I have often been asked by my students how and why I teach in the manner that I do. Here is a handout that I developed that is distributed to my classes during the opening session.
Mel’s teaching philosophy
Often when a student gets a new instructor, the student wonders what the instructor is going to be like. Will the instructor be hard or easy? What are the expectations of the teacher? How do they grade? What can I expect? In order to answer these and other questions, I have described below my educational philosophy.
Responsibility of instructors
First, I see my job is to create a learning community, a classroom environment which encourages learning. To achieve that, I operate on the following assumptions:
Learning is a journey – My underlying premise is that learning is a journey. It is a quest into unknown territory. It is a call to adventure. Webster’s Dictionary defines a quest as a search for something of importance. Joseph Campbell describes this heroic adventure this way:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
By your participation in this program, you have engaged in a great quest, the learning journey. There will be times when you feel discouraged and like quitting. Please don’t. There will be times when you wonder if it is worth it all. It is.
Instructor as facilitator – As an educator, my role is that of a facilitator. I do not operate under the assumption that the I am the fountain of all knowledge. Facilitators lead and guide. They do not impart knowledge or final answers. The root of the word “educate” means to “lead out” or to “bring out.” To that end, I will do everything possible to assist you in your learning. Part of the process of facilitation may mean minimizing the use of lecture and more use of experiential activities. Although lecture plays a part of what I do in the classroom, it does not constitute the major portion of the learning journey.
Learning is self-directed – Because it is my job to create a learning community, I will foster and encourage your use of the learning team as one of the major resources upon which you can draw. You will be learning from each other as well as from the class activities. The use of group projects and activities, which are designed to emphasize a particular point, will develop faster and longer-lasting learning.
Use of text as a resource – The text assigned to your class is a resource, not a holy book from which I will teach as the ultimate source of knowledge. I operate under the assumption that you have read the assignments and I will expand on all or part of that reading. At times this expansion may not seem related to the textbook. However, you will see that relationship over the course of the class. If I were to teach from the text only, I might as well assign you the book and test you on that. I use the text as a resource.
Secondly, it is my job to facilitate independent and critical thinking skills. I will engage you in activities that will stimulate your thinking and challenge your paradigms. This may not always be comfortable. There is a wonderful metaphor from Plato that describes this process:
Imagine a group of humans living in a deep cave underground. The opening of the cave leads upward to the daylight. Everyone has been chained to the back wall of the cave since childhood and can only see the polished reflective surface of the cave.
Beyond the opening of the cave is a fire burning with a stage in front of it. On the stage are various puppets such as men, women, animals, and a variety of other objects. All the prisoners can see are the shadows on the polished wall, which are reflections of the objects on the stage. To these prisoners, the shadows are the only reality they know since no one is able to turn around and face the light.
Socrates imagines that one of the prisoners is released and turns around to face the light. At first she would feel pain and be blinded by the brightness of the light and would continue to think the only reality is the shadows on the wall. As her eyes became more and more used to the light, she would see the brightness of the sun and become aware of the true objects. She would come to pity those left in darkness who were ignorant of the real world.
If she did return to the cave, and tried to tell the others what she had seen, she would be mocked and ridiculed.
The cave represents our world and the shadows on the wall are our illusions. The sun represents illumination, truth, and knowledge while the puppets on the stage are what are real.
Responsibility of students
Being open-minded - First I see your major responsibility as keeping an open mind. There are students (you are not one of them or you would not be here) who are only interested in completing a course with as high a grade as possible. These students want to be spoon-fed and told what to expect on the “test.” I will give you all the information you need to be successful in my course. However, I do expect you to be open to new ideas and to be willing to expand your thinking. Part of this open-mind process might mean engaging in discussion concerning contentious ideas.
Contact with the facilitator - I know that most of you live busy lives, have families, and have jobs for which you are responsible. I do not want or intend to make your lives more difficult; however, it is your responsibility to notify me about absences, inability to complete assignments, questions and misunderstandings, etc. If you have questions about the use of an activity or topic, or you don’t understand how something relates to the course or the text, it is your responsibility to ask about it. I will be as understanding and cooperative as possible without compromising the integrity of the course. I am more than happy to work out individual concerns and issues with you.
Group participation - It is your responsibility to participate fully in your learning team activities and to deal with group issues as they arise rather than allow them to fester and impair group functioning. It is also your responsibility to honestly and accurately evaluate your study group members on the feedback sheets. If there are problems in your study group, you have resources through the college which can help you with those issues.
Understanding of grading issues - We exist in a society that lives by the bottom line. This bottom line mentality causes us as a culture to act in harmful ways. For example, ambulance companies often neglect calls from heart attack victims in order to serve the more profitable elderly Medicare transportation calls. Our culture’s overemphasis on grades is a reflection of this bottom line thinking. There is an article in the Hartford Courant of 5/29/00 with the heading: There’s more to learning than high SAT scores. The writer, Kate Foran says in part, “I have trouble with the idea that education is something you pick up in the process of getting credentials (grades). Yet for many students this is the case…so many students plod through, ‘untouched and unenlightened’ that nearly 70 percent of all college students transfer, drop out or flunk out…Genuine education is not about credentials or job preparation.”
It is my responsibility to foster a learning community and it is your responsibility to fully participate in that community. Together we can learn, be productive and have fun.