The Unabashed Academic

23 November 2015

My teaching philosophy

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.
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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.
  • Students' 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 conversations.
These lead me to rely heavily on a number of fundamental teaching guidelines:
  1.   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.
  2. Active engagement – Set up classes so that there is more for students to do, less listening.
  3. Metacognition – 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.
  4. Enable 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.
  5. Group work – Create situations where students are expected to discuss scientific ideas with their peers, both in and out of class. And finally
  6.  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 overarching ideas.

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.

Respecting different 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.

Responsive teaching – Everything comes together in a fundamental overarching and unifying guideline:

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.

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