Doc Carney

    |   History, Culture, Life

Philosophy of Teaching

Rodin's "The Thinker"Over the years, I have resisted the idea of coming up with a “teaching philosophy.” The ones 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.

Well, here it is below, broken down into propositions (a.k.a. “postulates”) 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. Each of these deserves plenty of elaboration, qualification, and backpedaling.  Scroll down for more, or click on each postulate to jump straight to it.

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 is undertaken only for matters 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 and not 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.


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

The personal nature of teaching and learning is one of the reasons why it is often so emotionally charged, and why the failure to connect is sometimes interpreted by those involved as rejection. The student may feel rejected when the teacher holds himself aloof. The teacher may feel rejected when the student seems distracted or bored. Both may feel alienated by the realities of institutionalized mass schooling. Professionalism and “best practices” can lead to a cool (though perhaps pleasant) equanimity on the part of the teacher, easily interpreted by the sensitive student as standoffish. Environmental and even geometrical factors may interfere. School buildings often seem factory- or even prison-like in their esthetics, and inadequate funding may lead to deferred maintenance and rundown decor. Classroom seating is arranged at right angles in columns and rows like account books, with clearly-defined and separate space for students and teachers. Under all these conditions, establishing the human connection is problematic. Often, it never takes place at all.

When it does, though, it is a satisfying experience for both parties.  Juices are flowing, so to speak.  The work and effort of each person is bringing rewards and “accomplishment feedback.”  Art, literature, and music is filled with soaring and swooning blubbering over the human connection between two who are “in love”; I’m not sure there are many poems or songs that celebrate the communion between teacher and student.  Maybe it sounds absurd to even suggest it.


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.

Publicly-funded education and factory industrialization developed during the same historical era and they share many of that era’s characteristics. Each emerged out of the Enlightenment of early modernity, and each were and are understood to be progressive and world changing. Technology in the broadest sense (that is, ordered, scientific, and rationalized method) has been employed by both. It is not surprising, then, that the one sometimes has taken on the color of the other. In spite of the clear absurdity of doing so, students are often conceptualized as though they were raw material upon which some process or technique must be applied as efficiently as possible, with the results measurable and cost-effective. Teachers, then, become the factory workers who operate the machinery that converts the raw material into finished goods. They are an educational proletariat, and that’s how both they and the taxpayer think of them. They are workers—not scholars, not practitioners or knowers—and, like industrial workers, they are to be paid as little as feasibly possible. The finished goods—the erstwhile students—are acculturated, law abiding, and productive citizens. Beginning as raw material and therefore treated as passive and devoid of human agency, passivity frequently becomes a lifetime habit.

So-called higher education has hardly been immune to the quasi-industrialization that mars K-12 schooling. The post-World War Two “multiversity,” perhaps epitomized by the University of California, has taken on many of the characteristics of the factory. This was made explicit in 1963 by Clark Kerr, a noted economist and president of the UC system:

“The university is being called upon … to respond to the expanding claims of national service; to merge its activity with industry as never before; to adapt to and rechannel new intellectual currents. . . . The production, distribution, and consumption of ‘knowledge’ in all its forms is said to account for 29 percent of gross national product … and ‘knowledge production’ is growing at about twice the rate of the rest of the economy … What the railroads did for the second half of the last century and the automobile for the first half of this century may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth.”

My belief is that teaching and learning must not be reduced to an industrial process. Agency, consent, and mutual engagement are vastly more important than technique.


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

This idea of course builds on the twin imperatives of agency and consent already mentioned in previous postulates. The student must decide to learn. He must consent to the activities that the teacher designs to help bring that about. The teacher cannot decide for the would-be learner; the teacher is powerless before a person who does not consent to learn. Again, it must be remembered that students are not raw and insensate material upon which teaching can be applied to useful effect. No curriculum revision, no application of classroom technology, and no entertaining antics from the teacher will make any difference unless a student takes hold himself.

If there is a classroom analog to the caveman club, it’s the control a teacher has over “points,” scores, and letter grades. It is indeed a blunt instrument, and it can raise a bump on the teacher’s head as readily as on the student’s. In short, in has very little to do with learning. It doesn’t even measure very well whether or not it has taken place.


