Overture

I’ve been meaning for years now to write about teaching. And I’ve been meaning to write a blog. The fundamental question, where blogging is concerned, is whether one has anything to say. I don’t know a whole lot about most things, and nothing I have to say about those things would be very meaningful. When it comes to teaching, though, I know some stuff, or at least have given some stuff a lot of thought. I am also interested in hearing about what other people know.

I’ve been doing an MEd program over the last couple of years, and in an early course I was asked to write a teaching and learning philosophy statement. Here, in a nutshell, is what I wrote.

I am an English teacher. In my teaching practice, I generally focus on learning as the acquisition of skills. I may want my students to absorb a certain amount of factual knowldedge, but mostly, I want them to be able to do things: construct clear sentences, organize their thoughts logically, recognize the techniques a writer is using to get her/his point across, use those techniques themselves, and be fluent and thoughtful enough readers that reading can be a pleasure rather than a chore.

I don’t care much for lecturing. I used to be an ESL teacher; when I began teaching literature, the philosophy I learned as a language teacher – shut up and make them do something – carried over. I see the learning of any material – literature, language, history, biology – as no different than learning to ride a bicycle. Someone can tell you what a bicycle is and explain how the different parts work, and can instruct you on where to put your feet and how to hold your body, but in order to ride the bicycle you just have to get on and ride it. I can tell students about elements of poetry or rules of grammar, but to be a reader and writer, you have to read and write. To be a sociologist or a chemist, you have to take all the concepts and vocabulary and use them to do sociology and chemistry. And so on.

In the course of my experience and my studies, however, I’ve come to see some different perspectives on learning; in particular, I’m intrigued by the idea of learning as a process of conceptual change. Although I might, in the past, have paid lip service to how learning makes one “see the world differently,” I don’t think I’d given much thought to what that really means. I’m beginning to grasp that learning doesn’t just involve acquiring a packet of skills, but involves changes in perspective that allow those skills to be assimilated.

We start out as learners who want to know the right answers and the wrong answers, but as we grow up, gather more experience, and learn more stuff, we start to understand differently. Things become less simple, and the answers become less black-and-white. These new ways of seeing things can be accompanied by a grieving process: we’re losing something, a world view in which things are either correct or incorrect, or where we can count on the teacher or some other authority to tell us what to do and how to do it right. This world view might have offered us a lot of security, and letting go of it can be very hard.

Learning is a process by which we use the schema of knowledge we already possess in order to grasp, interpret, assimilate and make use of new information and skills. This new knowledge needs to attach itself to knowledge already present, so our level of previous experience and knowledge, and of development, will determine what, how, how quickly, and whether, we learn. The accumulation and assimilation of new knowledge does not simply add to our schema, but may also profoundly alter it. This results in conceptual change, which is often a difficult and destabilizing experience.

Ideally, teaching is a process by which we provide opportunities for students to add to, alter and nurture their growing schemata of knowledge. In particular, teaching requires a recognition of the wildly varying conditions of our students’ schemata when they arrive in our classrooms. Therefore, a teacher must create different kinds of learning experiences, and must take into account and provide support for the profound and sometimes shattering effects of real conceptual change.

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15 responses

  1. This post really helped crystallize my views on teaching, many of which I realize were nebulous or unconscious, but important to me nonetheless. It’s nice to have someone find coherent expression for them!

  2. I’m glad! “Crystallizing our views” was the goal of this assignment, and it really worked for me, although of course my views are always in development (which is why I am so constantly “destabilized”…)

  3. Well, destabilization is a good thing. It helps keeps us strong. After all, sailors legs are probably a lot stronger than those of the average land lubber, simply because they must often flex their muscles just to keep upright!

    • Piaget said: “Nothing new is learned until existing systems have failed to maintain equilibrium.” Learning, like walking, is the process of deliberately falling and catching yourself, over and over.

  4. PLK: I am going to steal that “sailor’s legs” image from you and use it somewhere. You have been warned.

    Leanna: I am in awe of your energy. Your comment makes reference to a lot of techniques I’ve tried over the years and have given up, or severely tailored, because accomplishing so much with so many students has been exhausting. That said, you’ve inspired me to try to implement some of them again.

  5. This is inspiring, as you know I taught art to children privately for years before I had any formal training in art. I worked hard, researched, learned from art teachers and I loved it. Though I am still not formally trained as a teacher teaching has been a passion of mine all my life. I decided after completing my BFA that I did not want to pursue a career in teaching in the institution because of all the things you are talking about here. I think it is extremely important to all the students that you will be involved with that you have found a way to inspire yourself by connecting with your students in ways that are meaningful to you and to them. When excellent teachers can continue everybody gains.

  6. Yes, I also struggle with whether “teaching in the institution” is really what I want. I love the idea of teaching in a more ideal and bureaucratically progressive environment, with small classes of students who love the subject matter and are highly disciplined, gifted and motivated. But then I remind myself that even if such an environment exists, those students don’t need me – they’d be fine if you threw them alone into a library with a pad and pencil. In the CEGEP, I never doubt that what I am doing is, if not always as effective as I’d like, at least always important.

  7. you are right. it takes courage and commitment, motivation and interest to do what you are doing. i hope you can hang on to it because it means you can continue. it seems you have also got the resourcefulness to find a way through it all to maintaining an understanding of the meaningfulness what you do.

  8. I checked out your blog. I wasn’t going to add any comments as I am trying to avoid thinking about teaching. I will soon be in the thick of it. My first class is next Monday. Well, here goes…

    I went to an alternative CEGEP, the New School of Dawson College. “Classes”, if you can call them that, had no more than 14 students. We sat around on cushions or on the floor most of the time. The curriculum was negotiated between students and the teacher. I could tell you more about it but it would take ages.
    I have adopted a similar approach with my own students. I listen a lot to students’ suggestions and create a comfortable class atmosphere-important for ESL-but natural for me whether I was teaching ESL or Rocket Science…I am lucky that we are a small college and the way things are organised, I never have more than 20 students in a group (and sometimes as few as 2!) I get good feedback though some kids don’t get it and want me to be more traditional and authoritative…which I can be when necessary.
    I should probably be doing an M. Ed to explore these issues. The stuff you’re writing about is what I’m also interested in. I have to find a way of doing Performa courses in English…Thanks for the blog. Even if I don’t comment, I will read it from time to time.

  9. Thanks so much for this comment, Kermit. In particular, I’m struck by the way you’ve made the connection between your own experience as a student and your approaches as a teacher – I think we all do this, for better or for worse, and it sounds like, in your case, you’ve done it for hte better.

    I’ve found studying these issues on a theoretical and practical level has been immeasurably helpful. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested in these issues to begin with…

    Thanks again.

  10. Hi! I’m Laura, I’m from italy and I dont’ speak english very well 🙂 I found your blog casually and I’m very happy because your post are soo interesting for me to learn the language, to improve my english! So I’ll read you often! 🙂

  11. God, are there more people out there like you? You have my own thoughts, my words… Maybe in the next world we will have the ideal classes you write about. But what about those “shattering effects of real conceptual change”? I have had a few of those.
    “Star to star vibrates light.”

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