This is the “statement of teaching philosophy” that I recently wrote for a job application.
Ask an educational researcher for his “teaching philosophy” and you’re likely to get a puzzled look and a long pause. These can be interpreted as “How do I condense years of research, literature reading, and theoretical development into a short answer?”
My philosophy of teaching draws from several research and philosophical traditions, as well as from the teaching experiences of myself and my colleagues. First and foremost, I am a constructivist (von Glasersfeld, 2007; Peschl, 2006). That term means many things to many people, but to me it means simply that knowledge and understanding cannot be “transmitted” between people; it must be constructed over time by each individual. In other words, learning is a deliberate process of sense-making that inevitably includes times of confusion, struggle, and reconciliation of difficulties. This relatively simple recognition has deep implications for instruction.
One implication is that communication cannot be taken for granted. All communication involves the sending of symbols that have no inherent meaning; meaning is intended by the sender and inferred by the recipient, and what meaning the recipient infers depends on his or her pre-existing expectations, assumptions, model of the sender, knowledge, and so on. As a teacher, that means I cannot presume that my spectacularly clear explanations communicate to the students what I intend them to. I need to model their interpretations as they model my intentions, and I need to “close the loop”, asking them to communicate back to me what they think they understood.
Another implication is that I do not “teach” so much as engineer a productive environment and set of stimuli for students to learn within, and provide coaching as they do so. (Note that this does not mean that lecture, or direct explanation, is always bad. Sometimes it is the appropriate stimuli to provide; nevertheless, I must remember that such lectures or direct explanations are not simply absorbed, understood, and immediately ready for future use.) Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) — that productive learning occurs within the space of challenges that students can succeed at with scaffolding, but not alone — suggests that I must continually tune the learning environment to students’ evolving capacities.
A third implication of constructivism is that students do not enter my classroom as blank slates; pre-existing knowledge, perceptions, perspectives, and experiences shape the understandings they construct in response to the environment and stimuli I provide. Thus, attempting to model their initial state, and track its subsequent evolution, is as important a component of my teaching job as designing my instruction.
Out of this perspective has grown the conceptual change tradition of educational research (Scott, Asoki & Leach, 2007), which studies the mechanisms by which students’ understanding of concepts evolves, the role of “misconceptions” in learning, and the like. More recent research, in what might be termed the knowledge in pieces tradition (Scherr, 2007), suggests that attending to what knowledge elements students have access to, and what contextual elements help to activate them, is more productive than considering what knowledge (or misconceptions) they “possess” (Redish, 2003; Hammer, Elby, Scherr & Redish, 2004; Dufresne, Thaden-Koch, Gerace & Leonard, 2005).
I am not just a constructivist, but a social constructivist informed by the sociocultural tradition of educational research (Carlsen, 2007; Mortimer & Scott, 2003). I see social interaction as essential to the internal knowledge-construction process, including student-to-student interactions as well as instructor-to-student ones. As Vygotsky observed (1987), the tools students use for internal cogitation are appropriated from social interactions. This implies that the classroom should be a place for exhibiting and exploring modes of thinking and argument, where students can see the process of “thinking science” modeled and where they can try it out themselves. Also, as Bakhtin observed (summarized in Wertsch, 1991, pp. 93-118), learning science largely means learning the social language of science (including conventions for thought and argument as well as vocabulary and grammar), and students must practice speaking a language to develop fluency. Thus, the classroom should be a place for students to practice “talking science”, with enough scaffolding from me to help them along, but not so much that I do the talking instead of them. In the very act of struggling to articulate their fuzzy thinking, students clarify their understanding of what they know, identify what they don’t, and often reach insights.
This has strong implications for what should occur in my classrooms. I do not see the classroom as a place for the dissemination of declarative content knowledge or the exhibition of proofs; those are more efficiently done through textbooks, multimedia, or other online resources. My classroom should be a place for dialogue and interaction, for exploration and confrontation and resolution. (In a large lecture hall, this is greatly facilitated by use of a classroom response system.)
My outlook is also shaped by the literature on student motivation and self-regulation (Koballa & Glynn, 2007; Wilson, 2006), and on the significance of students’ epistemological framing of the learning activities they engage in (Hammer, 1996; Hammer & Elby, 2003). Students are not black boxes, to whom instructional stimuli are applied and learning results; how they engage in learning activities matters tremendously, and as an instructor I must probe, model, monitor, and seek to influence that.
Over time, I have distilled the practical implications for these (and other) pedagogical positions and educational research findings into four principles to guide instruction. These principles form the core of the “technology-enhanced formative assessment” (TEFA) pedagogy that my colleagues and I promote through in-service teacher professional development, and I would adhere to them in my own teaching.
The first principle is “Motivate and focus student learning with question-driven instruction.” This means posing tough, rich, meaty, often messy questions to students in order to contextualize and motivate subsequent learning, and often in order to catalyze or precipitate learning. It is grounded in the conceptual change tradition. It is motivated by an understanding that students perceive, process, and store information differently in response to a need, and that they “get” ideas by wrestling with the application of those ideas (Bransford et al., 1999, p. 139).
The second principle is “Develop students’ understanding and scientific fluency with dialogical discourse.” This means engaging students in discussion in which multiple ideas and ways of thinking are explored and contrasted, and in which students articulate and explore their own thinking. It is grounded in the sociocultural tradition.
The third principle is “Optimize teaching and students’ learning with formative assessment.” This means making students’ knowledge and thinking visible in order to adjust and optimize subsequent learning and teaching. It is motivated by an understanding that effective instruction requires detailed and current information about the specific students being taught, and that effective learning requires accurate self-knowledge (Wiliam, 2007). According to a seminal literature review by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam (1998), “innovations” involving formative assessment produce learning gains that are among the largest ever found for educational interventions.
The fourth principle is “Help students cooperate in the learning process and develop metacognitive skills with meta-level communication.” This means communicating about communication, about cognition, about learning, and about the purposes of instructional experiences. It is grounded in literature on student motivation and self-regulation. It is motivated by an understanding that learning works better when students frame their participation appropriately and understand what they are supposed to be paying attention to.
I do not consider these four principles to be independent and arbitrary beliefs; they interlock and reinforce each other in a highly synergistic way. This can be seen in the way they are enacted in the TEFA “question cycle” — one specific way out of many of realizing the principles — which has been described elsewhere (Dufresne et al., 1996; Beatty, Leonard, Gerace & Dufresne, 2006).
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