A teaching philosophy statement

I'm applying for this fellowship that requires a "Teaching Philosophy Statement".  It's a reflective piece of writing about how you approach pedagogy.  Here's a draft.


Teaching Philosophy Statement

No single piece of advice could capture what it means to teach effectively, but this might come close:  

   It is not enough to give the students flour and sugar and butter; you have to bake the cake  
   with them

I can’t remember who gave me that advice, but it is good advice for a number of reasons. First, it highlights the systematic nature of learning. Deep learning is not the endless memorising of concepts, but an understanding of how concepts interrelate with one another. Second, it highlights the collaborative and active nature of learning. The teacher bakes the cake with the students, and not for them. Third, it highlights the importance of teaching both skills and facts. Giving the students a fact is like giving them flour – somewhat useless and unpalatable by itself – but combined with the right skills, can be used to make a delicious cake, or any number of other things.  

I have aimed to apply this to advice in my work – as a university lecturer, and as a designer of training programs for industry, government, and academic researchers.  I’ll address those three elements in turn.

a. Systematic learning
I hate bullet points. For one thing, they’re boring. But worse, they usually fail to provide an adequate representation of the way that concepts are structured and interrelated. Think of a heart, for example. If you were a painful bore, you could teach the parts of a heart as a bulleted list: right ventricle, right atrium, pulmonary artery, left ventricle, left atrium, etc.  But no such list could possibly convey how the heart works as an effective system by virtue of its interrelated parts. The heart cries out for a diagram.

It is the same, I think, with almost every concept – even when the topic under discussion is less literal, less tangible, than a heart. I try to approach teaching with a conceptual model for the way that the parts are related. For example, to teach academic Authorship and Publication, I tried to portray the various concepts as parts of a complex subway map – related to one another in a certain order, but necessary a linear order.  Similarly, in teaching Journal Peer Review, I depicted the concepts as parts of a great industrial machine, cobbled together in various configurations to suit different purposes over time. These diagrams provided a structure for me (and the rest of the teaching team) to explain the relationships between concepts, and also to order the content into a coherent narrative. See, for example, this video I designed that describes the history of journal peer review.

b. Collaborative and active learning
I’m a philosopher by training, and if philosophers agree about anything it’s the value of the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is a kind of dialogue, employed by Socrates in the works of Plato, wherein teachers and learners work together to arrive at the truth by argumentative dialogue.

The essential element of this method is that all parties must first understand the problem to be solved.  In the case of Socrates, the problems were rather profound:  what is justice?  What is piety?  What is goodness?  But the same method is useful for teaching any topic. The teacher should start with a problem.  Crucially, the teacher should portray that problem as important and interesting.  (This enthusiasm is difficult to fake, which is probably why I’ve never met a good teacher who didn’t herself have a genuine thirst for learning.)  With the importance of the problem agreed, the group then embarks on a collaborative journey towards solving it. This is a method I have always loved, and employed.

An essential part of the Socratic Method is starting with what the students already know. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates teaches an uneducated slave boy about the Pythagorean Theorem by starting only with the few basic mathematical facts that the boy understands.  This is the key.  You have to start from facts the students already grasp, and then, by dialoguing with them, lead them somewhere they’ve never been.

c. Facts and skills
I’m fond of a philosophical distinction between two kinds of knowledge:  knowledge-that and knowledge-how. The first is knowing facts about things – like knowing that a bike has two wheels, two pedals, and one chain.  The second is knowing a skill – like knowing how to ride a bike. I believe that the goal of a teacher is to instil both knowledge-that and knowledge-how in the mind of the student.  Students should walk away from every learning experience with some new skill, and this could be any number of things. It might be the ability to organise objects according to certain categories, to use a new program, to apply a new method, to build something, or to teach others.  Facts are essential, but skills are more fun and more useful.  Indeed, I think skills are really the chief goal of learning. As Seneca the Younger put it, “We learn not for school, but for life.”