Saturday, March 7, 2015

Teaching and Learning Philosophy

I think of my teaching and learning philosophy as being ‘hand rolled’, and although using tobacco products as an analogy may seem rather unfashionable nowadays, it makes sense if you consider the alternative, ‘machine made’. The latter suggests to me uniformity and all that this implies; standardization, sameness, consistency, in fact, the very qualities many within our education system seem to value and perpetuate. Hand rolled, on the other hand, conjures up an image of something not quite perfect, a work in progress, slightly flawed and decidedly unique. When you take into account the time, skill and care involved in its production, it becomes something precious, something to be savored, lovingly. Of course in today’s gadget driven world, most consumers opt for the factory product, the iPod loaded with store bought iTunes, for example; few have the time or inclination to make their own music. I’ve been fortunate enough to live most of my life in a hand rolled manner, ranging from a Kerouac inspired railroad bum in the interior of British Columbia, to a teacher in a West African bush village, to the suit and tie persona of a Japanese ‘salaryman’.

My point, of course, is that to me teaching and learning should be focused on the individual, a celebration of what it is that makes us all so distinct and remarkable. The aspect that continues to keep me engaged in teaching after many years is just that; no two students are alike, and consequently every interaction between teacher and student will or should be new and authentic. Authenticity is a quality I regard highly; as a learner it’s what I look for in a teacher, as a teacher I aim to promote it in my students. There is no greater or nobler challenge in life than to ‘be yourself’, and yet our institutions and society at large tend not to foster personal growth. This is why I believe teaching is a moral calling, and as such it is our duty to bring out the best in everyone we can, regardless of age or even subject matter taught. Enlightened learners will go on to learn for the rest of their lives; those who are stultified by limited visions and low expectations will have little incentive for further learning.

With regards to my own learning, I prefer a combination of approaches; engaging dialogue, solitary reading, hands on activities, audio, visuals, private study and group work. Consequently, I try to offer a variety of instructional methods in my own teaching to satisfy the myriad of learning styles in any given classroom. Early in my career, while training mentally handicapped adults in a sheltered workshop, I was influenced by the work of Mark Goldman, in particular the idea that if a client can’t do a certain task, it is the failure of the instructor who should ‘try another way.’ I carry that philosophy with me today, as a reflective practitioner; if something doesn’t work as planned, it is probably not the fault of the students, and all features of the exercise should be re-examined and revamped. I also believe it’s essential to establish a bond of trust within the first two to three weeks of a new course, so that students feel comfortable enough to truly express their thoughts and feelings within the classroom environment. It is then much easier to gauge student learning and respond accordingly. This trusting relationship and spirit of mutual cooperation is developed through openness and transparency, with a sprinkling of humor; the results are good attendance with students who are willing to take chances. Stephen Brookfield, in ‘The Skillful Teacher’, sums up my beliefs thusly: “Credibility, authenticity, modeling, full disclosure, and consistency are some of the characteristics universally appreciated in teachers.” That said, I also make it clear from the start we must all agree on a policy of mutual respect, with clear behavioural expectations (no cell phones, rude interruptions, etc.). As Brookfield puts it, students want teachers ‘to be authoritative, not authoritarian.’

We learn from mistakes we or others have made; I have to thank Mr. Rogers, my Grade Five teacher, for a valuable ‘what not to do’ lesson. One day he announced he was rearranging the desks, but we all immediately understood the significance; the smartest four students, those who always earned ‘E’s, were placed together in a special row in the back, and then the next four smartest, the ‘VG’s, had a row to themselves, and the rest of us, well, we knew where we belonged because we were the ‘G’s, mixed in with the poor ‘F’s. Mr. Rogers told me in private that if I tried a little harder I could maybe join the ‘VG’s (not the E’s of course), but by then I had already made up my mind, I was a ‘G’ and that was good enough for me, and I remained branded a ‘G’ throughout my entire school career, at least until university when much to my delight I found out I could earn A’s if I really wanted. As a teacher now I make certain not to underestimate any student’s ability or to pre-judge based on unreliable diagnostics or test scores; our job is to encourage each and every student to realize their own potential, and even to help undo the damage already done to their own self-esteem. Yes, you could say I favour the humanistic approach to education; my undergraduate hero was Carl Rogers, a champion of human development, so well explained in my favourite book ‘On Becoming A Person.’

My own personal journey has brought me closer to a Zen Buddhist philosophy of life, and I find it interesting that these studies echo what Carl Rogers had to say back in the early 60s, in particular the ideas that as we gain confidence we have less need to conform, become more creative and open to new experiences, and live life more fully in the moment. These ideas also coincide with what I have learned in my training as a mediator, mainly, during mediation we need to be fully aware of what is actually happening now, and less ruled by preconceived notions and biases. Rogers describes this as ‘organismic trust’, meaning to trust one’s own judgement and act in ways appropriate to each moment. Some teachers may describe this as the ability to be spontaneous or think on one’s feet, others more crudely describe this as being able to ‘pull a lesson out of your ass’. This does not diminish the importance of clearly thought out lesson plans - my rule is to come to every class with more material than can likely be covered in the set time frame. It means, rather, ‘shit happens’, and good teachers are those who can carry on creatively and constructively regardless of unforeseen circumstances, especially when it comes to technological mishaps.

Although I completed my psychology degree in the days of typewriters and carbon paper, I have become somewhat nerdish with regards to computers and technology, thanks largely to the creative geniuses at Apple. I have progressed from desktop publishing, with which I edited and produced a professional looking folksy newsletter for twenty years, to podcasting, which I have been doing on a weekly basis with a growing listenership since the early adopter days in 2005, speaking regularly at podcaster conferences. I enjoy following the latest trends and developments in new media via twitter and blogs, and believe it is the responsibility of teachers to make an effort to stay au courant so as to be at least aware of what their younger students are using. I find most students appreciate being able to converse about technology, and enjoy viewing short video clips on gadgets such as the new iPad, which in my view will soon have a profound effect on the educational publishing industry. The point here is that teachers should be setting the example of life long learning.

In answer to the question ‘how do you improve your teaching,’ I reply ‘by more teaching’. As long as one is truly a reflective practitioner, one will always improve, and every new class will offer new challenges and more opportunities for further learning. I would also like to add that since earning my Bachelor’s degree I have gone back to college and university to earn three more teaching related certificates, and firmly believe that all teachers can benefit from refresher courses on what it’s like to be a student. The good news is it’s possible to emerge from the machine with one’s ‘hand rolled’ qualities still intact; there is room for individuality within higher learning institutions for both students and teachers, if one has the courage and confidence. At this stage in my teaching career, I am proud to say I have reached what Brookfield sums up in a way Carl Rogers might have: “I feel I’ve grown into the truth of my own teaching. By growing into the truth of teaching I mean developing a trust, a sense of intuitive confidence, in the accuracy and validity of one’s judgments and insights.”

Ken Bole
April 8, 2010

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