I prepared this writeup for my teaching portfolio, which I needed to submit along with a nomination I was honoured to receive for a GA/TA Award for Educational Practice.
Also in this package, I had to include letters from students willing to support my nomination, and the ones who did were motivational almost beyond words. Putting this package together was so inspirational that I feel like I’ve won something fantastic already, even though the judging for the award isn’t going to be done until mid-May or so.
This Teaching Philosophy had to be no more than two pages (it printed to just over a page and a half), and it was to address my values and beliefs and how they apply to my teaching practice.
The only thing I added when posting here were the headings (it didn’t seem to look right on my webpage without them, though in print it seemed fine without them!) and a slight addition to one sentence that I realized needed just a little more to complete the thought.
Edit: April 8, 2009 — I made a wordle of the words used in the teaching philosophy!
The Importance of Understanding
Of all the values I hold dear, the one that guides me the most in my teaching is the importance of understanding. I take this concept to mean more than just knowledge itself, but also the context surrounding that knowledge, and how the knowledge has relevance and greater meaning. Thus, knowledge can exist without understanding, but not vice versa; however, understanding can facilitate the absorption of more knowledge.
On a global scale, I believe that it is vitally important for humankind to always be increasing its understanding of how the universe functions on many different levels: physical, biological, mental, and cultural. Pursuit of this increased understanding unites us as a species, providing us with a purpose that is more than just a means to an end. Although this sort of understanding has extrinsic value in that it can be applied to improve our quality of life, I believe the intrinsic value is even more potent: it raises the level at which we understand things, thus improving our collective ability to understand even more.
On a personal scale, I believe that the purpose of the mind is to process its surroundings in order to gain understanding of how things work and how people behave: failure to strive for understanding is a failure to fulfil the purpose of the mind. Also, as people learn more, they become more valuable: they are not only more likely to have insights that benefit the greater goal of increasing human understanding, but they are more interesting to interact with, and thus they inspire more people to join the pursuit of greater understanding. I also strongly believe that lifelong learning is essential for mental longevity, and I not only say this often, but I fully intend to continually lead the way by example.
On an interpersonal scale, understanding refers to a consideration of another person’s perspective. It starts with an empathic guess based on what it seems that person’s circumstances are, and evolves based on inferences obtained from the things that person says or does. I find this sort of understanding to be highly valuable when I’m trying to help someone learn: it creates a connection, thus enabling me to be more of a guide than a fount of knowledge.
As I see it, to teach is to transmit knowledge or skills, to educate is to impart meaning and context, and to learn is to incorporate knowledge, skills, and/or contextual meaning into one’s own understanding. Thus, understanding cannot be transferred, but it can be encouraged to grow, and that is what we as educators must strive to do.
I believe that anyone is capable of understanding anything, if they have the desire to learn it. It is certainly a joy to teach someone who passionately wants to know more about a subject, but of course, not everyone feels that way, particularly in my experience assisting students with physics and mathematics. Sometimes a student’s only motivation is to get a good grade, or to be able to apply the knowledge in a particular way, but I always try and spark at least a little bit of awe in how fascinating the subject can be. By doing this, I aim to increase the student’s desire to understand and help them have fun as well, since these can (and usually do!) facilitate the person’s learning of the material.
I also believe that a lot of people have difficulty learning because of a lack of confidence. When a teacher makes difficult material more accessible, or when a tutor confirms that a student is making great strides, student confidence increases. When student confidence increases, there is a decrease in the resistance to developing even greater understanding. Conversely, I believe that when students are led to realize that they actually have some understanding instead of just knowledge, their confidence increases, in turn leading to an increase in the rate of understanding.
How I Teach
Overall, my teaching is driven not only by my own fascination with knowing and understanding, but also by my desire to help others pursue greater understanding in their own unique way. My awareness and respect of individuality has helped me immensely in one-on-one teaching and within small groups, because I have been able to tune into students’ current states and ensure I focus on what is most needed at the time, whether it is clarifying misconceptions, encouraging further review or practice, or guiding in ways that can be applicable to any problem needing to be solved in the future.
For larger groups, I provide teaching materials that I write in a friendly and accessible way, to encourage self-learning first, which by its very nature is very individual. I then strongly encourage questions, emphasizing that no question is too small, and that asking is an excellent way to verify one’s own learning. In my years of experience as a teaching assistant, this personal approach has worked very well for me, as evidenced by the positive feedback I have received. My students, when I’m done working with them, consistently seem to have gained more confidence and optimism, more motivation and perseverance, more appreciation for the subject matter, and of course, more of the understanding that I value so much.