Statement of teaching philosophy

23 November 2007
Adam Johnston

I really believe that there’s an inherent value in thinking through a teaching philosophy and using it to give courses a foundation.  On the other hand, it’s clear to me that a lot of teaching philosophies run the risk of simply being a string of nice words.  I’ve read many other teaching philosophies that have great sentiment, but generally not much that’s original.  Students should construct their own knowledge.  Teaching materials should be engaging.   Assessments should be appropriate for the course being taught.  The classroom should be student centered.  This is all good – and correct1 – but it also falls short for me. 

At least once a year I have my students in science education courses take a teaching philosophy inventory in which they get to reveal to themselves how their own thinking about teaching and education lumps them together with other teachers, philosophers, and trends.  It’s revealing, both to me and to them, and it’s exciting to see one’s own thinking being paired with John Dewey or Paulo Freire.  (It’s a bit more frightening to me, personally, when students’ thinking ties with E. D. Hirsch and other “cultural literacy” ideals, but still helpful for us all to see that their developing ideas do link to a more coherent set of philosophical concepts.)  Moreover, they get to see their ideas aligning with different views of what learning means, what knowledge is, and what education is good for.  Each year I take the same inventory of my teaching philosophy, and it has always stood firmly on the side of being student centered and directed at an existential view of learning for the growth of an individual.  Yet, over the years I’ve seen it shift gradually from focusing on the individual exclusively to an aim towards societal change.  I think that, especially in science education and teacher preparation, I see myself not simply helping students to understand themselves and their place in this world.  I am pushing to shape the world in which we live.  So, add to the above list of clichés one more: Teaching is a political act.  As a favorite poet, Taylor Mali, states, “if I ever change the world it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.”  I don’t get to teach middle school students too often, but I do get to teach their teachers, and I take seriously that responsibility.

All that said, my actual model in the classroom comes down to a couple of things that I think are neglected in the standard “students should construct their own knowledge in a minds-on student centered classroom” teaching philosophy.  These specific pieces are still consistent with the SSCTOKIAMOSCC philosophy, but a bit more useful to me, personally.  They derive both from my own classroom experiences and my research:

The nature of these ideals is such that my instruction is generally very patient and tolerant of wrong answers and misconceptions.  While I know where I want to push students, I also really love the learning process(es), both in myself and in my students.  I don’t think it’s easy and, in fact, I am dubious when it seems to be so for students (or myself).  And, the beauty of being a researcher in science education is that when students do not understand something – perhaps even developing strong misconceptions – my perspective as a teacher changes from wanting to treat this to wanting to understand the source of the misconception.  It’s an exciting, guilty pleasure of mine.  I’m certain that the learning of anything really worthwhile is very slow, and might not even happen completely within the time constraints of a semester.  That makes what I do in the classroom that much more important – it needs to be an enrichment that reaches beyond the confines of Lind Lecture Hall or any given fall or spring.

Finally, behind all of the strategies and philosophies of teaching that I’m trying to tease out is one very simple concept: Teaching is fun2.  “Fun,” actually, doesn’t even begin to describe it.  It is an essential part of me, and there is perhaps no other version of myself that I like better than when I’m in the teaching environment.  Any philosophy and research ideal of mine may change, but the success I could have as a teacher hinges entirely on the selfish joy I get to experience as a teacher.

1. See: Johnston, A. (2008). Demythologizing or dehumanizing? A response to Settlage and the ideals of open inquiry. Journal of Science Teacher Education. 19(1), 11-13

2. This was the general sentiment of a keynote address I gave a few years ago, “The Joy of Teaching”.