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.

There are, of course, a million and one realities that complicate the assumption of responsibility on the part of the learner. If he is young, adulthood is exciting but often problematic. For any of us, arriving at fully responsible maturity requires a journey of some decades, and we bring along with us lots of heavy baggage. In our modern-industrial-bureaucratic-technological world, all are tempted to externalize whenever we can: “it’s not my fault, it’s the system.” “I’d do a better job if . . . .” “No one told me I needed that.” And so forth. At any given moment, any reason for failure that sounds suspiciously like an excuse might be valid and unavoidable. In the long run, though, it is still up to each person—each learner—to carry the burden of his own education. He may have to set it down occasionally to rest. He may need help from his teachers or his fellows. But ultimately, it is his responsibility.


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.

Mark Twain is famous for quipping that he never let his schooling get in the way of his education. Most of us have sensed at one time or another that the institutions with which we deal—including schools, colleges, and universities—sometimes act in counterproductive or even destructive ways. An otherwise healthy person can contract a fatal disease in a hospital, an abused parishioner can lose his faith in a church dedicated to nurturing it, and a school can protect and defend ignorance by the very nature of the way it operates. Just as health and faith do not need hospitals and churches to exist, neither does learning absolutely require schools or the teachers who are employed by them. Learning can take place when reason, informed by previous learning and experience, acts on observation of real things in the world. A person on whom nothing is lost is constantly learning, constantly enlarging his store of knowledge and understanding.


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.

There is nothing short of deception or misdirection that a teacher can do to keep a self-motivated and responsible student from learning. A passive or disengaged student might not get much benefit from a slack, lazy, or merely incompetent teacher, but an engaged student will need but little help to learn the subject before him. What he needs from his teacher is direction and guidance. His teacher knows the subject and how it fits within the larger network of human knowledge. He knows what is important in it and what is trivial. He can save the engaged student a great deal of time, energy, and lost effort by pointing him in the right directions. Because the teacher’s knowledge comes from a wider universe of study and thought, he can vaccinate the autodidact against the self-learner’s worst disease: the facile self-assurance that often comes from isolated study and inquiry.


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.

Study after study has made clear the limitations of oral communication in imparting the merely informational. When spoken at a normal pace, the bulk of a lecture delivered before note-taking students is lost on them. Consider the absurdity of trying to listen to one complex idea while simultaneously trying to scribble down the essence of the idea that preceded it. The problem is made all the more manic by teachers who feel they must “cover” the material of a given topic or chapter in the time institutionally allotted. To such lecturers, student questions are disruptions and annoyances to be discouraged by being dispatched as quickly as possible. In the mind of some, technology has come to the rescue with PowerPoint, and now the complexities and subtleties of a serious subject can be rendered as staccato bullet points. And as the bullets come flying toward their targets arrayed before them like sitting ducks, whatever charm the traditional lecture might have had completely vanishes. So many lecturers simply read off the bullet points during their so-called lectures that it’s clear the machine rules even the erstwhile autocratic teacher. Relying upon a machine, he speaks like one.

If not lecture, then what should a teacher do before his students? Questions, answers, discussion, discursive explanations and elaboration, and focused attention on the specifics of substantive materials assigned to convey detailed content (i.e., books and the like). I would be a waste of time to merely restate or “go over” what has already been assigned if all that is being done is to duplicate the same materials. Explanation? Yes. Clarification? Absolutely. Repetition? Not for adult learners.


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.

500-Seat Lecture Hall

This will seem like nonsense to many, but students are aggregated into classes and treated en masse because there is no way around it for the bulk of the schooling that takes place in the modern world. In the best of all possible worlds, there would be one teacher for each learner, or at least each teacher would, at any given moment, work exclusively with a single learner. The great bulk of what is called “teaching method” or “praxis” in university departments of education would then be unnecessary. Gone would be the problems of “behavior management” and of “diversity”—the fact that a single classroom necessarily contains students of varying socio-economic, racial, and family backgrounds, and students of varying talents or challenges. They all have to treated as a group, as a collective, and special training is probably needed to deal with it.

