A Philosophy of Teaching Philosophies

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I read a lot of teaching philosophies as part of my consultation work at the Schreyer Institute. What makes a teaching philosophy good, in my opinion?

In no particular order, three tips:

1) Its formatting allows the reader to quickly skim it and still come away with a sense of the writer's teaching persona. Hiring committees tend to be busy people, and we can't count on them to read the whole document.

2) The philosophy includes some examples that help me see the teacher -- and the students -- at work in the classroom or outside it. As James M. Lang points out in a great Chronicle article about teaching philosophies, it's easy enough to write the current buzzwords, but it's more difficult to give evidence of something substantial. (Or as Susan Ambrose from CMU's teaching center said in a workshop the other day, the term "active learning" should be banned. "Meaningful learning" is much more to the point, she said.)

3)  The philosophy shows the students learning, and not just the teacher teaching. Both are important, but at the Schreyer Institute we caution people against putting all the emphasis on what the teacher is doing -- because success hinges on what the students are producing. As Ambrose stressed in her talk, the student is the one responsible for learning.

I'd welcome your suggestions about what makes a good teaching philosophy.

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For those of you who were not able to attend Susan Ambrose's presentation, I'd like to add a bit of context to the quotes in Chas' posting. As background, Susan was invited to give a talk by the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering. The Leonhard Center is facilitating a book group around her recent book "How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching," and the talk served as a bit of a kickoff for the group.

The comment she made about meaningful learning was in response to a query from a faculty member about what she thought of clickers as a tool for "engaging students." That was when she made the comment about outlawing the use of such terms, specifically if used without adding the term "meaningful" as a modifier.

The value of active learning and student engagement lies wholly within the purpose of the activity, not the fact of it. Active/engaged learning techniques involve students in doing something meaningful with the course content, or with some other aspect of the course. In other words the point of "active learning" is learning, not activity.

You can certainly capture students' attention by asking them to respond to a question with their clickers. However, if the question is without meaning in the context of the course, it is unlikely to have any effect on students' learning.

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