Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reflections on a teaching philosophy

When applying for teaching jobs, you are often called on to write a mini-essay stating your teaching philosophy.  Sometimes you are forced to be overly concise (state your philosophy of teaching in 150 words or less) but I just started one for which there are no guidelines. 

Obviously, it needs to be something someone can pick up off a pile and read in a few minutes, so it can't be too long. 

I was writing one like that just now and I realized that my philosophy of teaching suggests that:

  1. I should myself write in the way I would expect of those whom I teach; in other words, I should ‘transfer’ or carry over from my personal habits (my blogging for example) into my workplace and professional spaces.
  2. I should not treat my writing as something I do for an audience of one.  I should direct it at a wider audience.
  3. Writing like this is obviously directed at a purpose (to get a job for example, or to get a high mark) but its true purpose should be directed at the search for wider knowledge.
  4. When teachers write about their profession (or when anyone writes about their true passion) that act of reflection should be pumped into the ongoing peer conversations around that topic.
  5. My articulation of the teaching philosophy I am trying to convey can be improved on the basis of feedback I might receive by doing the above.
  6. When writing is personal in addition to purposeful, writing becomes a joy, a liberation, and it becomes better writing, writing that writers want to improve through a process based in peer appreciation and feedback.
With that in mind, here is my short philosophy of teaching …

I love teaching.  In fact I thrive on it.  I realized this was so when I had completed my first 20 years of teaching and went into CALL software development and then worked on the management team of a language center.  Working in an office, I felt a kind of withdrawl. I missed teaching so much that I started doing it on a volunteer basis online, just to be working with students and to explore and learn myself how learning takes place online. 

I teamed with colleagues I met online to work with our shared students at first, but eventually other teaching peers began getting interested in what we were finding out about online learning, and gradually started to join us. So in 2002 I set up a course to model for them how to make their students feel a part of a community online by applying those very techniques in the new course I was facilitating.  This small community of teaching peers, which we have since called Webheads, has sustained itself to this day and now has well over 1000 participants in its associated communities, and touches thousands more through its larger extended networks.  Many who have encountered our community have said that this association has produced an epiphanal moment in their teaching and learning careers.

Several aspects of my teaching philosophy can be gleaned from this story.  First, it’s a story, and I believe that story-telling is an appropriate technique in helping learners to consolidate and internalize their learning.  In this story I started out talking about teaching, because I was asked to write about my philosophy of teaching. But as soon as I could I turned that word over onto its flipside, learning. At one point I used the word facilitating  in place of the word teaching.  Then I mentioned ‘teaching peers’ to soften the concept of teaching, and level out its hierarchical overtones. 

A major role of teachers should be, in my view, to facilitate learning environments which enable students to tell their stories. In a language or writing class, they might do so overtly.  But in other classes this might mean that the teacher strives to enable students to relate the material to how they envision themselves in the context of their own stories.

I like David Warlick’s idea of a teacher as ‘master learner.’  I often cite that phrase in conjunction with Stephen Downes’s distinction between teachers and learners. Downes says that teachers model and demonstrate, whereas students practice and reflect.  If you consider teachers to be master learners then you could argue at one extreme that there is no such thing really as a teacher, only learners.  At the other extreme, you could say that teachers are really learners in disguise -- master learners -- who constantly percolate the processes of modeling, demonstrating, reflecting, and practicing.

Language is not something in my view that can be taught, like a scientific principle or theorem.  Most of us know for example that e=mc2, or how to calculate the length of a hypotenuse of a triangle.  Many of us have been taken through the proof of that theorem, but I would think only a tiny fraction of all students who have regurgitated that proof on a geometry test have actually learned it, or can explain clearly what would happen to time if light were ever to exceed the speed of c (or even what happens as it approaches that speed in the vicinity of a huge mass the size of a black hole, which in turn would be tending toward the size of a pea, a flea, and so on). Similarly many have been taught some expressions in a foreign language (for example, “frère Jaques, dormez vous?”) possibly without knowing hardly any other French.

I said in a plenary address once that there was no such thing as a language teacher, only language learners.  Here we must distinguish teaching from training.  It is possible to train someone to speak a grammatical subset of a language. In how many languages can you (1) greet people? (2) thank them or express dislike? (3) negotiate food and a place to stay? (4) speak to them about topics of concern to them or to you? (5) talk politics? or (6) understand a wide range of media in their language? As all language learners know (or find out, if it’s their first time), these tasks chart a progression (from 1 to 6) of increasingly difficult and complex skills. It is possible to train people to do the first three with some degree of competency (as you can train them to sing Frere Jaques). But the last two require that the learner has taken the training further through curiosity and motivation to learn the language. 