On its face, this would seem like a problem of industrial production—how to mass produce education. The problems of mass education, though, are greater than those of the mass production of manufactured goods. Factory managers have nearly full control over the raw materials they allow in to their processes. They can demand uniformity and “quality control” of their suppliers. The same control is not possible in mass education. The “raw material”—the students—come as they are, and the only way of coming close to the uniformity of their characteristics would be to sort them into defined groups and then to treat each group differently. Naturally, this is neither politically expedient nor could it ever been executed within modern understandings of social justice.

If classes and other institutional methods of learner grouping are unavoidable, what do I mean when I say that the individual teacher-learner connection remains the essence of education? To my mind, it means the following:

a) The teacher must acquire and maintain some sense of his students’ characteristics as individuals. To whatever extent is possible, he must treat them as individuals and not merely as a member of a group.

b) It follows that as not all students are the same, they must not be treated as if they were identical. One student may need more direct assistance than another. One student may need more time to properly complete an assigned task. Assessment methods and categories (i.e., “grades”) must also be flexible enough to deal with student diversity.

c) “Fairness,” as it is generally understood in democratic societies (and almost obsessively by Americans), usually is taken to mean that everyone is to be treated identically and that differences are to be ignored. To be “fair” is generally understood to be “difference-blind” and to deal with everyone with machine-like uniformity. I have no quibbles with these definitions, but I avoid the use of the term altogether in favor of a value I consider superior: “justice.” Justice means everyone gets what he deserves, that he gets “what’s coming to him.”

I have seen it happen that a student struggling with a difficult subject can become discouraged by a string of poor grades. To give such a student another poor but “fair” grade might cause him to give up and abandon the study (or all his studies and just “drop out”). To give him a somewhat better grade than is “fair,” though, might help preserve in him some hope. One may ask, “but why is he struggling? Can’t he just apply himself?” The answer is, “yes, he can and he has, but it’s harder for him than for others.” Why harder? For a thousand and one possible reasons, none of which are the business of other members of a particular “class,” but are the business of a teacher as he dutifully helps each of his students learn.


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.

The principle that most of life’s tasks must be done at the individual level is readily accepted in a number of real circumstances. The basketball player understands his coach cannot shoot his baskets for him. The player himself must shoot them, and he must practice, and practice, and practice (on his own) until he can do so reliably and with subtle control. Usually, the coach doesn’t even set foot on the court. He stands on the sidelines and yells. Similarly, the movie director doesn’t practice the actor’s lines, the weight-training coach doesn’t lift the weights (except for his own training), and the drill sergeant doesn’t fire the weapons in target practice. Likewise, the parish priest confesses only his own sins and not those of an individual parishioner (there is no such thing as a group confession), and the physician doesn’t take the medicine he prescribes for his patients—each must do so himself by carefully following instructions.

All of these circumstances are perfectly analogous to the realities of the teacher-learner relationship. The teacher proposes and the learner disposes. A good rule of thumb is that an adult learner in a college or university setting should spend three hours outside of “class” for every hour spent inside. These “outside” hours are properly spent studying assigned readings (not just reading them), conducting assigned research, and in filling in the holes of his background preparation: looking up words or revisiting a forgotten (or never known) principle or concept needed for the current study. With a ratio of three-to-one, only twenty-five percent of a college student’s time is spent in the presence of his teacher.


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 certifying and credentialing (grades, degrees, etc.) are subordinate and ancillary to learning, and may even interfere if allowed.

Of all the tasks faced by teachers in the modern college or university, the most difficult is to overcome the mechanical “checklist” mentality encouraged by institutionally-structured degree and course requirements. For decades, Americans have believed that a baccalaureate and more advanced degrees are essential tickets to social advancement and economic opportunity. To secure employment in a good job—a white-collar job—has been the obsession of generations of upwardly-mobile Americans. Other sorts of work—blue-collar work—has been shunted off as undesirable, in part because manual work is wrongly equated with mindless factory or mill work rather than the skilled work of a welder , a carpenter, or a mechanic. But even these are often seen as dirty, servile, and demeaning jobs, not fit for the children of the Middle Class if they can avoid it.

