For the longest time I had no teaching philosophy, and in some sense I still do not. Of course I do have general beliefs concerning teaching and learning, but they are on such a broad and general level that they do not easily translate into stable concrete examples. I have also noticed that my view on the world and people is still changing, which in my mind makes “sticking” with a teaching philosophy a futile endeavor. Nevertheless I have collected below some points that I feel are integral to my way of teaching, and that I notice carrying with me from course to course.
Dialogue – While I feel certain sympathy for a “positivistic” worldview, I believe understanding human behavior is only possible if we accept that there can be multiple truths out there, and if we are willing to listen to them. In teaching and learning this means that I try to introduce several viewpoints instead of one where it is possible (or necessary), and finding ways for students to share their viewpoints and perceptions with each other as often as possible. For example, in intercultural communication it can be very important to “try on” other kind of worldviews or perspectives.
Curiosity – A curious mind is eager to learn. While it is very difficult to raise curiosity in a totally unmotivated mind, I believe it to be possible to some degree. I try to find questions and viewpoints that do not offer simple answers. Put metaphorically, I rather want to open doors than to close them. Working mostly with adult learners, I also believe in the importance of so-called self-directed learning (Garrison 1997). With each new student group, it is one of my main goals to emphasize that they are in charge of their learning. I remind them that the university is not “a school” – meaning that instead of looking at what your classmates do, you should concentrate on your own learning goals and interests.
Contradiction and paradox – When everything is fine, there is no need to change anything. I believe that many of the most important questions we can ask are to be found by locating contradictions and paradoxes in our current thinking or in the topic that we are interested in. So they say this, but they do that? So if this is true, then how come that is so? I often include thought-provoking questions such as these into my teaching, questions without any obvious answers (or answers that I might be able to give). Often it is the case that such paradoxes are true both ways – so that instead of one answer, we have two or more that are somewhat contradictory but nevertheless true at the same time.
Ownership – While there is a time and a place for learning something just because we are told to do so (for example when we are very young), I believe that deep learning invariably requires some form of ownership in the matter. The challenge is in getting students to be personally involved in the learning process instead of doing it just for the sake of the “system”. Tying the learning goals and processes to personal motivations can help, as can finding assignments where students can (at least somewhat) choose the direction where to apply their competence.
There are several other words that I could have chosen to add to this list, and surely on another day I will do exactly that (hence my hesitation when speaking of “a teaching philosophy”). Of course these are ideals, often very difficult to realize in the pressure of every day routines of teaching and learning. I struggle, just as so many teachers, with time pressures and courses where I myself do not feel “ownership”, but in general I try to keep these and other similar perspectives in mind when being involved in teaching activities.
I have noticed that this kind of stance on teaching and learning is not always easy for students who have gotten used to a very different kind of set of “rules”. For example, if a student’s educational background has been full of emphasizing the importance of “right” answers, or the infallibility of the teacher, then it can take quite an effort to re-orientate to my style of working. It is sometimes hard for me to accept that “the voice of authority still has a great deal of meaning in the academic hierarchy” (Pruulman-Vengerfeldt 2011, 247). Often I need to remind myself of this, and be extra sensitive when it comes to working with students with different backgrounds. However, I feel strongly that the ideals I try to uphold are integral to deep learning and the development of autonomous, active thinkers, which is (again in my opinion) what university teaching should be about.
Garrison, D.R. 1997. Self-directed learning: toward a comprehensive model. Adult education quarterly 48(1): 18-33.
Pruulman-Vengerfeldt, P. 2011. How to teach interactively large classrooms: a participation-focused approach. In Tomanic Trivundza, I., Carpentier, N., Nieminen, H., Pruulman-Vengerfeldt, Kilborn, R., Sundin, E. & T. Olsson (eds.) Critical Perspectives on the European Mediasphere. pp. 243-253.