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Your Teaching Philosophy, Spring 2000
By Mike Atkinson, Teaching Support Centre
The University of Western Ontario
"A teacher has two jobs; fill young minds with knowledge, yes, but more important, give those young minds a compass so that the knowledge doesn't go to waste." Principal Jacobs in Mr. Holland's Opus.
Over the last 10 years, more and more emphasis has been placed on teaching at the university level. This is reflected in everything from official reports such as the 1991 Smith Commission, recent proposals to "certify" instructors (see the November 1999 issue of University Affairs), university mission statements and annual reports (see Western's Annual Report at http://comms.uwo.ca/Report99), to the increased attention given to teaching in promotion and tenure decisions. In fact, Western was one of the first universities in Canada to require teaching dossiers for P&T decisions, and is one of the few universities in North America that publishes undergraduate course evaluations on the web.
Your teaching dossier is the instructional equivalent of your curriculum vita. It outlines your record of teaching, your goals and accomplishments, involvement in instructional development, and so on. Unlike your CV, the purpose is not to present an exhaustive account of everything you have ever done in or around the classroom, but rather it should present a snapshot of your current teaching activities. One of the most important (and overlooked) sections of anyone's teaching dossier is your statement of pedagogical approach--your teaching philosophy. This does not have to be a long drawn-out treatise--it may only be a few sentences or paragraphs. It may seem odd to place such a reflective statement in the objective record, but such a description gives the reader a context in which to assess the work. It gives you the opportunity to outline your priorities in the teaching environment. This can be particularly helpful to the reader when assessing a file for either P&T purposes, or for a teaching award.
There are numerous approaches one can take when writing your teaching philosophy. Let's examine several of these by looking at the reflective statements from some of Western's top teachers. These should not be considered as mutually exclusive strategies. In fact, many instructors use a variety of these styles.
Focus on the Purpose of Teaching
In this approach, one presents a general statement about what you see as the "job" of a university instructor. Principal Jacobs in the opening quote sees two major aspects to the teacher role--transmitting knowledge and providing guidance. You might consider what one should do in the classroom. How does this help the student to develop? Remember to keep your comments focused and to the point.
"My responsibility as a teacher is to create an environment where students are empowered to think critically and creatively, to learn to seek resources to achieve their learning goals, to develop as self-evaluators, and to receive constructive feedback about their work. I am very cognizant of the need for undergraduate students to acquire specific knowledge while they develop the attitudes and skills that are essential to professional practice in nursing". (Carroll Iwasiw, Nursing, OCUFA Award, 1987)
"Teaching in a professional faculty, I am constantly mindful of the need to ensure that the theory I discuss is presented in a context that is meaningful to my students. Most of my students are mature students, for whom relevance of subject matter to their chosen careers is highly valued. Most of my graduate students have had substantial experience as teachers and administrators and are looking for theory to explain, if not outright solve, the problems they encounter in practice." (Greg Dickinson, Education, Pleva Award, 1999)
"The primary challenge I have faced is related to the fact that my field--Restoration and eighteenth-century literature--seems remote to most students. My job, I believe, is to make the field come alive for the classes I teach, to demonstrate its centrality in the culture of the late twentieth century, and to instil a love for works that might initially appear intimidating in their neoclassicism or vexing in their satiric density." (Alison Conway, English, Marilyn Robinson Award, 1999)
"Teachers provide a catalyst for learning by making information understandable and applicable to students. A teacher must have an intense passion for teaching. An effective teacher also has the will and the ability to show emotion, realizing that genuine emotions not only reveal his or her character, but also are an effective and personal means of communication. And not least, a teacher must know the importance of being humble." (F.P.H. Chan, Anatomy and Cell Biology, Pleva Award, 1996)
Here the individual outlines how and why he or she entered the profession of academia. This may be quite specific ("My father was a customs officer and I became intensely interested in people's ability to lie") or very general ("For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in helping students to learn.") Some questions for you to consider: Why did you become a university instructor? Who were your role models? What attracted you to your specific area of study?
"I chose to study French when I entered university because of an intense interest in language and languages which I developed in my first year of secondary school. In my teaching, I start from the assumption that each student either has a similar fascination already and that my task is to help her follow it further, or that she has the potential to be as fascinated as I am and that my job is to help her develop that enthusiasm for the subject matter." (Jeff Tennant, French, Marilyn Robinson Award, 1997)
Citing Specific Tactics
In this approach, the instructor discusses specific examples of things she or he has done in the classroom. The focus here is not so much on a listing of activities as it is on a demonstration of pedagogical approach.
