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Developing a Philosophy of Teaching Statement

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by Nancy Van Note Chism, Ohio State University (reproduced with permission from Essays on Teaching Excellence, POD Network, Iowa State University)

When asked to write a statement on their philosophy of teaching, many college teachers react in the same way as professionals, athletes, or artists might if asked to articulate their goals and how to achieve them: "Why should I spend time writing this down? Why can't I just do it?" For action-oriented individuals, the request to write down one's philosophy is not only mildly irritating, but causes some anxiety about where to begin. Just what is meant by a philosophy of teaching statement anyway?

In the current academic climate it is likely that most faculty will be asked for such a statement at some point during their careers. The emphasis on portfolios for personnel decision making, new commitment by institutions to the teaching mission, and the tight academic job market have stimulated more requests of college teachers to articulate their philosophies. At many colleges and universities the philosophy of teaching statement is becoming a regular part of the dossier for promotion and tenure and the faculty candidate application package. Such statements are often requested of nominees for teaching awards or applicants for funds for innovative educational projects.

Besides fulfilling requirements, statements of teaching philosophy can be used to stimulate reflection on teaching. The act of taking time to consider one's goals, actions, and vision provides an opportunity for development that can be personally and professionally enriching. Reviewing and revising former statements of teaching philosophy can help teachers to reflect on their growth and renew their dedication to the goals and values that they hold.

[edit] The Format of the Statement

One of the hallmarks of a philosophy of teaching statement is its individuality. However, some general format guidelines can be suggested:

  • Most philosophy of teaching statements are brief, one or two pages long at most. For some purposes, an extended description is appropriate, but length should suit the context.
  • Most statements avoid technical terms and favour language and concepts that can be broadly appreciated. If the statement is for specialists, a more technical approach can be used. A general rule is that the statement should be written with the audience in mind.
  • Narrative, first-person approaches are generally appropriate. In some fields, a more creative approach, such as a poem, might be appropriate and valued; but in most, a straightforward, well-organized statement is preferred.
  • The statement should be reflective and personal. What brings a teaching philosophy to life is the extent to which it creates a vivid portrait of a person who is intentional about teaching practices and committed to career.

[edit] Components of the Statement

The main components of philosophy of teaching statements are descriptions of how the teachers think learning occurs, how they think they can intervene in this process, what chief goals they have for students, and what actions they take to implement their intentions.

Conceptualization of learning. Interestingly, most college teachers agree that one of their main functions is to facilitate student learning; yet most draw a blank when asked how learning occurs. This is likely due to the fact that their ideas about this are intuitive and based on experiential learning, rather than on a consciously articulated theory. Most have not studied the literature on college student learning and development nor learned a vocabulary to describe their thinking. The task of articulating a conceptualization of learning is therefore difficult.

Many college teachers have approached the work of describing how they think student learning occurs through the use of metaphor. Drawing comparisons with known entities can stimulate thinking, whether or not the metaphor is actually used in the statement. For example, when asked to provide a metaphor, one teacher described student learning in terms of an amoeba. He detailed how the organism relates to its environment in terms of permeable membranes, movement, and the richness of the environment, translating these into the teaching-learning context by drawing comparisons with how students reach out and acquire knowledge and how teachers can provide a rich environment. Grasha (1996) has done extensive exploration of the metaphors that college students and teachers use to describe teaching and learning. An earlier classic that also contains an exploration of metaphors of teaching and learning is Israel Scheffier's The Language of Education (1960). Reinsmith (1994) applies the idea of archetypes to teaching. Such works might be consulted for ideas.

A more direct approach is for teachers to describe what they think occurs during a learning episode, based on their observation and experience or based on current literature on teaching and learning. Some useful sources that summarize current notions of learning in a very accessible way are contained in Svinicki (1991), Weinstein & Meyer (1991), and Bruning (1994). Teachers can also summarize what they have observed in their own practice about the different learning styles that students display, the different tempos they exhibit, the way they react to failure, and the like. Such descriptions can display the richness of experience and the teacher's sensitivity to student learning.