This is what I mean when I say that language at this level cannot be taught.  I mean that someone who succeeds as a putative teacher to such learners is creating contexts in which they can more efficiently and successfully learn.  This then is the true work of a teacher, to motivate students to want to learn, to challenge them, to construct environments whereby learning will best take place, to model the behaviors of good learners according to what the teacher has found works best as a master learner, to demonstrate, to practice what is learned, to reflect on what he or she is learning, to do, and to model for the students how to do, all of the above.
And my brief philosophy of teaching ends there.  That is about the right amount of prose for a job application. It reads like a story, it’s neatly ended.  But there is of course more. When I was writing this out, freewriting as it were, I continued in this vein …

Like others, I love to learn but I hate to be taught.  To be taught implies a teacher with a long ruler standing over fidgeting students bent over desks except when called on or to sneak furtive glances at the clock on the wall.  In my perception, a learning space should take on much more pleasant, more flexible dimensions.  Ideally it should be a space that learners want to go to (there have been studies of such spaces, such as children’s museums, space centers, etc. where people go voluntarily to learn).  Using Web 2.0 tools it is possible to construct such spaces online where students feel motivated to treat each other as collaborators in and audiences for projects.  The Internet allows us to scale such efforts out to highly significant dimensions, so if technology is available, it can be used for this purpose. But even if IT tools are not available, the focus of learning (as facilitated by teachers) should be on collaboration and appreciation of individual strengths, with deficiencies rectified in ways that students can see lead to success and progress.

When I have free reign to facilitate as I like (when I construct and facilitate my own online courses for example), I am able to tailor curricula around individual needs. I do this in part by letting students define their learning goals and document their progress in what I am now calling me-portfolios in open spaces of their own construction (not using a kind of e-portfolio software designed to place the entire e-portfolio into a single proprietary server space). In this way, when I have freedom to construct my own courses, I balance learner needs vs. a variety of choices in my curriculum to keep course materials flexible, adaptable, driven by students, and by their response to teacher trial and error. 

Sean Banville articulated this give and take in teaching quite well in an interview with  Larry Ferlazzo, reported in Larry’s blog here: (link). Sean referred especially to face-to-face language teaching, where teachers must listen carefully to students and then move in one of any number of possible directions either thought out and prepared in advance, or (and this is where it becomes an art) invented spontaneously.

Another important aspect of teaching is that it is necessary to have two general philosophies, or approaches, one for mature learners with developed literacy skills who can understand and articulate the metalanguage of learning and dissemination of knowledge, and another for learners without sufficient experience to enable them to express as well what they wish to accomplish in their learning environment.  I most often encounter the first group in online environments, where people tend to self-select to be there. Many of whom I am referring to as online students are in fact teaching peers carrying through on their master-learner roles, and for these learners I try to model how to use technologies to help them discover and learn what THEY want to know, and extend their learning through productive networking.  I often find that one of the rewards of working with such learners is that I am able to learn from them (again, in my role as master-learner).  Here, there are usually many opportunities to show-through-doing that to teach is to model and demonstrate, and to learn is to practice and reflect.  

For the less mature learners, the young men and women I teach in my day-to-day teaching at tertiary level in Arab countries, my over-riding goal as a teacher (as opposed to trainer) is to model and demonstrate for them the literacies I feel they will need to reach the next level. This involves giving more discrete guidance, much of it directed at affecting change in the culture of the learning environment itself.

One more important aspect of teaching is the role of doubt and confusion.  If my courses include many instances of realia and options, students can be confused at first.  I tell them, reassure them, that confusion is the state where learning begins.  If there is no stress or tension, then it is possible that training is taking place, but not necessarily learning in its optimal self-questioning sense.  So confusion serves a purpose and can be anticipated in stages where learning is most strongly internalized, and can be dissipated where interactions between participants are rich enough to help them resolve that confusion.

And now, as Auden said about great poems, never completed, only abandoned, I must leave off my exploration of teaching philosophies, or I would never actually complete any job applications ;-).  However, if the topic interest you, won’t you continue this conversation in the comments section below?

I didn't get the job but my teaching philosophy got two retweets!

Original links:

Yes, I accept pay in karma :-)

Hold Presses:
This just in, here's a teaching philosophy in action from a teacher in my PLN, linking her students to the world from a class somewhere on the planet. This just popped up on my computer while I happened to be editing this blog post ...