Philosophy of Teaching

A Teaching Philosophy Statement
(23 November 2007)
I really believe that there’s an inherent value in thinking through a teaching philosophy and using it to give courses a foundation.  On the other hand, it’s clear to me that a lot of teaching philosophies run the risk of simply being a string of nice words.  I’ve read many other teaching philosophies that have great sentiment, but generally not much that’s original.  Students should construct their own knowledge.  Teaching materials should be engaging.   Assessments should be appropriate for the course being taught.  The classroom should be student centered.  This is all good – and correct1 – but it also falls short for me. 
At least once a year I have my students in science education courses take a teaching philosophy inventory in which they get to reveal to themselves how their own thinking about teaching and education lumps them together with other teachers, philosophers, and trends.  It’s revealing, both to me and to them, and it’s exciting to see one’s own thinking being paired with John Dewey or Paulo Freire.  (It’s a bit more frightening to me, personally, when students’ thinking ties with E. D. Hirsch and other “cultural literacy” ideals, but still helpful for us all to see that their developing ideas do link to a more coherent set of philosophical concepts.)  Moreover, they get to see their ideas aligning with different views of what learning means, what knowledge is, and what education is good for.  Each year I take the same inventory of my teaching philosophy, and it has always stood firmly on the side of being student centered and directed at an existential view of learning for the growth of an individual.  Yet, over the years I’ve seen it shift gradually from focusing on the individual exclusively to an aim towards societal change.  I think that, especially in science education and teacher preparation, I see myself not simply helping students to understand themselves and their place in this world.  I am pushing to shape the world in which we live.  So, add to the above list of clichés one more: Teaching is a political act.  As a favorite poet, Taylor Mali, states, “if I ever change the world it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.”  I don’t get to teach middle school students too often, but I do get to teach their teachers, and I take seriously that responsibility.
All that said, my actual model in the classroom comes down to a couple of things that I think are neglected in the standard “students should construct their own knowledge in a minds-on student centered classroom” teaching philosophy.  These specific pieces are still consistent with the SSCTOKIAMOSCC philosophy, but a bit more useful to me, personally.  They derive both from my own classroom experiences and my research:

  • Learning requires big mistakes, horrendous errors, and terrific blunders. 
    This would seem like a counterproductive teaching strategy at first glance.  Yet, it’s clear to me that the students who do not get to see where they’re misunderstanding something do little to make strides in their learning.  Conceptual change theory, a basis for much of my own research, looks at learning not so much as a simple accumulation of new ideas, but the replacing of previous ideas with new ones.  For this to happen, the learner needs to realize what the prior conception is in the first place, see its weakness, and then realize the fruitfulness of the new idea.  Physics is ripe with examples of this being useful.  Being able to state Newton’s first law and being able to make a prediction of the motion of an object are two very different understandings.  Many, many students can state Newton’s laws but still use more intuitive reasonings about motion when they actually do the physics.  Making mistakes, recognizing them, compiling them, and realizing the reasoning behind them is really necessary.  I try to scaffold my classes so that students are free to make lots of mistakes and conceptual blunders on pre-tests, early responses papers, and homework.  This works beyond just the general physics curricula and extends particularly well to when students are trying to understand the nature of science itself or the nature of science learning.  Eliciting early ideas in discussion and writings makes these ideas clear from the outset and gives the student a chance to realize a change in conception, rather than just recite something new but still hold on to a preexisting idea.
  • An instructor (me) needs to make explicit the “hidden” curriculum. 
    It’s funny to admit that there is such a thing as a hidden (versus explicit) curriculum, but in my own research about students understanding the nature of science and in the research and presentations I’ve done with Eric Amsel, we’ve found that much of education is not just learning new stuff, but trying to first figure out what stuff it is that needs to be learned.  A nice example of this is in typical general education coursework.  While we may emphasize to students the understanding of conservation of energy or the inverse square law, many of us will state and believe that the overall objective of such coursework is to enable students to be critical consumers of science and informed members of a democratic society.  So, we need to admit that there’s a bit of a chasm here: How does a student come to learn these grand abstractions while focusing so intently on how a rate of heat transfer is proportional to a temperature gradient in a solid?  The student needs to see the connection, and the instructor needs to show this explicitly.  I must make it clear to students exactly what kind of learning I want them to achieve.  If I want my students to be critical thinkers in a scientific context, then I should push towards this in the class itself.  Doing this requires assessments of students that explicitly reveal my goals, such as having students completing research projects and analysis papers.  It is my responsibility to the students in my class to not only challenge them, but to challenge them in very specific ways so that they actually see (and realize) the same goals in a course that I do.  This is much easier said than done, but something that I’m always trying to improve upon.

The nature of these ideals is such that my instruction is generally very patient and tolerant of wrong answers and misconceptions.  While I know where I want to push students, I also really love the learning process(es), both in myself and in my students.  I don’t think it’s easy and, in fact, I am dubious when it seems to be so for students (or myself).  And, the beauty of being a researcher in science education is that when students do not understand something – perhaps even developing strong misconceptions – my perspective as a teacher changes from wanting to treat this to wanting to understand the source of the misconception.  It’s an exciting, guilty pleasure of mine.  I’m certain that the learning of anything really worthwhile is very slow, and might not even happen completely within the time constraints of a semester.  That makes what I do in the classroom that much more important – it needs to be an enrichment that reaches beyond the confines of Lind Lecture Hall or any given fall or spring.
Finally, behind all of the strategies and philosophies of teaching that I’m trying to tease out is one very simple concept: Teaching is fun2.  “Fun,” actually, doesn’t even begin to describe it.  It is an essential part of me, and there is perhaps no other version of myself that I like better than when I’m in the teaching environment.  Any philosophy and research ideal of mine may change, but the success I could have as a teacher hinges entirely on the selfish joy I get to experience as a teacher.

1. See: Johnston, A. (2008). Demythologizing or dehumanizing? A response to Settlage and the ideals of open inquiry. Journal of Science Teacher Education. 19(1), 11-13
2. This was the general sentiment of a keynote address I gave a few years ago, “The Joy of Teaching”.