Maieutikos, Maypoles, and Metacognition: Teaching Undergraduates About Aristotelian Substance

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2010


Many undergraduate courses in Classical or Ancient Greek Philosophy are like mine in that they consciously sacrifice historical breadth in favor of a more detailed treatment of major figures. In my own fifteen-week class, I devote roughly three weeks to the Presocratics (specifically, the Milesians, Heraclitus, and Parmenides), six weeks to Plato, and six weeks to Aristotle. Even having given up later schools and figures, I find that the relative brevity of time allotted to Aristotle presents significant challenges in getting students to appreciate the general shape of his philosophical views, never mind the nuanced detail.

In this paper I discuss a pedagogical strategy I recently tested as a means to address this problem. The strategy involves the implementation of a certain visual aid—an image of children dancing around a maypole, projected onto the classroom’s screen—that is treated as a heuristic throughout the six-week segment of the course. The way in which the image is employed is reminiscent of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) maieutic, or "midwife," method insofar as it presumes that students already possess a bit of knowledge or a skill of which they are unaware. The knowledge in question for my purposes is self-knowledge concerning learning styles and habits, and the skill is a variety of what scholars working in educational theory call "metacognition," which involves both the awareness and regulation of one’s own cognitive processes.1

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