Thinking teaching and learning

One of the activities that I routinely do with students and participants in my workshops and programmes is the crafting of a teaching philosophy statement. Until very recently, teaching philosophy statements seemed like quite an “American concept”, something I could avoid.  Then I realised – I had to write one myself. Oh. The. Horror. And worse, I did not have a me to coach and coax and cajole me through the fun process of saying all the mushy, scary things that live inside in public, risky space. That said, the only way to do it is to dive in, use the tools I have created to help others, and in an oddly schizophrenic way, play writing coach to myself.

What do I mean by learning?

The first time I tried to learn to dance I was 15; 23 years later I am learning to dance again. In the interim, I have spent years teaching (other things admittedly), I have spent years learning (again other things), I have failed many times and succeeded many times. Underpinned by all this growing, my experiences of learning to dance as an adult dancer are worlds apart from my experiences as a teenager. I ask a lot more questions.  I insist my instructors stick to the things they told me last week or explain why it’s different this week. I stick with practice.  I apply tools I have acquired in formal, academic classroom to physical dance lessons. I use all the tricks I know about how I learn in places where I learn well. And I’m kind of getting it!

Even within ourselves, learning experiences across contexts, across time, are almost so different as almost to be different things. How much more so between individuals? But language forces us to the same label, we learn. I learn to dance. I learn to research. I learn to love. So, what does all learning have in common? Change. I believe that at some fundamental level, learning is about change. This change may be visible or invisible. It may be welcomed or resisted. It may endure across contexts, or it may be context specific.  It may be long-lasting or transient.  It may add value or it may detract from our lives. But courtesy of an experience, something about us is not the same as it was before.

Learning theories

Image by Robert Emperley, Neutral Density Filter (CC BY – SA 2.0)


What is the role of a “teacher” in my context?

When most people imagine a teacher, the thing they think about what we do at the front of the classroom – the presenter/transmitter aspect of teaching. They may even think about the various kinds of organisational and disciplinary activities a teacher carries out in the day.  I see as teacher’s role as being multifaceted and primarily about dispositions that are directed towards various activities.

Thinking about dispositions

Five dispositions of Teachers, based on text by Usher et al (2003)

Primarily, I believe teachers need to be creative and practical. Teachers create particular learning opportunities for students after considering the learning context through one or more filters.  These learning opportunities would require the design and creation of various kinds of input, activities and assessments which may be created exclusively by me, but, I would argue, more productively in consultation with others – colleagues, students, or even key players outside the classroom. But that creativity is supported and made possible by other dispositions and attributes. Usher et al (2003) draw on Coombs to offer five key dispositions of teachers (which I have represented in visual form above). When I found the Usher et al article (available here), I felt a resounding sense of comfort –  there were the things I thought made a good teacher!

What will “students” get from being in my class?

I have taught across disciplinary spaces, so my sense of what students will get from being in a class is driven less by content and more by experience. More than anything else, I hope that individuals who I work with will feel an enhanced curiosity about whatever we’re learning about, coupled with a growing confidence to keep learning after their engagement in my class, grounded in key skills, fundamental knowledge and valuable dispositions for the discipline in which we’re working. I hope that they will get a sense of theory and knowledge that is relevant to their experiences, and use-able in their world. I hope that the ways in which we learn will feel structured but not constraining, open but not purposeless. I hope that all of this will happen underpinned by connection to knowledgeable other, to peers, to the self.

How will my “students’” learning be monitored?Tick

The original version of this question is “How will I monitor my “students’” learning?”  I broadened it to the version above because I believe people, especially adult or young adult learners, learn better when they have a high degree of control over the learning process. Assessment is a powerful site of control and one that, if learners can shape, promotes relevant learning that they are motivated to pursue.

Some of the strongest “pushes” against my thoughts about assessment have come from working with wrapping MOOCs, from working in informal learning spaces, from working with tutors, and from my own experiences as a PhD student.  I find myself increasingly committed to exploring the possibilities offered by guided and structured peer and self assessment, multi-modal assessment practices, and outward-facing assessment. These assessment choices pose challenges for the design of learning and are predicated on the development of particular kinds of relationships in the learning space.

How will I evaluate my “teaching” activities?

The short answer is as often as possible and via as many sources as possible.  My experiences with evaluation of my teaching practice have been fairly varied.  My first experiences with evaluation were as a teacher assistant in the high school next door to my high school. My mother had taught there, my brothers went to school there and I worked there informally before doing so formally, so my evaluation in that space was always constructive and kind. It was an incredible introduction to be watched and evaluated as a teacher.

Much of my early experience of evaluation is located in a high school teaching environment where, for our department at least, team-teaching, or co-teaching were highly valued activities. Having feedback that was immediate and impacted on both teachers’ experiences of the classroom was hugely motivating. It was while I was working in this space that I developed an abiding interest in my students’ experiences of my class. In most South African government schools, student opinion of teacher practices is neither sought nor valued. In fact, attempts to seek such feedback are discouraged in order to maintain traditionally hierarchical power relations between students and staff.

My current experience of feedback on my teaching practice has tended to swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, where the primary feedback most academics receive on their teaching practice is from their students.  Furthermore, that feedback, reduced to a single number, is often used in departments as data in support of or to deny promotion

In conclusion…

I know that being a good teacher is a life-long process, that the ways and tools I can use to relate to my students now, will not the ways and tools I use in ten years’ time.  I will be different, they will be different and the spaces between will have changed substantially. I do know though, that a constant curiosity and willingness to reflect on my practice will help me to continue to teach and my students to continue to learn in ways that a meaningful and relevant.

Images and references:

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