Introduction and History

One of the things I always find myself revisiting is my Philosophy of Teaching. Ironically, it's a task that I always find myself putting off. The first time I sat down to write something like this was the summer of 2005. Looking back on that original statement, it was very idealistic, but out of bitterness towards my previous experiences as a learner instead of teaching.

The next time I revisited the topic was in the summer of 2010. A couple of things prompted me to do so. The first one was I was about ready to start teaching myself. The second prompt had the stronger effect on me, however. I attended a workshop session put on by a future colleague of mine. The very first thing he did, even before the session started, was to give out his teaching philosophy. I don’t remember the specifics about the session or his own philosophy, but I remember being wowed by him doing that and his willingness to share his philosophy.

Now looking at the present, I've lost count of the number of times and changes I've made to this document. I usually share bits and pieces of my own philosophy about teaching in the first part of my course -- very brief, very basic. Now, in this document, I hope to add some depth to those statements. However, to talk about teaching is to talk about learning. Teaching is a meaningless task without student learning.

Beliefs on Learning Theories

Looking at my own beliefs about learning, I believe learning is constructive, inquiry-based, social, and reflective. To that end and being the andragogist that I am, in my courses I implement ZPD and transformational learning theory. Specific to the online environment, I subscribe to the “Community of Inquiry" (CoI) model. Even though it was developed for online courses, I believe it applies face-to-face as well.

Constructivism and Inquiry-based Learning

At its basic tenants, constructivism requires learners to build and assemble their own knowledge based on what is meaningful to the individual. I choose the word meaningful, but other may choose the word, relevance. If something is not relevant to the learner, he or she is not going to be motivated to learn it. I believe if I ‘spoon-feed’ knowledge my learners might complete their assignments faster and my course evaluations might be better, but they are not going to really learn anything. The knowledge lacks meaning for them and there will not be meaning for it unless I allow my learners to construct it themselves.

Experientialism and Inquiry-based learning fall on that same line. Learners have to be involved in what they are learning. Ideally, learners would experience what they are learning. They need to work with it, tweak it, ‘tinker’ with it, create and run through ‘what-if situations,’ or in other words, inquire. If they cannot directly experience what they are learning, then they must have some kind of experience that ties them to it. It's this experience that creates meaning.

Transformational Learning, Social Learning, and Reflection

An Adult Learning theory that I strongly believe in is Transformational Learning Theory. The first event in Transformational Learning Theory is a Disorientating Dilemma. I believe Disorientating Dilemmas are very important. They force us to abandon our long-held positions -- positions that hamper us from learning new things and ideas. The second event is the acknowledgment of a need to change on the part of the learner. Once we are willing to open ourselves to new things, we can begin to learn. The next events are a build up. This is one area where I believe social learning comes to play. It is possible for an individual to build himself or herself up, but the process is a lot smoother with support from others. In addition, we are able to gain information and valuable insights from our peers.

Reflection is important here as well. Reflection is a tool that helps us look back and see where we are at -- where we have come from. More importantly, it allows us to acknowledge what we have learned. It helps create satisfaction -- the last event in Keller’s ARCS motivational theory -- in the fact that we have learned. Reflection also allows us to see where we need to go.

Zones of Proximal Development

Vygotsky's idea of Zones of Proximal Development tie into here as well. An aspect of ZPD that plays into my courses is scaffolding. Students come from different backgrounds and experiences, and they also have different preferences. Scaffolding allows students with those differences to come together at the same point. Another aspect of ZPD that plays into my courses is idea that learning is recursive in nature.

Beliefs on Learning Environments

The learning environment is an interesting topic for me to talk about. Most courses in a formal setting or institution fall into line with a hierarchical, individual environment. In other words, courses are determined by external standards and are lead by an instructor. Though, the student's responsibility for learning is not negated. This learning environment is the one that most of the students taking this class will be working in. In my personal experience, it's the learning environment that most students seem to prefer.

I personally tend to favor distributed, individual environment. In these environments, students make all of the choices and are solely responsible for what they learn (for some examples of distributed, individual environments, google "xMOOCs"). Given the nature of why we are here and my responsibility for evaluation, it's not all that possible.

Meaning for the Classroom

My classroom is greatly influenced by my beliefs about student learning. I will put my learners into an environment with a minimal introduction from me and see how they respond. I believe knowledge is constructed by the learner and not ‘taught’ by an instructor. I also want learners to be able to go beyond facts, figures, and examples. I want learners to be able to analyze and evaluate, but more importantly, I want them to create.

Therefore, it is not likely that I will list out an order of steps to complete an assignment. I also try to avoid requirements that put limits on the form that an assignment may take. I prefer individual learners choose the form assignments take -- be it papers, presentations, videos -- as long as the assignment meets the given requirements. I know papers work better for some learners. For other learners, a video might work better. Additionally, on the next assignment, the two groups might flip-flop.

My Role in the Classroom

What I have said up to this point makes it sound like my role is minimal in the classroom. I don’t believe that to be the case. I believe my beliefs on learning place a greater responsibility on me. I am what some people would say, the “guide on the side.” I assume the role of the ‘guide’ because I have to responsibility to set the direction of the course. I’m also responsible for facilitating the formation of community in the course. To form the community, it might take some prodding on occasion. I have to be prepared to do that.

However, I think the “lifeguard in the tower” is a more accurate depiction of my role in the classroom. A presenter that I had to the opportunity to see lately drilled into my mind that wonder, or inquiry, or constructivism, requires vulnerability to happen. Vulnerability doesn’t happen without a feeling of safety. Like the ‘lifeguard,’ I have the responsibility to keep the learning environment safe -- psychologically, physically, and in any other dimension.

I may ‘throw my learners into the pool to swim’ and will make them struggle, but I still cannot allow them to ‘drown’ without a fight. To this end, I have the responsibility to provide supports and scaffolding to my learners, where and when I see appropriate -- be it floats, a kick-board, or the occasional extra swimming lesson. Different learners have different support needs. I have the responsibility to be able to respond to those needs.

Community of Inquiry and the Role of the Learner

Earlier I said I subscribe the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. The CoI model has three components. The first one is Teaching Presence, and I’ve already covered by role in the classroom. The second component is Social Presence -- a responsibility that is shared between my learners and myself. The third component is Cognitive Presence -- a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the learner. The learner must be willing to take ownership for his or her learning and work through the course; he or she must open up for it -- experience it, inquire. More importantly, the learner must be willing to struggle.

Conclusion

To conclude, I believe there’s three parts to teaching -- the instructor fulfilling his responsibilities, the instructor and learners fulfilling their shared responsibilities, and the learners fulfilling their responsibilities.