Thursday, February 23, 2012

Updated Teaching Philosophy

I've recently updated my teaching philosophy.  I tried to make it to-the-point and backed by research.  I could have written a lot more, but think I captured the key aspects of how I teach.  Would love any feedback you might have!

Though standard, the term ‘lecture’ does not reflect what I try to do when I teach. I aim not to tell, but to guide students in their own learning. From the simplest group discussions to the most complex in-class mini-assignments, I am always looking for new ways to help students construct a deeper understanding of a course’s key topics.

In his book ‘What the Best College Teachers Do’ [1], Ken Bain describes four key concepts that the group of professors studied exhibit in their own teaching. I believe that these concepts not only reflect my own philosophy for teaching, but provide inspiration for new ideas when preparing to teach.

The first is that knowledge is constructed, not received. Reflecting on my own experiences as a student, I can recall more instances of being given information than I can of having an opportunity to construct my understanding. I succeeded because I moved beyond my good memory to seek out understanding on my own, but I realize that not all students are as able or motivated to do so. In computer science, there is an abundance of technical information to know, and it is not always obvious how to guide students in learning the concepts behind it. Aside from thoughtfully crafted assignments, interactive activities for small groups or at the front of the classroom are one strategy I have used successfully. For example, instead of describing how binary numbers work, I have guided students in exploring their nature using physical cards representing binary digits.

The second concept states that mental models change slowly: students must have their preconceptions challenged and care enough that their mental models are incorrect to want to update them. I believe carefully constructing a program in class is one way to accomplish this. In real time, students can predict what they believe will happen, only to find that, in many cases, they were wrong. Discussion on why should be followed by the opportunity to try again. Just-in-time teaching is another option I would like to try. With this technique, just enough information to start a task is given. Further information is provided only when the students realize they need it.

Next is that questions are crucial. I always strive to make myself available during and after class to answer questions, and ensure that students feel comfortable asking what they think are trivial inquiries. When class sizes allow for it, I incorporate group discussions that involve questioning in both directions. I try to design a line of questioning that will help students construct their knowledge, and this is something I hope to continue improving.

Finally, caring is crucial. I find it is very important to ensure that in-class examples and assignment topics actually reflect what the students care about. When I teach non-majors, this means connecting concepts to their fields of study. For all students, I try to design assignments that give them the freedom to incorporate what interests them. I also believe there is potential in designing learning experiences that reflect how video games engage players, such as James Paul Gee suggests [2]. I would like to try this approach soon, and a game design course would be the perfect place to do it.

Whether a guide for what happens in the classroom or for the design of assignments to be completed later, these four concepts help describe how I see myself as an effective instructor. There are many more opportunities to incorporate the wisdom contained within them, and I often look back to them when embarking on a new teaching endeavour.

[1] Bain, K. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, 2004.
[2] Gee, J. P. Good Games + Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies). Peter Lang Pub Inc, 2007.

[Also available on my website.]


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