"Even in large lectures of a few hundred I attempt to invite at least minimal participation, for example, through 'You Be the Judge' exercises. In smaller settings I employ debates, role-playing, dialoguing, and mock trials or hearings--techniques that require students to 'sift through the evidence', enabling them to adopt various perspectives and make defensible arguments for them." (Greg Dickinson)
"Let me start by saying that I find the term 'philosophy' to be rather too pretentious for my approach to teaching. However there are several things that I do in an attempt to be as effective as possible in the time available. I try to be organized so that both the student and I know what is coming, where we have been and what is expected. I also work hard at getting the students involved individually in the lectures and keeping them up to date in the course material. I try to know everyone's name and I ask lots of questions in class. On a weekly basis, I hand out short problem sets and we hold sessions in which student volunteers present the answers on the board to the rest of the class. The vetting of the problem sets can be quite time consuming, but I am convinced that it is one of the most effective things that I do". (D. H. Hunter, Chemistry, Pleva Award, 1997)
The Larger Picture
An instructor may want to set a broad philosophical background for his or her own pedagogical approach. As always, this does not have to be a lengthy discussion of philosophical theory. Rather, the focus is on your own values and beliefs. Such statements tell the reader a great deal about your personal approach to teaching, interaction with students, your choice of instructional format, evaluation, and so on. Think about what values are the most central to your beliefs about education. Equality? Perseverance? Exploration? Whatever you choose, this is a good way to begin your statement of teaching philosophy.
"Teaching is one of the most important of all human activities with a potential for great good or harm. It is far more complex than most people realize and makes large professional and personal demands on the teacher. It repays the teacher's efforts many times over in terms of the gratification in being a part of the awakening and development of students". (W. Wayne Weston, Family Medicine, Pleva Award, 1987; 3M Fellow, 1992)
"My cognitive machinery is not designed for fine detail work. I think about and understand the world in broad strokes on large canvasses. In the classroom, my emphasis is always on the big picture because that is where I am most fluent. I tend to 'dig down' to the necessary level of organizational detail rather than 'build up' from all of the component bits and pieces. I am open with my students that they probably command more of the minutiae of the discipline than I--but I also warn them of the speed with which our knowledge of minutiae changes. I try to model a way of being intrigued by, and working with, knowledge rather than being chock-full of it."(Tom Haffie, Plant Sciences, Pleva, 1995; 3M Fellow, 1995)
"My philosophy of teaching is less philosophy and more value-based. However, I do have some basic tenets that I hold dear to my pedagogical practice. My first premise sounds trite but is absolutely critical to what I do in class: I believe I teach students, not a subject. Of course, it is not completely true and I do teach a subject, but I am teaching students about a subject. I have long admired the question, 'What is worth knowing? and try my best to remind myself of that question when I prepare for classes. Its corollary is equally important, 'How do you go about getting to know what is worth knowing?' For both questions, the issues of HOW to teach and HOW to learn are critical. Teaching to me is about process first, content second." (Don Morrow, Kinesiology, Pleva Award, 1998; Student Council Excellence Award, 1998)
"The encounter between teacher and student is an honoured tradition in which one passes on parcels of knowledge to the other. Particularly in the university environment, it involves more than the dissemination of detailed information: the myriad of facts are only kindling used to fuel the desire to imagine, to reason, and to think." (F.P.H. Chan)
Identification of Goals
We have a variety of goals in mind whenever we teach a class. Some of these are broad and quite loosely defined ("I want my students to gain an appreciation for chamber music.") Others may be very specific and could reasonably be thought of as instructional objectives ("By the end of this course, students will be able to identify correctly all of the major structures in the human nervous system and will be able to suggest the likely cause of any neurological disorder when presented with a hypothetical scenario. ") Whatever your goals, it is useful to set them out clearly. In this way, you (and your students) can know whether or not the goals have been achieved.
"The following are the general goals I set for myself in the courses I teach:
To encourage students to make the subject matter their own. In the case of language courses, this involves encouraging them to make use of French every chance they get, both inside and outside the classroom.
To help students make progress in the learning of their second language by giving them the means to identify and correct their errors.
To encourage students to challenge their common sense assumptions about language by analyzing it from a rigorous scientific viewpoint.
To help students, through the study of sociolinguistics, to recognize sources of social and ethnic prejudice in beliefs people have about language and about differences between groups of people based on their language and use of language.
To establish with students a cordial relationship between learner and teacher based on mutual respect rather than one based on authority.
To be available to students for assistance with their work when they need it. To this end I encourage students to make an appointment to see me if they are unable to come by during my regularly scheduled office hours." (Jeff Tennant)
Although each individual mentioned in this article takes a different approach to instruction, there is an enormous degree of consistency in the philosophies of award-winning teachers. All are deeply concerned about their students, how they should be challenged in the classroom and invited to be critical thinkers. All are mindful of the need to make learning accessible and enjoyable. If there is one quality that links these instructors, it is passion--a passion for their subject area and for the satisfaction of being able to "pass on parcels of knowledge" to others.
For more information on Teaching Dossiers in general or on writing a statement of philosophy in particular, check out the following resources on the web.
A Guide to Constructing Your U.W.O. Teaching Dossier. Written by Colin Baird, this guide provides information on the required and optional areas of a teaching dossier for use at U.W.O.
Teaching Portfolios and Teaching Dossiers: An Annotated Bibliography. An extensive collection of materials on Teaching Dossiers prepared by the University Teaching Services at the University of Alberta.
Teaching Dossier Preparation. Written by Gail Riddell at the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth, University of British Columbia, this document outlines the preparation of the Dossier. There are many useful tips here and a list of reference materials.
Writing a Teaching Philosophy Statement. Prepared by Lee Haugen, Center for Teaching Excellence, Iowa State University.