Conceptualization of teaching. Ideas on how teachers can facilitate the learning process follow from the model of student learning that has been described. If metaphors have been used, the teacher role can be an extension of the metaphor. For example, if student learning has been described as the information processing done by a computer, is the teacher the computer technician, the software, the database? If more direct descriptions of student learning have been articulated, what is the role of the teacher with respect to motivation? To content? To feedback and assessment? To challenge and support? How can the teacher respond to different learning styles, help students who are frustrated, accommodate different abilities?

Goals for students. Describing the teacher role entails detailing how the teacher can help students learn, not only a given body of content, but also process skills, such as critical thinking, writing, and problem solving. It also includes one's thoughts on lifelong learning - how teachers can help students to value and nurture their intellectual curiosity, live ethical lives, and have productive careers. For most teachers, it is easier to begin with content goals, such as wanting students to understand certain aerodynamic design principles or the treatment of hypertension. The related process goals, such as engineering problem solving or medical diagnostic skills, might be described next. Finally, career and lifelong goals, such as team work, ethics, and social commitment, can be detailed.

Implementation of the philosophy. An extremely important part of a philosophy of teaching statement is the description of how one's concepts about teaching and learning and goals for students are translated into action. For most readers, this part of the statement is the most revealing and the most memorable. It is also generally more pleasurable and less challenging to write. Here, college teachers describe how they conduct classes, mentor students, develop instructional resources, or grade performance. They provide details on what instructional strategies they use on a day-to-day basis. It is in this section that teachers can display their creativity, enthusiasm, and wisdom. They can describe how their No Fault Test System or video taping technique for promoting group leadership skills implements their notions of how teachers can facilitate learning. They can portray what they want a student to experience in the classes they teach, the labs they oversee, the independent projects they supervise. They can describe their own energy level, the qualities they try to exhibit as a model and coach, the climate they try to establish in the settings in which they teach.

Personal growth plan. For some purposes, including a section on one's personal growth as a teacher is also important in a statement of teaching philosophy. This reflective component can illustrate how one has grown in teaching over the years, what challenges exist at the present, and what long-term goals are projected. In writing this section, it helps to think about how one's concepts as well as actions have changed over time. It might be stimulating to look at old syllabi or instructional resources one has created, asking about implicit assumptions behind these products. Dialogue with colleagues, comparison of practices with goals, and examination of student or peer feedback on teaching might help with the task of enumerating present questions, puzzles, and challenges. From these, a vision of the teacher one wants to become will emerge. Describing that teacher can be a very effective way to conclude a philosophy of teaching statement.

Examples of Statements. By far, the best philosophy of teaching statement examples for most college teachers are those of peers who teach in similar settings or disciplines. Since statements tend to be tailored to specific contexts, peer examples are thus highly appropriate models. Dialogue with colleagues on these statements can help to stimulate ideas for one's own statement as well.

Other examples are contained in several recent books on teaching portfolios, such as Seldin (1993) and O'Neil & Wright (1993). Reflective books on effective college teaching often contain extensive descriptions of teaching philosophies, such as the chapter on "Developing a Personal Vision of Teaching" in Brookfield's The Skillful Teacher (1990) and "Three Teaching Principles" in Louis Schmier's Random Thoughts (1995).

[edit] References

Brookfield, S. (1990). The skillful teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bruning, R. (1994). The college classroom from the perspective of cognitive psychology. (pp. 3-22) In K. Pritchard & R. Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook of college teaching. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Grasha, A. (1996). Teaching with style. Pittsburgh:Alliance Publishers.

O'Neil, C., & Wright, A. (1993). Recording teaching accomplishment. (4th ed). Halifax, Nova Scotia, CA: Dalhousie University.

Reinsmith, W. (1994). Archetypal forms in teaching. College Teaching, 42,13,136.

Scheffler, I. (1960). The language of education. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas.

Seldin, P. (1991). The teaching portfolio. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Seldin, P., & Associates (1993). Successful use of teaching portfolios. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Schmier, L. (1995). Random thoughts: The humanity of teaching. Madison, WI: Magna Publications.

Svinicki, M. (1991).Practical implications of cognitive theories. In R. Menges & M. Svinicki, (Eds.) College teaching: From theory, to practice.

New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 45, pp. 27-37. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weinstein. C., & Meyer, D. (1991). Cognitive learning strategies and college teaching. In R. Menges & M. Svinicki, (Eds.) College teaching: From theory to practice. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 45, pp. 15-26. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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