One’s teaching philosophy, in my opinion, is a constantly evolving construct which will never be fully complete. This is in large part due to the ever-changing landscape of both K-12 and post-secondary education and the plethora of mandates, initiatives, and policies to which educators must constantly adapt. Further though, is the innate characteristic that lies within. That inner drive that pushes us to stay on top of the current research and trends and always be striving to be better today than yesterday. My experiences as an educator thus far have drastically altered my personal philosophies on teaching and learning from when I first stepped foot in the classroom.
Throughout my undergraduate studies I was hammered with words like differentiation, individualized education, and strategic intervention strategies. Taken at face value, these concepts have definite merit; however, my four and a half years in the classroom have shown me that while these (and many other) concepts may look and sound wonderful, the practicality of implementation is in many cases wishful thinking. Moreover, I have come to the conclusion that in many instances, we are actually doing students a disservice by catering to their individual learning needs. This is not to say that an educator should not consider the various learning modalities which will undoubtedly be present in the classroom. I simply do not feel that lessons should be custom made for individual students. Rather, educators should strive to implement a variety of instructional strategies, modes of feedback, and assessment techniques throughout a course. Furthermore, educators should also actively seek out input from students in regard to course content, organization, pacing, and assessment. This process allows students to take ownership in the course and ultimately in their learning while also providing the instructor with invaluable data when it comes time to reflect on and revise the course. Allowing students to have a voice and encouraging them to take responsibility of their education will serve them much better in the long run than pandering to their individual learning whims.
Let me be clear that I am not advocating for a ‘stand and deliver’ approach to teaching. Though, in small doses and in the right context I do feel that has its place. What I am proposing, and what I am trying to do daily in my own classroom, is the creation of learning communities where multiple instructional strategies are regularly implemented allowing students the opportunity to learn how to learn. Once again, this sounds great and provokes the “warm and fuzzies”, but actually doing these things is a monumental task. So, what is so hard about implementing various instructional strategies? The same thing that makes it so difficult for students to learn under certain circumstances. Educators are people too, and like everyone else they have tendencies, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. It is very tempting and many times much easier to go about doing things in the way that makes the most sense and is easiest for you as the teacher. It takes a concerted and conscious effort to frequently implement different instructional strategies and assessment techniques.
One of the biggest reasons I feel that teachers are not successful in implementing different strategies and building communities of learners is that they are themselves afraid of failing. This is understandable. It is in our nature as humans to not want to fail, especially in front of those whom we are supposed to be teaching. However, I find it absolutely imperative to fail and to let your students see it. This does a couple of things. First and foremost, it communicates to your students that you do not condemn failure in your classroom. This is a huge step in terms of creating a community of learners. Students have been programmed in school that failure is not an option and that their ultimate goal is to arrive at the “correct” answer as quickly and efficiently as possible (thanks standardized testing). This leads to a process oriented approach to problem solving that is counter-productive to the development of critical thinking processes. When students feel secure in failing and understand the value that comes along with the cognition and meta-cognition associated with the thought process immediately following a failed attempt, they can begin to construct their own meaning making structures and realize their true identity as a learner.
I wish I could concisely communicate to you how to accomplish all the contentions I have made, but like I said before this teaching thing is an ever-moving target. Some days I feel like a rock star and like I have it all figured out. The next day I am inadvertently letting my students see that I, too, fail from time to time. Some students do not react well to a teacher failing as they have been programmed to believe that we, as educators, are the keepers of knowledge and all that is good and holy. I have had several students get extremely upset with me when I fall on my face trying a new strategy or trip up attempting a new approach to solving a problem. There are two things I must remind myself in these situations. One, that I am the adult and I need to set an example for how to respectfully deal with someone who is angry or in disagreement with me. And two, that many of these students do not yet have the capacity for understanding what it is I am trying to do for them. You cannot take it personal when these students get angry with you as they are just frustrated with the changing of the status que. With some persistence and explicit explanation of your rationale and goals sprinkled in along the way, the status que does indeed eventually shift. It is at this point, when the students begin to take ownership and responsibility for their learning that a classroom community begins to form and the real magic can start.