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.