Good Life Method) and their signature course at the University of Notre Dame (‘God and the Good Life’, hereafter ‘GGL’), do just that by how they’ve chosen to teach philosophy to young people (or ‘novices’ of any age). 

To make a long story short, they do this through sound pedagogy, much of it both deeply intuitive and supported by the last 60 years of educational psychology. Here, I’ll show how Sullivan, Blaschko, and their Good Life Method evidence the power of Philosophy as a Way of Life (PWOL, for short) teaching as a student-centered pedagogy. This, in turn, will help other philosophy educators in their own pedagogical journeys to reach new audiences. Sullivan and Blaschko give not just a blueprint for how to revamp an introduction to philosophy course, but, instead, their devotion to student-centered pedagogy shows the way for teaching any philosophy course with student-learners (i.e., novices) in mind.

I’ll focus on three central ideas from educational psychology from the last six decades— schema theory, cognitive load theory, and situated cognition—and the ways we see Sullivan and Blaschko making intentional choices in both the GGL course and in The Good Life Method to teach in a way that honors how human beings actually learn. 

The Good Life Method

But first, let’s be clear on the basics of Sullivan and Blaschko’s approach. In The Good Life Method, Sullivan and Blaschko write that GGL is based on the belief that ‘philosophy is care for our souls’. (20) This idea is prevalent in ancient philosophy, but, for complicated philosophical and sociological reasons, it is not as common in contemporary academic philosophy. Pierre Hadot is often credited for renewed contemporary interest in this ‘way of doing philosophy’, especially owing to the reception of his influential Philosophy as a Way of Life. As mentioned above, this ‘rediscovery’ of philosophy’s role in soulcraft and ordering one’s life has resulted in something of a grassroots academic movement. The PWOL Instructor Community on Facebook, for instance, has nearly 400 members.


Sullivan and Blaschko also announce the teleological assumptions behind their approach from the outset, thinking (with Aristotle) that human beings are the kinds of animals that make plans, set goals, and aim to achieve them in this life. This ‘goal-orientedness’ informs the optimism in which the course was developed:

We designed the God and the Good Life course with the optimism that in the right environment and with a bit of training, twenty-first-century seekers can develop sincere, well-reasoned, and persistently useful goals to guide them through the world. (21, emphasis mine)

Building on these bedrock assumptions, Sullivan and Blaschko in their Good Life Method and in the GGL course engage students in four basic types of questions. Below I list these basic question types and give the traditional academic terminology one finds to describe them in parentheses: 

  1. How do you decide what (and whom) to believe? (epistemology)
  2. What are your moral obligations? (ethics)
  3. Should you practice a religion? (metaphysics, philosophy of religion)
  4. What (if anything) can you do to make sure your life is meaningful? (ethics, existentialism)

Anyone with experience in academic philosophy can already begin to see the changes in approach Sullivan and Blaschko adopt. In the place of Latin-Greek technical terms (epistemology, metaphysics, etc.) Sullivan and Blaschko center questions in their method, questions with which students (and people, broadly) will face whether they encounter philosophy in classrooms or not. This simple pedagogical choice, to center questions that any person might face over the course of their lives, rather than the technical terminology of academic philosophy, is an illustrative and powerful one. In fact, it will help us begin to appreciate Sullivan and Blashcko’s instructional wisdom (and success) with some insights from educational psychology.

Learning for the Good Life

This choice—to center the real-life philosophical questions that we all face—is, from a teaching perspective, a deeply wise one. For it builds on one of the foundational insights from the past 60 years of research in educational psychology: Students (or novices of any kind) learn best when they can connect new knowledge to existing knowledge. This idea, deceptively simple and formally known as schema theory, was developed by educational psychologist Jean Piaget. Based on his extensive research into the cognitive development of children, Piaget showed that novices learned best when new knowledge and skills were arranged in a way to activate existing knowledge and skills. These complex cognitive frameworks of existing knowledge he called ‘schemata’.

Sullivan and Blaschko time and again in their teaching methods in GGL evidence awareness and sensitivity to an average person’s existing schemata when it comes to study of philosophy. Rather than choosing to ‘engage’ a novice with a list of abstract concepts and problems in the field of philosophy, Sullivan and Blaschko intentionally choose to center each of the central themes, questions, assignments, and assessments of the course in simple, plain-to-understand English that is nevertheless engaging and closely related to a novice’s existing schemata—namely, the questions, aspirations, desires, fears, hopes, and background knowledge of an average young person (difficult as that is to approximate!) and their goals and plans for their future selves. Importantly, Sullivan and Blaschko keep the student/novice schemata firmly in view throughout the course and throughout The Good Life Method. Information is introduced according to its relevance to the novice who currently lacks more formal schemata for understanding and studying philosophy, not according to the expert’s needs (which can be satisfied by different resources). We see this in the sequence of the course itself where Sullivan and Blaschko introduce each philosophical topic or question with an imperative phrase that activates a wide range of existing schemata and background concepts in simple English: e.g., ‘Desire the Truth’, ‘Love Attentively’, ‘Take Responsibility’, ‘Wonder about God’.

