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My teaching philosophy

available as pdf:My Teaching Philosophy

Every teacher is a philosopher.  In addition to having an understanding of “life, the universe, and everything” for their own lives, teachers also have “ways of looking” and sets of values regarding education that shape all they do as teachers.  Writing out my teaching philosophy is a good reflective exercise for myself.  But it also gives others – students, fellow teachers, administrators – an idea of what drives my teaching.

Two significant aspects of my personal philosophy that are most relevant to my teaching philosophy are my understanding of truth and knowledge, and my understanding of the value of people and community.  I accept a “common sense”, correspondence theory of truth and hold a critical realist epistemology.  Very briefly and roughly, I believe that truth about reality is approachable, if not ultimately attainable, by us as communities of finite, fallible human beings.  I would argue that this is possible only if we desire truth more than certainty, and humbly engage in critical exchanges between ourselves, other “knowers”, and the subject we are studying.  This obviously implies that our current understandings (including those mentioned above) are subject to change.

People and community are not only (or primarily) important as a part of this process, but, more so, as the point of this process.  Increasing knowledge, though sometimes uncomfortable, gives us as communities the potential to better our lives.  As we better understand the reality in and around us, we can choose to order our lives in ways that help others and sustainably make the world a better place for all of us.  Of course, this often does not happen and there is great complexity in this cliché, as the study of human history bears out.

The relation of my personal philosophy to my teaching philosophy (and why I like teaching) should be obvious.  I see the university as a truth-pursuing, truth-approaching (but not ultimately apprehending) community – and I get to be a part of it!  AUB President, Peter Dorman, in the Opening Ceremony for the 2008-2009 school year, spoke of the communal task of the university as “our continued dedication to questioning the sum of human knowledge with open and skeptical minds, fully aware of its fallibility, and even grateful for it, because of the challenge it offers us to explore uncharted avenues of thought and to discover new knowledge.”  He continued, “Let us further hope that we never discover the whole and absolute Truth: then we will simply have to teach it, and academia will become a very dull place indeed.”

This understanding of the university implies certain core values that shape the way I interact with students.  Related to the pursuit of truth, I place a high value on:

  • Intellectual honesty.  Plagiarism, cheating, fudging data, etc. are a cancer which, if not addressed, could eventually kill the university.
  • Self-awareness.  We must be aware and honest about our biases – with ourselves and others.
  • Epistemological humility
  • Clear thinking, critical thinking, analytical thinking, problem solving
  • Developing good questions
  • Openness to considering new and different ideas; willingness to question (NOT just automatically reject) traditions, authorities and teachers
  • Curiosity – the best motivation for formal study, AND the key to life-long learning
  • Self-study / research; independent learning

Related to the communal aspect of truth-pursuing at the university, I highly value:

  • Mutual respect (not merely tolerance or a “whatever” attitude) – respectful argument is much better than apathetic agreement.
  • Cross-cultural understanding – realizing that those from other cultures may have different values and ways of communicating – as well as different and new (to us) perspectives.  Respectful interaction and fair consideration of their ideas usually takes extra work and time.
  • Engaged learning – joining “the conversation”
  • Team projects and learning
  • Varied activities and methods of presentation (to engage various learning styles)

As a teacher, I not only want to model these values in my interaction with students, but also encourage them to adopt these values for themselves.

I also think that teachers should not just provide information, but they should also challenge students to construct and refine their own worldviews – to see how it all fits together.  But not only this – as a teacher, I also want to encourage them to consider the practical application – how does a specific idea they accept – or their whole worldview – change or affect the way they live in their community and the world.

Realizing the inequity in social position / power between teachers and students, I must be very careful how I do all this.  While it is impossible and (in my opinion) ill-advised to completely hide either my specific positions or my overall worldview/philosophy, I must resist the temptation to “push” my views on students.  I must strive to only offer my views to students for consideration – along with other views – presented as fairly as possible.  As a university teacher, I want to be a guide, a facilitator, a coach, a challenger, a provoker, an encourager – assisting my students as they grow and develop their own minds and beings.

Moving now to my own discipline, I believe that being able to communicate effectively and efficiently is a vital skill for the university and for life.  Expressing our ideas, feelings, doubts, questions, etc. to those around us is an integral part of being human, but good communication can be difficult and tricky.  By teaching Academic English (reading, researching, writing, presenting), I am helping students develop the communication skills that are necessary to be active, valued members of the university community and their society.

This is who I am as a teacher – or at least as much of my teaching philosophy that I can fit into two pages.  While I do believe that you will see most of this manifested in my day-to-day teaching, I know that there will be inconsistencies and failures – and that I will always have room to grow as a teacher.  Toward that end, I welcome input from my students, fellow teachers, administrators and others.  This input, along with my own self-analysis, is a great help as I seek to improve my teaching.  Finally, I want to say that, although there are those days and tasks we all hate, I really enjoy teaching and the chance it gives me to be part of a fascinating, truth-pursuing, world-changing community of students and other teachers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 Jan 2011 4:58 pm

    I love the clarity of this statement. Thanks for articulating a hopeful philosophy of teaching complete with epistemological humility. “Respectful argument is much better than apathetic agreement.” That’s one to quote. Your comment on learners from other cultures showed insight as well. Thanks for sharing this!

    • 18 Jan 2011 2:10 am

      Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your comment. Loved your recent book. Also, best wishes on your academic pursuits.


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