Philosophy of Teaching and Learning

Here is a post written in 2014 while studying for my sixth year degree at the University of New Haven. New ideas will be added as I continue to reflect on teaching and learning.

I believe that children are curious and want to learn.  Children learn constantly during their first few years of life before entering a classroom and receiving a formal education.  They learn because they want to learn.  An infant first has a need to learn something new and then, often through trial and error, he gradually learns the new skill until he has mastered it.  I think this desire to learn does not disappear, even in adolescents.  It is up to the teacher to create an environment that fosters that natural desire for learning.  I believe that students learn best by doing, by interacting with others and by choosing authentic learning tasks.  Students need to continually expand their connections to others through the Internet and other communication technologies and form their own learning community. These activities must be conducted in a safe environment that respect the learner.  A teacher must consider all of these factors in every lesson she teaches.

Keeping in mind that not all children have the same learning needs, intellectual abilities, interests or home environments, teachers must create a classroom that involves choice.  For example, not all students need to read the same book in order to increase their reading achievement.  Teachers should provide choice in what students learn as well as how they learn it.  Maria Montessori advocated student choice within limits and Montessori schools today follow her model.  I believe that providing students with choice increases their investment in their own education.  In my experience, students who are told what to read and write tend to be more apathetic about their schoolwork.  Students who have choice in what to learn and how to share their learning are motivated and excited about learning.

It is not enough to provide students choice within limits, teachers must also design lessons that engage students through active learning and authentic tasks.  I believe that students learn best by asking questions, investigating a problem, monitoring their own progress and reflecting on their progress and the outcome of their project.  John Dewey advocated an approach that promoted learning through inquiry.   I agree that students learn best by doing, not by sitting passively listening to a teacher attempt to convey knowledge.  Teachers should design authentic learning tasks for their students.  A student who writes a paper that only the teacher reads is not writing for an authentic audience, he is writing to earn a grade.  I believe that students should be given opportunities to share their new learning with an outside audience.  This is another way to motivate students to be more invested in their work.  

B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist view is not one that I apply to my classroom.  Although there may be examples of successfully providing certain stimuli to achieve a desired effect in the classroom, I believe these successes are short-lived.  Although Skinner may not have envisioned this, many teachers use this approach when it comes to discipline in the classroom.  Students are rewarded with candy or points for good behavior and rewards are withheld when undesirable behaviors are exhibited.  A classroom that runs on this system of operant conditioning  may appear to be orderly and successful on the surface, but I believe that students learn how to behave in that specific classroom but do not apply these lessons to other classrooms or the world in general.  Students who are used to getting candy for completing their homework will see no value in completing the work with the absence of a reward.  I believe that teachers should create conditions for students to become intrinsically motivated and avoid situations where the class is simply responding to the idea of a reward or punishment.  

I believe that students learn best when they feel safe and valued in the classroom.  This includes feeling physically  and emotionally safe.  A student must feel safe from bullying and harassment in any form.  He must feel respected and know that his culture, interests, language and all parts of his identity can contribute to the classroom.   A teacher can facilitate this by getting to know her students, their families and their culture.  Curriculum materials should reflect aspects of students’ culture through readings, topics studied, authors represented, and by providing choices to students.   

I agree with Paulo Freire who said that education is a political act.  As a teacher, I must be constantly aware of the explicit and implicit messages I am sending my students by the choice of materials I use, the assignments I create, the questions I ask, who I call on in class, the interactions I have with students and more.  Everything I do is watched by impressionable students.  I need to help them to learn to read critically and examine their own behaviors and interactions for hidden messages and ways that they may silence others.  I must help students who feel oppressed to find their voice and give them opportunities to express themselves.  I must  constantly re-examine my own behaviors to eliminate prejudice, bias and any assumptions that negatively influence my classroom.  

The constructivist approach to teaching incorporates many of the ideas I have presented here.  Since starting the IT&DML program, however, I have learned many new ideas that have influenced my philosophy of teaching and learning.  Connectivism is an approach to teaching and learning that more closely aligns to my current philosophy.  Connectivism has been described as a philosophy for the digital age.  It emphasizes the importance of learning through connections.  To that end, learners must be able to make many connections to other learners. Classrooms today can connect to other classrooms and experts in the fields they are studying by using the Internet.  Another principle of connectivism is that knowing where to find information is as important as knowing information.  This makes sense in today’s digital age where students literally have a world of information at their fingertips.  They need to learn to navigate the internet, ask appropriate questions, conduct intelligent searches, evaluate sources and comprehend material presented in a variety of formats.  Also under connectivism, learning requires action.  Students should do something with their new knowledge.  In this way, learning becomes more purposeful and students will be more motivated to learn.  A project under the connectivist approach would require students to locate information about a topic important to them, research and collaborate with students from other parts of the world, and design a project that will have an impact outside of their classroom.

Another impact of my recent studies on my philosophy is that I now more fully appreciate the importance of teaching global competencies.  Globally competent students will have an advantage over students who have not had opportunities to interact and collaborate with students from other cultures.  I believe that schools have a responsibility to prepare students for a world where they will work with colleagues from around the world.  This month, I am studying at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.  There are students from all over the Arab world, the United States and beyond who are studying Arabic, English, and many other disciplines.  These students learn to work and live together, although they come from vastly different cultures.  In a conversation with a university administrator today, she noted that many students come here with limited knowledge of other cultures, but they leave prepared to work with colleagues from any country in the world.  By collaborating with students in other cultures, children will gain new perspectives and appreciation of cultural differences.  Today’s technologies provide many opportunities for classrooms to connect with other cultures and promote global competencies.  

Despite these benefits, technology also presents many challenges for schools.  One challenge for teachers in particular is the overwhelming amount of information and technology tools that are available.  These tools and ideas are increasing every day making it more difficult for teachers to sift through and identify what is best for students.  Many teachers have responded to this problem by using just the technology that is required in their schools.  Some teachers, however, are using technology to help them deal with the constant change required of them.  Through Twitter, Google Plus, blogs and other formats, teachers are connecting with professionals from around the world and helping each other navigate through these rapidly changing times.  Finding someone who uses technology to design an authentic task using a problem-centered approach is just a click away nowadays.  The days when teachers felt isolated in their classrooms no longer exist for those teachers who have discovered ways to connect through technology.  Following a connectivist approach is essential for teachers’ own learning, not just for their students.   I believe that, ultimately, teachers will continue to use these connections to overcome any challenges the future may bring.