my teaching philosophy

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).


Beatty, I. D., Leonard, W. J., Gerace, W. J., and Dufresne, R. J. (2006). Question driven instruction: Teaching science (well) with an audience response system. In Banks, D. A., editor, Audience Response Systems in Higher Education: Applications and Cases. Idea Group Inc., Hershey, PA.

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1):7-74.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., and Cocking, R. R. (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Carlsen, W. S. (2007). Language and science learning. In Abell, S. K. and Lederman, N. G., editors, Handbook of Research on Science Education, chapter 3, pages 57-74. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ.

Dufresne, R. J., Gerace, W. J., Leonard, W. J., Mestre, J. P., and Wenk, L. (1996). Classtalk: A classroom communication system for active learning. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 7:3-47.

Dufresne, R. J., Thaden-Koch, T., Gerace, W. J., and Leonard, W. J. (2005). Knowledge representation and coordination in the transfer process. In Mestre, J. P., editor, Transfer of Learning from a Modern Multidisciplinary Perspective, chapter 5, pages 89-119. Information Age Publishing.

Hammer, D. (1996). More than misconceptions: Multiple perspectives on student knowledge and reasoning, and an appropriate role for education research. American Journal of Physics, 64:1316-1325.

Hammer, D. and Elby, A. (2003). Tapping epistemological resources for learning physics. Journal of Learning Sciences, 12:53-90.

Hammer, D., Elby, A., Scherr, R. E., and Redish, E. F. (2004). Resources, framing, and transfer. In Mestre, J. P., editor, Transfer of Learning: Research and Perspective. Information Age Publishing, Greenwich, CT.

Koballa, T. R. and Glynn, S. M. (2007). Attitudinal and motivational constructs in science learning. In Abell, S. K. and Lederman, N. G., editors, Handbook of Research on Science Education, chapter 4, pages 75-102. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ.

Mortimer, E. F. and Scott, P. H. (2003). Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms. Open University Press.

Peschl, M. F. (2006). Modes of knowing and modes of coming to know: Knowledge creation and co-construction as socio-epistemological engineering in educational processes. Constructivist Foundations, 1(3):111-123.

Redish, E. F. (2003). A theoretical framework for physics education research: Modeling student thinking. In Vicentinni, M. and Redish, E. F., editors, Proceedings of the Varenna Summer School, “Enrico Fermi” Course CLVI. IOS Press, Amsterdam.

Scherr, R. E. (2007). Modeling student thinking: An example from special relativity. American Journal of Physics, 75(3):272-280.

Scott, P., Asoki, H., and Leach, J. (2007). Student conceptions and conceptual learning in science. In Abell, S. K. and Lederman, N. G., editors, Handbook of Research on Science Education, chapter 2, pages 31-56. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ.

von Glasersfeld, E. (2007). Key Works in Radical Constructivism. Sense Publisherss.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In Rieber, R. W. and Carton, A. S., editors, The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Plenum Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action. Harvard University Press.

Wiliam, D. (2007). Keeping learning on track: Classroom assessment and the regulation of learning. In Lester, F. K., editor, Second Handbook of Mathematics Teaching and Learning, pages 1051-1098. Information Age Publishing, Greenwich, CT.

Wilson, T. D. (2006). The power of social psychological interventions. Science, 313:1251-1252.

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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5 Responses to my teaching philosophy

  1. Pingback: Get Real! Science | Backwards Design - an overview

  2. victoria walker says:

    Did you get the job after submitting this statement? Did you receive any response to your teaching philosophy? I need to write one that combines my teaching philosophy and my research interests

    • Ian says:

      Hi, Victoria.

      Yes, it turns out I did get the job, although it was a complicated scenario (cluster hire) so I’m not sure you can attribute too much to the teaching statement itself. No, I haven’t had any responses posted to the blog yet. (BTW, I’m currently rethinking my teaching philosophy… Not because I’m changing my mind about anything I said here, but because my research, experiences, and thinking over the past couple of years have taken me even farther.)

      Good luck with your job search!

  3. Alexander says:

    Dear Ian,

    Thank you for your material. Now I am thinking to apply for physics teaching position. And I would like to get your professional opinion on my teaching philosophy statement. I writing it for first time… I am really want this job.
    Could you please help in the matter?


    With the best regards,

    • Ian says:

      Hi, Alexander.

      Your teaching philosophy statement should be a statement of what you, personally, believe about teaching — not what I believe or what you think will impress the people you’re applying to. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to “coach” you on your statement.

      If you don’t *have* a teaching philosophy… Well, in that case, you should do some serious reading and thinking.

      Good luck,

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