Well, it's that time again...for one reason or another, I've found it necessary to update my "teaching philosophy," that nebulous document no one's really sure how to write.
I find that the older I get, the less patience I have for philosophies which read like litanies of pedagogical tricks, no matter how clever those tricks are. I see no reason anymore to brag about "use of technology" or "co-curricular activities" or even "inquiry-based learning" in my statement of teaching philosophy. It's not the place.
For what it's worth (I've nothing to hide), here's my current philosophy, version 2010.1.2 (or thereabouts):
My philosophy of teaching, like my teaching itself, has undergone many changes in the years past. Like those of many novice teachers, my earliest philosophies were tailor-made to fit one or another job description and often relied on catch-phrases like “use of technology” and “collaborative learning.” Embarrassingly recently my teaching philosophy read like a behaviorist’s manifesto, a long list of actions typically taken by me or by my students, actions which merely indicated a certain philosophy at work without getting at the heart of that philosophy. As I’ve grown as a teacher (and scholar of teaching and learning) I’ve been better able to tease out from those actions their essential qualities in order to understand why it is I do what I do, and what it is I hope my students will do with me when we work together in and outside of the classroom.
As a result my philosophy has become more streamlined and systematic, and while it is on its face less “practical,” it still has profound practical implications when put into action. It is no longer so describable by a few pages filled with phrases like “co-curricular activities,” “writing-to-learn,” or even the loftier “inquiry-based learning.” Though all of these feature prominently in my teaching, none is the prime mover, none is the ultimate reason why I do what I do.
If not these things, then what is it that guides my teaching?
My primary goal is to address my students’ affective needs as well as their cognitive ones. Put simply, I believe, and the literature on teaching and learning bears me out, that how my students feel about what they do is as important as what they do in the first place. Students who feel confident about their abilities will pursue greater challenges and aspire toward greater goals than students who lack that confidence. Moreover, confident students will strive toward their goals far more effectively than will unconfident ones. Therefore, instilling a sense of security and confidence in my classes, and in all other interactions with my students, is of paramount importance.
To help my students feel secure and confident, I aim to create a safe learning environment characterized by openness, honesty, and friendliness. Such an environment cannot help but lead to a shared sense of respect and understanding. Such an environment relies on a commitment to clarity and transparency, and this I keep in place by maintaining open lines of communication. I go to great lengths to make sure that my students are always able to get in touch with me in a timely manner, and that the concerns they raise in their correspondence will be met with legitimate concern and care. In this way open communication fosters a deep sense of mutual trust.
Once I have my students’ trust, and once they are convinced that they have mine, we can work more effectively together. But working effectively requires that we have a shared sense of purpose, and I cannot presuppose that my students will come to class with the same purpose I will. Some work is needed on all of our parts to align our purposes. I spend a great deal of time early in the semester learning as much as I can about my students and their academic and life goals, so that I can better make the case that what we will learn together will be useful to them: every aspect of every subject I teach I try to imbue with relevance and applicability. Here my aim is to instill in my students an intrinsic desire to learn, rather than an extrinsic one, for their learning experience will not fail to be a richer one if they see how what we study is inherently useful to them. Put another way, it’s better that my students see how useful a subject is, in actual practice, than that they merely be told of its usefulness, in theory.
Once students are intrinsically motivated to learn, it’s up to me to place before them challenging opportunities for deep learning. These opportunities are often driven and directed by the students themselves. While it is difficult to characterize broadly the activities in which my students take part, they are as a rule
- active and not passive,
- guided by discovery and not prescription,
- concept-driven and not computational, and
- authentic (that is, "real-world") and not artificial.
If I am successful in my efforts, my students soon become (often very literally!) the authors of their own knowledge. They allow themselves to become the experts and are no longer beholden to an intermediary who stands between them and their engagement of new ideas.
Of course, no two students are alike: some develop more quickly than others, some are more or less astute, observant, or mathematically apt. Moreover, students at varying stages in their academic careers exhibit a broad variation in maturity and intellectual development. When put into practice, my philosophy must take these variations into account, and I do this by adopting a sort of “dialectical” approach to teaching, engaging in frequent conversations with my students about the pace with which we proceed and the direction in which we travel. What do my students need from me, as individuals and as a class, this week, on this day, at this moment? I can never plan more than a class or two in advance, knowing that on any given day we might linger longer than I’d anticipated on a surprisingly challenging concept, or that an interesting conversation will spiral outward into an engaging and enlightening example.
For the same reason, no two iterations of the same course will look at all alike, and no amount of experience or preparation will fully ready me for the next time I teach a course. Herein is the true challenge my philosophy must face: meaningful teaching is time-consuming and work-intensive. It requires constant vigilance and refinement, because midcourse adjustments are almost unending. It requires humility, and a rather thick skin, because mistakes are often made, and it’s often hard to not take them personally. Finally, it requires seemingly limitless patience and flexibility, because to teach well I must be ready to work effectively with every sort of learner I can imagine…and a few I cannot.
Why work so hard?
I can think of no better way to affect the world in a positive manner than to teach, and to teaching meaningfully. I can think of no better way to spend my time. Indeed, I feel blessed that I get paid to do something which I do well and which I love to do anyway. When I reflect upon my experiences with my students, I realize that I truly am one of the luckiest people on Earth.