I got my teaching position decades ago, long before anyone started to ask candidates to write a "Teaching Philosophy." I recently had to create one for an application for internal University funding. Despite having written about teaching for decades (I wrote a small book about it), I found it an interesting challenge to try to condense it all into a page-and-a-half. For your amusement, here it is.
My teaching philosophy is based on nearly 45 years of
teaching students at the University of Maryland and more than 20 years of
carrying out Discipline Based Education Research with students attempting to
learn physics. It is also informed by my readings of the literature in
education, psychology, sociology, and linguistics.
My teaching philosophy grows out of a few basic principles:
- It's not
what the teacher does in a class that determines learning, it's what the
students do. Learning is something that takes place in the student. And
deep learning – sense making – involves more than just rote. It involves making
meaning: making strong associations with other things that the students already
know and organizing knowledge into coherent and usable structures.
- I can
explain for you, but I can't understand for you. Students assemble their
responses to instruction from what they already know – appropriately or inappropriately.
This can lead to what appear to be preconceptions that are incorrect and
robust. Note, however, that these may be created “on the fly” in response to
new information that is being presented.
expectations matter. The expectations that students have developed about
knowledge and how to learn (epistemology), based on previous experiences with
schooling, are extremely important. Their answers to the questions, "What's
the nature of the knowledge we are learning? [e.g., facts or productive tools?]
What do I have to do to learn it? [e.g., memorize or sense-make?]" may matter
as much or more than the preconceptions they bring in about content.
- Science is
a social activity. I'm teaching science, and science is all about how we
know what we know. This is decided not by some algorithm but by a social
process of sharing results, mutual evaluation, peer review, criticism, and
discussion. Presenting a set of results to be repeated back is not science.
Learning to do science means learning to participate in scientific
These lead me to rely heavily on a number of fundamental
- Minds on – Look for activities that will engage the student's thinking and relevant experiences, making connections to things they know and are comfortable with.
engagement – Set up classes so that there is more for students to do, less
– Encourage students to be more explicit about their thinking, planning,
evaluating. As a teacher, be explicit about your thinking and why you
are asking them to do what you are asking them to do.
good mistakes – Mistakes that you can learn from are "good
mistakes." Set up situations where your students will learn to think about
their thinking and how to debug their errors – but do it supportively with some
but not too much penalty for errors.
- Group work
– Create situations where students are expected to discuss scientific ideas
with their peers, both in and out of class. And finally
- Listen! –To create the activities described
above, you need to know how students are responding. Therefore, set up
situations that will let you hear what students are thinking and doing.
These ideas lead to my using lots of explicit techniques in
class, including: having students read text and submit questions before class, asking
challenging (and sometimes intentionally ambiguous) clicker questions followed
by discussions of "why" and "how do we know", facilitating lots
of group discussion and "find someone who disagrees with you and see if
you can convince them" as part of each class session. And encouraging
students to ask for regrades on quizzes and exams, and offering second-chance
exams, among others.
My experience with all this leads me to three concluding
Diagnosis – When I
first began teaching (for the first 30 years or so), if a student asked me a
question, it was my instinct to answer it. In doing so I was using my
experience as "the good student" and had not transitioned to being
"the teacher". I had to learn that being the good student was no
longer my job. My job was not necessarily to answer the student's question, but
rather to consider, "Why couldn't this student answer this question for
him/herself despite my having taught the material in class?" My job is in
part to diagnose the students'
difficulty, not answer their question. That requires a dramatically different interaction
with my students. And learning when
to answer a question directly (sometimes the right thing to do) is subtle.
perspectives – In the past five years, working closely with students from a
different discipline than my own, I have learned that many views that seemed to
me bizarre or just plain wrong, were actually well-justified in appropriate
contexts. I have also learned from these same students that many of the
approaches and results I took for granted and was used to teaching in my own
discipline had hidden assumptions and required perspectives that were unnatural
if not looked at with an expert's knowledge and the context of longer term
implications and applications.
– Everything comes together in a fundamental overarching and unifying
Listen to your students.
Understand how they are interpreting and understanding (or misunderstanding)
what you are teaching. Respect their views and what they bring to class, and
respond by adjusting your instruction to match.
This doesn't mean giving up your own view of what you want
to teach or want them to learn. It means developing a good understanding of
where they are and how you can help them get to where you want them to be.