My teaching philosophy is pretty straightforward. I believe that
- the teaching-learning process is primarily for the benefit of the learner, not the teacher.
- all students can, will, and want to learn, given the proper learning environment.
- students actively and individually make sense of what they learn by integrating it into what they already understand. Because by definition teaching cannot occur without learning, I should always seek and value students’ points of view in order to understand students’ thought processes and knowledge acquisition.
- my ultimate responsibility as a teacher is to create a learning environment that facilitates learning for every student. My ultimate goal is to make each class the best learning experience students have ever had.
Clearly this is a constructivist approach, one that I have found works extremely well with adult learners. Because I primarily teach prospective principals and superintendents, my students often are older and have more experience in schools than I do. To ignore their wealth of knowledge would be pedagogically unsound and philosophically ludicrous.
My approach to teaching has both benefits and burdens. On the positive side, I find that students respond well to my student-centered approach. They are quick to respond and participate in class, and I have little difficulty engaging them in course material that, for many, is quite difficult. Because my main teaching areas, law and technology, are extremely dynamic and unfamiliar territory for most of my students, it is important that I help them navigate their learning curves smoothly and painlessly (for example, my school law students love that I give them the ability to pass without penalty on Socratic-style questions from me, even though they rarely actually do so). On the flip side, such an approach establishes a very high bar for me to meet. Since I tell my students that I am working to make each class their “best course ever,” they have extremely high expectations about the quality of their learning experience. This puts some pressure on me to try and meet each of their individual learning needs.
I work extremely hard to provide a safe, high-quality learning environment for my students. One way I do this is to use formative assessments to guide my instructional practice. I tell students that an end-of-course summative course evaluation doesn’t help their own learning experience; we thus do “mini evaluations” one-third and two-thirds of the way through each course that I teach. I ask three primary questions:
- On a scale of 1 (terrible) to 10 (excellent), how would you rate your class experience to date?
- What are some things that you like about this class?
- What are some ways that we can improve your class experience in the time that we have left?
I then present the results to students at the beginning of our next class (with accompanying graphs), emphasizing that I am striving for improvement. I not only go over students’ ratings and comments, I explain my thinking behind some of our class procedures and practices and offer tangible ways that I can act upon their feedback over the rest of the semester. The mini evaluations are especially useful when I am teaching courses for the first time because I tend to get the most feedback and my lowest ratings (both formative and summative) for classes that are new for me.
I implement a number of other bidirectional feedback mechanisms in my classes too. For example, at the beginning of each course, students receive a list of former students’ responses to the question, “If you could tell the students who next take this class one thing, what would it be?” from the previous class’s customized summative evaluation forms (used in addition to the university’s standard course evaluation form). I also frequently do quick, anonymous checks for understanding at the end of class sessions or online activities, asking my students “What is the most significant thing you learned in this class (activity)?” and “What question is uppermost in your mind at the end of this class (activity)?” All of my students submit reflective self-evaluations of their learning at the end of each course.
I like to experiment with my teaching. I constantly search for new ways to present material and to have students exhibit their understanding of course concepts. Lately I’ve been exploring the intersections of visual thinking tools and technology (e.g., mind mapping or concept mapping software). Many of my teaching methods involve the use of innovative information and communication technologies, both to model effective uses of technology in instruction and to expose my students to technology solutions that they do not know even exist.
As much as I enjoy my other activities, teaching is still the most professionally gratifying thing that I do each week.