Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Teaching Philosopy

I have taught at the University level since 1989 and have learned over the years that a self-referential style that focuses on what I found interesting and how I understood that material is a minimalist teaching philosophy that works for a very small sub-set of most classes. This, however, is exactly the way most science courses are taught.

Since my first years of teaching I have come to a couple of realizations about what creates the most effective learning environment.

Priority #1 The teacher must love what they teach

Priority #2 The teacher must love who they teach

This may seem to be backward but I have found over and over again that this has to be true. If the teacher does not love what they teach... if they are not somehow consumed by the subject then they will always be willing to compromise the principles of what they are teaching for who they are teaching. Especially in small classes where the subjective mentor - student interaction can overwhelm the objective mastery of content.

This, by the way, explains the elements of evangelicalism that people find in the different disciplines. This fervent, low-key evangelical spirit that whispers to the students "this is an amazing, wonderful world and there is a way to understand how this small part of it works, I understand this path and want you to know it too. I need you to respond by capturing for at least a moment the sense of wonder and lostness that I felt when I first understood this path to knowledge and truth. I also need you to hold this torch up when it is my turn to set it down". If the person who teaches does not feel that they are somehow in possession of a precious truth then I don't know how they force themselves to teach. I know over and over from talking to students that it was just such a teacher that first gave them the idea of advanced studies.

Yes, we have to love the students but we have got to love what we teach. We have got to feel that the truth that we have fought so hard to understand is worth passing on and worth maintaining.

Now, to be complete we do have to allow for the deadwood response "I do it for the money" but I doubt that anyone would be happy with that for a teaching philosophy.

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About Me

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.