Avoiding it has been one of the primary social goals of the explosive growth of higher education in the decades since the Second World War. As it has turned out, however, much of the so-called white-collar work available in the modern world has not required the learning of specific subjects or of a particular body of knowledge, but rather the development of what might be called cognitive and personality traits—the ability and, more importantly, the willingness to learn; quickly and mostly autonomously. Business and industrial personnel officials have repeatedly made clear that they are less concerned with what prospective employees learn in college than they are that the prospects submitted themselves to the middle-class discipline that can be readily demonstrated by the successful completion of a college degree.

Many recruiters of entry-level employees say that even transcript grades are of little or no interest to them, that college grades are not useful to would-be employers as predictors of success in their firms. They assume that just getting through the college or university system is enough of a test, that the wheat has already been separated from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. Each firm will teach and train the recently-graduated and newly-employed workers (yes, workers) themselves in what is to be done. To the dismay of many, such work often turns out to be the white-collar equivalent of the drudgery of the assembly line or the rock pile—work done in cubicles and requiring less intelligence and creativity than would be mandatory for even a mediocre auto mechanic.

This last observation helps bring out a mostly-ignored reality: a lot of college students would rather be doing something else with their lives instead of fulfilling degree requirements so that after college they can take up boring and mentally-stultifying work in “praire dog country”—where people’s heads pop up periodically from their cubicles. Some would rather spend their lives out-of-doors expertly trimming trees or roses, or in the workshop building fine furniture or snow boards, or in the kitchen lovingly cooking food for grateful diners, or any kind of hand-on work that is not mindless or demeaning but instead requires skill and intelligence. I don’t need to point out that in modern times society as a whole dismisses these kinds of employment as demeaning, and in part for this reason underpays those so employed. The quandary faced by many an adult student, then, is that he may have to pursue work he doesn’t really want to do and for which he is not temperamentally suited so he can have a decent income. In order to do what he really wants to do he will probably have to accept low pay, few benefits, and even less social status and esteem.

But he’ll have accept a number of things first. He’ll have to start checking off the sometimes opaque list of requirements foisted on him by university faculties (who too often believe they offer the gift of the gods, a gift no sane person could refuse). Reared in a modern, task-oriented and mechanical society, and inured with the assumption that “process” will conquer all, students often take, quite naturally, a mechanical approach to their studies. They want all details of their assessment and evaluation spelled out and made contractually explicit. They insist that no work be given for which they will not be afforded the opportunity for “points.” Since their college or university calculates their “grade-point average” to two decimal places, and since decisions regarding scholarships and other resources are sometimes made at the thin edge of one-hundredth of a grade point (2.99 rather than the minimum 3.00), students frequently indulge a similar false precision by demanding a rigorous and niggling accounting of exam and paper scores. It is not unfair to suggest that the maximization and wheedling that characterizes modern economic life is reflected in the mentality of students desperately hopeful the system-at-large will do right by them in the end.

To be practical, no teacher can ignore any of the mechanical realities and obsessions that nearly consume some of his students. What the teacher can do, though, is to push back, subtly and deftly, against the encroachment of such considerations on the real work at hand. He may have to play along with the wheedling and the niggling, lest they take on even greater importance than they already have. In the end, though, he must bring the student back to the real work and help him to take that work as seriously as the student takes his grade points.


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

Right off, care must be taken so that “humility” is not reflexively understood to be lowliness, humbleness, or subservience. It certainly should not be confused with “humiliation.”  In its true sense, humility is simply the understanding of oneself as one really is in the larger world. It does not imply stupidity or ignorance, nor does it assume an utter lack of understanding or preparation. It’s simply knowing which way the wind blows, and where one stands in relation to it. No adult student arrives at a college or university without significance learning and knowledge. No student comes devoid of the skills needed to ultimately make his or her way through the maze of baccalaureate requirements. Any student with the interest, drive, and humility to take up higher education can succeed with the help of the university faculty and staff.

