My Teaching Philosophy—Unavoidable proclivities—Is this a philosophy?—What does it mean, "see students as people"?—Active agents in their own education, always building a picture of the world—Formalizing experience—What does it mean, “be a colleague?”—Learn who they are through the classroom—Sharing experiences—Respect your students—What does it mean “work becomes play?”—Play emerges, work is abided—Materials lead play.
My Teaching Philosophy. I've been teaching or tutoring professionally for over 30 years. In many of the other jobs I've had I eventually find myself teaching something to someone. If knowledge is power, I want to give it away. Even in high school—I did not do my homework, but showed others how to do theirs. I love to teach, to work in that relationship with other people.
Throughout this career, I have always found the question asked here to be a difficult question: “What is your teaching philosophy?” The words seem more obstacles then stepping-stones. I do have very strong ideas about teaching, about good teaching and poor teaching, even about harmful and destructive teaching. I do have very basic and consistent approaches to anyone I am asked to teach. Do these constitute a philosophy?
1. Unavoidable proclivities. Even when I try to do otherwise, I cannot avoid three things when I work as a teacher or a tutor. a) I cannot avoid seeing my students as people. b) My relationship with my students always becomes collegial. c) Our work eventually feels like play. These three proclivities seem as pieces that fit together to create my way of teaching. On reflection, I find that each earlier piece is a precondition for the next one. If you do not see, respect, and react to the individual person in front of you, you cannot move into the role of colleague, of co-researcher, of co-learner. And if you are not a colleague, the work, though it may become fun, will not become play.
2. A philosophy? I know the task. "A Teaching Philosophy" asks me to formalize my thinking on teaching, to put it into the terminology of my field, early childhood education. I do not think I am ready to do that well. I do not want to fall into jargon, so I will mainly use my own words from my own experience as a teacher. Folding in the language of education will follow in course—perhaps.
3. I see students as people. It is my belief that there is a core humanity that is born with a child and drives its development. This humanity is visible clearly in any authentic teaching relationship. It shows in a genuine curiosity about discrepant phenomena. It shows in a natural and unavoidable mechanism for constructing knowledge and meaning from experience. It shows in a natural and necessary need to express oneself. It shows in a basic need to be seen by other people and to see them as well. It shows in an innate delight in understanding and creating.
4. Active agents, building knowledge from experience. It is sometimes said that to teach children, you have to give them experiences. However, experience is unavoidable. And children will build from their experiences whether you want them to or not. This fact bears on everything that happens in a classroom. The language you use, your use of your power, the importance you give to dead knowledge, the sequencing of your class time. What you do teaches the students about themselves, about power, and about their role. This is one of the endearing features of Pestallozzi’s pedagogy, about Froebel’s kindergarten, about Dewey’s classroom, and about Freire’s cultural circles. You cannot build a sense of agency in a student if you do not position yourself and their work so that they will build it.
The unstoppable construction of knowledge from experience also determines the type of lessons and the sequencing. For the most part, I believe that experience must precede instruction. Carefully designed confusion is the main path to creating knowledge. Common and tenacious misconceptions in science come from the lack of the correct discrepant experiences with materials and with theories and with a too early introduction of other peoples formalisms, including language, diagrams, and math—what Dewey called 'dead knowledge, other people's knowledge.'
Discrepant events—constructed confusion—are the teacher's breadcrumbs, what they throw out to lead the way. If the sun is so much bigger then the moon, why doesn't it fill up the sky? If gravity extends forever, why do people talk about "weightlessness" in the space shuttle, which is pretty close to Earth? If space is full of light from the sun, why is space black? If an object at rest is not accelerating, how can we stand up from sitting? If objects have inertia, why do you have to keep pushing something to keep it moving?
5. Learning is ‘formalizing experience.’ I believe we can only guide the process of building knowledge, what I will call ‘formalizing experience,’ by presenting students with messy, fuzzy problems embedded in real, physical experience, and then by having them struggle through figuring out a representation, a ‘model,’ to the problem. Moreover, I believe teachers need to be clear that there are further skills required other then rewriting other peoples solutions. Finally, I believe teachers need to be careful in the language they use in the classroom to explicitly differentiate between the physical world we are describing and language and images we use to describe and analyze it. Their choice of language can be disabling to their students, confusing some idea of reality with a particular representation of it.
