Thoughts on a Philosophy of Teaching

I was asked about a year ago to write a statement of my teaching philosophy. I just came across it, and it still seems pretty accurate, so I thought I would post it here:

The most fundamental thing I do in my work with middle school and high school students is help people relearn how to learn. Human beings are born self-directed learners and creative problem-solvers, but once they are trained to be passive about learning it can be a challenge to help them be active again. Also, almost everyone needs help learning to think critically and to evaluate sources of information, so I tend to make that a significant point of focus.

I am aware and appreciative of a variety of educational approaches. There are times, albeit few of them, when straightforward direct instruction and rote memorization can be the best choice. There are people, albeit relatively few of them, for whom the Summerhill or Sudbury models of complete freedom are best. In my experience, for most people most of the time, something between these extremes is what works, but exactly what works can vary not only from student to student, but from day to day. I believe a good teacher has many tools available and is willing to adapt practice to the needs of the moment. A great teacher knows instinctively when and with whom to use which tools. A master teacher uses all those tools expertly. I have seen only a few master teachers in my life, and they are every bit as impressive as the master musicians and mathematicians and other geniuses of the world.

My education hero is Maria Montessori, not because I agree with everything she ever said (I don’t), but because she based her theories and strategies on her observations of how children actually learn, and she believed in continually developing her practice, building on what worked and throwing away what didn’t. Current neuroscience supports her ideas. It seems every time I read about a new study of how people learn I find myself thinking that Maria Montessori figured that out a hundred years ago.

Theorists of education, like theorists of any discipline concerning the behavior of human beings, tend to fall prey to the natural human desire to reduce everything to some neat, replicable pattern, some set of universal rules. While it is possible to discover predictable patterns and tendencies and to build effective structures based on them, it is a mistake to believe you will ever be able to find a rule of human behavior for which there is no exception, or that you will ever be able to build a structure for human use, physical or theoretical, that will never need to be changed. Human beings are too varied and odd and unpredictable for that. That is why I love working with them. The challenge never ends, and I am confident it never will.

I am a good teacher. Maybe, on my best days, I am even a great one. I am far from mastery, but I am so driven to help every student that I continually seek out new tools and techniques and work hard to develop my ability to use them. I believe it is crucial to get to know each student well. Even the most difficult to reach student has a way in that you can find if you keep trying, and even the most delightfully easy to teach student has a challenge he or she needs help to overcome.

It took me many years to figure out which of the many problems in the world I most want to help solve, but I finally realized that what upsets me the most is wasted human potential. If we all make the best possible use of our abilities, our world will definitely improve. That is why I focus my energies on education. I believe solving that problem is the way to solve all the others. It is my version of a Universal Theory of Everything.

One thought on “Thoughts on a Philosophy of Teaching

  1. I see how you like the word albeit awlought. 😀 hehe Ehem, I mean immensely.

    I think the true challenge of teaching is reaching a class grouped at random. One style of teaching can’t reach a random grouping of students based upon age or location. Schools might do better by grouping students by their learning styles with teachers who apply them. You have your preferred method(s)…albeit few or however many of them. 🙂 Now, for you to do your job best, you need to screen a group of students that respond to your style of teaching. Instead of tests to supposedly decide if students are ready for college, we need tests early on that sort out how kids learn (based upon how they are genetically composed and raised from the start). You can’t teach an oak tree to be a bonsai.

    And, in my philosophy, no teacher is an expert. No human is an expert and should never portray him or herself as such. We are all students of something we have yet to fully understand, even if we think we have grasped some small grain of sand perfectly.

    You could sum it all up by saying humans, as a rule (:P having fun with that bit about people creating universal rules), are imperfect, flawed and obsessed with perfection they cannot achieve but will push upon themselves and others until the greatest of achievements are reduced to the sands from which they came.


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