My Philosophy of Teaching

Rodin's "The Thinker"Over the years, I have resisted the idea of coming up with a “teaching philosophy.” The one’s I’ve read were so fluffy and fuzzy and full of flatulent flummery that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Nor could I ever quite make out just what “help students realize their full potential,” or “assist in the actualization of student intellectual growth,” or “nurture joy and wonder in the art of learning” really means, if anything real at all. Admittedly, I brought to the issue a deeply-ingrained sense that all such pronouncements were, prima facia, nonsense. Vague, vacuous, but voluminous bullshit, not to be taken seriously.

Recently, though, my views on the idea of having an explicit teaching philosophy have modified somewhat. To be sure, I still find little real content in the usual platitudes applied to the cause. I have no more patience for them than I had before. All that is twaddle, pure and simple. But to say I have no teaching philosophy at all would be just wrong. Of course I do. No one could teach, or do anything else for that matter, without some sort of principles or ideas guiding him, however sub rosa and tacit those may be. What, then, are my principles–okay, what is my philosophy–when it comes to teaching? For my own sake, I should make it explicit. Students, or potential students, should be aware of it also.

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Well, here it is below, broken down into propositions and numbered in causal order–each postulate leading to the next. Keep in mind that what follows applies most directly to the teaching of adults in a college or university setting. The reader will also notice that these philosophical points are nearly as much about learning as they are teaching.

1. Teaching is the human connection between persons that allows for the transmission of knowledge and skill–one mind touching another mind.

2. As a matter of human connection, teaching is not a process, procedure, or technique, but rather a consensual and intellectual communion between teacher and learner. Both teacher and learner must consent.

3. Teaching is not something that is done to someone else. The adult is not taught. Instead, the adult learns.

4. The ultimate burden of learning is on the learner, if he or she is an adult, and shared by teacher, learner, and parent if the learner is a child, but only until such time as the learner becomes a responsible adult.

5. One can learn without a directly- or personally-involved teacher. One can learn from books and from other media. One can also learn from oneself. That is what experience is.

6. The most fruitful role a teacher of adults can play is that of guide. An adult can teach himself, but he profits from the guidance of a scholar, practitioner, or other knower.

7. Oral communication, teacher-to-learner, is best reserved for guidance rather than detailed content. Other forms of communication greatly exceed the capacity of speech for substantive material.

8. The organization of teaching and learning into courses, classes, schools, colleges, and universities are for matters only of logistical convenience and the allocation of scarce communal (e.g., public) resources. The individual teacher-learner connection remains the essence of education in spite of the appearance of collective activity.

9. For an adult, the most important work of learning takes place away from the presence of the teacher. The teacher points to the work to be done and the learner does it, either alone or in voluntary association with other learners working on the same materials.

10. That learning is taking place is the essential justification for whatever activity engages the time and energies of learner and teacher. Institutional functions associated with screening and credentialing (grades, degrees, etc.) are subordinate and ancillary to learning, and may even interfere if allowed.

11. The necessary posture of the learner is humility, the realization he has things to learn.

12. The necessary posture of the teacher is duty. His first obligation is to the student rather than the institution that employs him.

13. Teaching and learning are subversive in both their motives and their affects. The fundamental purpose of education is to change the status quo.

Each of these deserves plenty of elaboration, qualification, and backpedaling. I will provide all that in coming posts.

[For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]