This, in turn, shows how sensitive Sullivan and Blaschko are to another fundamental facet of contemporary educational psychology: what is called cognitive load theory. Cognitive load theory refers to the idea that human beings’ working or short-term memory has a limited ability to retain, process, and code information into long-term memory. 

Short-term memory, on the most widely accepted model of memory processing and understanding, is more directly connected to sensory stimuli and more easily overwhelmed by those stimuli, especially with knowledge or information that doesn’t connect to any existing schemata in long-term memory. In fact, as was already recognized by A.D. de Groot in his study of expert and novice chess players in the 1940s, novice players’ short-term memories could be easily overloaded by simple chess-related stimuli, whereas expert players’ short-term, working memories were not overloaded by the same stimuli and, instead, connected knowledge of those stimuli with their existing (vastly more intricate) conceptual cognitive schemata. 

Sullivan and Blaschko write that in their previous iterations of introductory philosophy courses before GGL, they adopted the teaching methods passed on to them (following the ‘typical intro script’, as they write). Namely, they assigned ample readings of historical figures, introduced logic as formal topic of study, and assessed using midterms and exams that ‘asked students to reproduce the logical maneuvers from the lectures’. (17) 

Of the several suboptimal results of this approach, they note, one consistently identified was that many students admitted that they never did the readings. Many teachers would chalk this up to student ‘vice’—‘laziness’, for example. Many educational psychologists, however, would point to another factor beside simple student ‘laziness’ or disinterest: the readings’ almost certainly exceeding the cognitive load students can realistically accommodate as novices to the philosophical endeavor. Accordingly, on the GGL course website, one finds not a depository of bare classic philosophical texts, but rather carefully crafted, heavily scaffolded ‘digital essays’ punctuated by comprehension questions, multimedia resources, and retention activities that aim to reduce the cognitive load for a novice learner.

Beyond this, Sullivan and Blaschko’s innovative pedagogy in GGL and as described in The Good Life Method consistently makes use of what we might call authentic assessment. These assessments—checks and waypoints for learning—can too often take the form of relatively arbitrary multiple-choice exams or surface-level comprehension exercises, and are devoid of deeper meaning for either the assessor or the assessed. Authentic assessments, rather, take the form of tasks that the learner or novice (or even the expert!) finds deeply personally meaningful and engaging. Often these assessments engage learners in the real doing of the object of study. As these assessments also often activate existing schemata for the learner, the learner shows higher levels of both engagement and learning achievement.

For The Good Life Method, central to the assessment architecture is the creation of a personal ‘apology’, where participants are asked to create an apology for the philosophical justification of their lives on the model of Socrates’s apologia in defense of himself in his trial in Athens. This apology, Sullivan and Blaschko write, is part of their explicit soulcraft in the course. In their characteristic way, they introduce the assessment with ‘You Owe Yourself an Apology’. They motivate the assignment with the following purpose:

Purpose: Develop the ability to tell a persuasive philosophical story about your beliefs and how they fit into the ongoing story of your life; explain and defend your core philosophical beliefs with reference to major philosophers and traditions, while anticipating and responding to likely objections to your views. (27)

This apology assessment evidences deep concern with authentic assessment—namely, assessment that is deeply meaningful for the learner or novice as they encounter the challenging new knowledge of the subject of study. Often these assessments are meaningful because they are situated or transferable. In a seminal paper, John Seely Brown and several colleagues coined the terms situated cognition and situated learning to describe (i) that human beings learn in a heavily contextualized manner, where new information is constructed upon pre-existing social, cultural, and physical schemata (situated cognition), and (ii) that learners can learn more effectively through intentional instructional inclusion of meaningful, authentic, relevant, personal context connections (situated learning). The apology assignment above is clearly situated in a context that makes sense for a learner—the self and one’s own personal narrative—and engages the novice in a task that produces a clearly usable and transferable product: namely, one’s personal apology. The personal apology can become an artifact that has a lifespan far outliving the GGL course. It can lay the foundation for one’s own life-plan, even, if all goes well according to Sullivan and Blaschko’s hopes!

Teaching for the Good Life

In this short piece I’ve outlined just a few ways in which Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko’s The Good Life Method aligns with best teaching practices for optimal learning for novices. To that end, I’ve highlighted ways in which The Good Life Method and GGL make intentional changes to the ‘traditional intro script’ that are vindicated by educational psychology. Several other practices in their method and in the GGL course—the extensive use of journaling, structured dialogue, effective and innovative use of the discussion section, the building of ‘communities of practice’ that exist among GGL alumni/ae, and the empowering of undergraduate educators and TA’s—have similar positive effects on learning engagement and achievement and are similarly supported by educational psychology. But these three central concepts from educational psychology—schema theory, cognitive load theory, and situated cognition—provide the three simplest introductory concepts for aligning philosophical teaching practice with the emerging science of educational psychology, and can be seen in action throughout The Good Life Method. 

Thus, I end with an invitation in the spirit of growth: What ways can you connect your philosophy teaching with what students already know? How can you make sure their introduction to new ideas doesn’t exceed their cognitive load? How can you make philosophy personally meaningful for them in your course—what connections can you see philosophy having for their lives?


Further reading

Kirschner, P. and Hendrick, C. (2020) How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice. New York: Routledge.