6. Be a colleague. When a student is doing some investigation and finds a new connection—even if it is only new for them—I get excited and immediately fall into the role of fellow researcher. It does not matter their age or the problem. It does not matter if I have seen it already. It matters that we share this human experience and that they feel a partnership with me. You can see this draw them forward, embolden them to take the next step, to believe in themselves. This is one of the biggest rewards of being a teacher.
7. Students learn you and them. In the book Choice Words, Peter Johnson describes how the words we use can lead our students down very different paths. In an early example, he lists three likely responses a teacher might give to a conflict in the classroom:
Each of these responses says something different about “what we are doing here,” “who we are,” “how we relate to one another in this kind of activity,” and how to relate to the object of study.
Each response might quiet the situation, but saying “get back to work or you’ll stay after” makes implicit that students are laboring at their task and work slavishly under threats from authoritarian control, while saying “Whoa. This is not like you. What’s up? What do we need to do here?” implies that students and teachers are collaborating, momentarily distracted from their progress by an aberration from otherwise respectful and admirable people.
8. A colleague shares uncertainty and joy. Johnson emphasizes that language “is not merely representational; it is also constitutive. It actually creates realities and invites identities.” How does this abstract thought apply to being a colleague? I want to share in the struggle of my student with their material. In the classroom, I do not want to create the sense of simplicity and certainty where there is neither; I do not want to invite the student to be one who applies knowledge, but instead one who invents and judges tools of analysis. Looking at even a simple physical experience is a complex activity, full of subtly, false starts, and roadblocks, and creativity. Scientists do this in collaboration with one another. They create simple representations of the world and try to use them. I think that inviting students into this collaboration and respecting their struggles and advances is the proper way to teach students how to build the modern world and how to feel potent in their world.
9. Respect. I respect my students. I know they can take an idea and run with it. I know they are eager for something real in their learning. I know they can handle a good intake of language and technique much better then they can handle reasoning and abstractions. Even very young, they can look at data and see the pattern and make inferences. They can see discrepancies and they want to investigate. I also know they, even as toddlers have complex inner lives, and that these inner experiences drive them as well as any situation I put them into.
10. Work becomes play. There is talk out there that ‘play is the work of children.’ I do not accept this simple formulation. The difference between play and work is subtle and is somehow found in the intention of the activity. Play has to do with a sense of exploration, of free activity, of release. Work has to do with intentional activity, guided by a proscribed goal, towards a known point. Neither of these is the exclusive domain of any stage of human development. At any point, one can change into the other, and neither is absolutely bad nor good.
The confusion in a great deal of teaching is that work should be fun. This typically means entertaining. It can be, but that is never a goal for teaching. Work should have a point, and all the workers should ideally share the point, and it should have rewards, either internal or external. The best rewards are internal. Play, though, drives itself.
The driving motivation for learning is intrinsic, a person innately trying to make sense of the world, fitting their experience into their existing picture. External motivators can be good markers of progress, but they redirect the inner mechanism of knowledge building. The student quickly sees the way things work, and typically either rejects it and the activity or makes the activity a mere instrument towards getting something else.
11. Play emerges from the present. I believe a teacher should continually monitor their students and their teaching, watching how it is playing out in the student’s faces, words, and body language. They will need to adjust what they are doing, sometimes minute-by-minute, to the people at hand. The type of planning involves large overarching trajectories but finely tuned and flexible plans. One must improvise lessons and rearrange them to fit the needs or temperament of the students. Many times I would watch my class unfold and see that something was ‘getting lame’ and as I was teaching would play out different plans in my mind, picking one that would tweak the class in a needed way, improvising little activities on the spur of the moment.
12. Materials lead play. Typically, I have piles of junk to build activities with. Cylindrical boxes, various kinds of tape, wooden blocks, metal shapes, string, twine, clamps, cardboard, foil from gum wrappers, broken light bulbs, marbles, etc. When I spend my school money, it is usually on things that can be used in unpredictable ways. With these things, I can improvise vaguely stated problems that the students can puzzle over and solve in unique ways. I can give engineering problems that they can improvise clever solutions to using various suggestive materials. I try to bust my students out of the boxes that schooling puts them in: curricula, subjects, etc.