That does not mean, though, that there might not be deficiencies and preparations that need to be “caught up” before college-level work can begin. In a few subjects such a mathematics and foreign language a workably-accurate assessment of student preparation can be made to identify whatever backtracking may be needed. Though these may seem to be set-backs, they more accurately should be seen as just part of the process.

Aside from the possible need to catch up when required, a successful student must be “teachable.” This means a willingness to learn, or at least the suppression of resistance against it. There are people—a goodly number in fact—who think they already know it all. Often, preconceived or merely-inherited notions or beliefs condition a person’s openness to learning. Many have built internal defenses that are called upon to deal with any challenge to their self-image as a knower. You know who I’m talking about.


12. The necessary posture of the teacher is duty. His first obligation is to the student and not the institution that employs him.

Duty

The word “duty” might lead one to conclude that teaching is always undertaken in a spirit of reluctance,  one that canonly be overcome by a sense of duty. Let’s face it: Americans talk far more about their rights than they do their duties. “Duty” is beginning to take on an antique, archaic cast. But when I speak of the duty of a teacher, I do not mean to imply a grudging acceptance of a mere necessity. I mean duty in the sense of vocation–a calling–that either emerges before the acquisition of a body of knowledge–that is, something to teach–or it can come along with an earnest interest in a subject from which there are few options for securing a livelihood other than teaching. History is one such subject.

It is widely believed that professors at “research” universities are far more interested in their reputation as scholars than as teachers, that hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions made at such institutions take teaching effectiveness as a given and consider the production of “scholarship” to be of far greater importance. Statistically, this is probably true, but not by much. There are many, many world-class scholars in all fields who are known by their students and former students as superb, world-class teachers. That is, they take their duty to their students seriously, prepare for lectures and other classroom activities assiduously, and offer as much help as they can to students–all while building impressive reputations as working researchers and scholars in their fields. Teaching and “scholarship” need not be at odds, and I have had many professors during my years as a student whose courses were deeply enriched by whatever book or article they were writing for publication.

At Southern Oregon University, the mix of teaching versus research and scholarship are reversed from that of the so-called research universities. Teaching plays a far greater role in the professional lives of the instructors and professors at SOU, but we are also required to engage in research, publishing, and other forms of professional “scholarship,” just in a smaller proportion than might be required by a member of the faculty of, say, the University of Oregon.

The important thing to remember, at whatever university one finds oneself at, is that a teacher’s first obligation is to the student and not to the university that employs him or her. It has happened, and it will continue to happen, that when asked I have advised SOU students to attend a different university–that SOU could not serve them as well as some other institution, for whatever reasons. As an employee of Southern Oregon University I should be working to encourage as many students to come here as possible–enrollment figures plays an important role in the calculation of SOU’s budget. But as a teacher, my first obligation is to my students, and when there might arise a conflict between those two obligations, students will come out on top every time.


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

Status Quo Cartoon

Changing the status quo does not necessarily mean taking action in the streets in protest of government policy , nor does it necessarily mean overturning particular aspects of the legal or social order. It might sometimes take those forms, but the biggest change in the status quo at the university will take place within the learner him or herself, and not directly in society at large. Education will change you. The most significant way it will do this is to make you aware of alternatives to what you have already known. The knowledge of alternatives will not necessarily compel you to adopt them, but you will find many of them attractive and compelling. Education can enlarge your mind, your heart, and your soul.

As wonderful as all that sounds, there is good cause to take it all in with caution and deliberation. It will almost certainly be the case that not all of your old friends and family members have had or will have the same mind-heart-and-soul expanding experience. If you are not careful, your education can build walls between you, your friends, and your loved ones. We professors act as if we have offered you the gift of the gods themselves, usually without caring about your relationships with others not sharing your same educational experience. But it is a matter that you must handle with great care and tact. Though we have lectured to you, don’t lecture to your friends and loved ones. Though you may no longer find racist or sexist jokes funny, find some way of being tolerant of loved ones who still do. If you go about it carefully, you will not antagonize them or play the know-it-all, but you can act as a positive force for good and change–one person at a time.

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