Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Teaching Philosophy

I've sat down and written it on more than one occasion. Though I'm certain it is naive and misguided, here is what I have (and how I feel about education). Yeah, it's long. Sorry.

I'm terrified of feedback, but that seems to be all the more reason to put this up on the internet.

I do not subscribe to the idea that students are blank slates. They come to the classroom as a collection of experiences, shaped by their own families, their peers, their environments, previous teachers, and a whole collection of factors too numerous for me to count. Many students have influences I cannot name or begin to understand. Ultimately, great teachers and poor teachers are small subset of the influences on a student. A great teacher can unlock potential within a student, often by showing them how to succeed. However, without the support of other teachers, peers, community, or family, it is nearly impossible for a teacher to succeed in bringing out the most outstanding aspects of any individual student.

Successful teaching most often is a function of repetition. I looked to athletics first, and realized that most athletes learn how to perform in their sport (throw and catch a football, hit a baseball, etc.) simply by practicing over and over again. Even professionals must practice regularly to maintain excellence. Next, I looked to music. Musicians play their instruments every day, and even professionals spend time rehearsing before they perform. Finally, I looked back to basic subjects: reading, writing, and mathematics. In my experience, I have been most successful learning each of these when I am engaging myself on a daily basis. I struggle in math, even today, when I take multiple days and do not solve any problems. I cannot read or write as quickly when I go a week without doing so. Repetition is the key to become a master of a subject, task, or craft.

The biggest obstacle to utilizing repetition is student engagement. After all, it can get boring to perform the same tasks over and over again. The best way to avoid making repetition boring is to frame the repeated task in a different way. Begin each class by doing a quick warm-up exercise. Have a contest for students to see who can do the most simple problems in a period of time. Divide students into groups and get them to solve complex problems. Provide different instructions for each task, so that it is framed differently. This will help combat student boredom while still engaging them in repeating a task until they are proficient.

Finally, when it comes to teaching, it is important to understand the power of persuasion. Too often, leaders resort to using authority to convince persons to perform a certain task. This is a mistake, because authority can be bested by a higher authority. Persuasion, however, is much more difficult to overcome when used properly. If students can be persuaded to do something, then they will be doing so willingly. This will yield greater student interest, on net, than simply requirement by force.

Overall, the most successful teachers are those who can engage their students in doing a task they might otherwise find lowly or of mean reward. The power of repetition in the classroom at all levels should never be forgotten. However, teaching only with repetition will not provide the students with the intellectual stimulation they need to remain interested in learning new material on a regular basis. Framing tasks in such a way that students participate of their own accord simultaneously maximizes student interest and learning.


Ravi said...

Is this part of your TFA application process? Because it's excellent.

jroddy said...

I agree with Ravi...

except it should be "too numerous" and not "to numerous" in the first paragraph of the essay.

Pete Abbate said...

Thanks Jay. Good thing I didn't apply to teach English.

And Ravi - not required, someone recommended I do it.

Thanks both for the kind feedback.

Tom Church said...

Sorry to just leave links, but this essay is tremendous on the subject and deserves to be read in full: (http://entropysite.oxy.edu/morrison.html)

This one is by a close friend of mine and reflects many conversations he and I have had on the subject: (http://avinashv.net/2008/11/on-teaching/)


Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty