Saturday, December 23, 2006

My Teaching Philosophy

Initial Assumptions to a Meaningful Praxis Outlook

I believe that total education can be divided into three realms: the parental/family, societal and the school-based pedagogy. The parental/family falls outside the jurisdiction of the teacher, but does impact the individual significantly. It is the first source of education that the student receives. It can carry the wisdom of survival skills and cultural continuance but may also be biased with prejudices and misconceptions of previous generations.

The same is true of the societal/community whose impact on the student is defined in Blos’s second individuation[i]. Peer groups and the media/internet influence the student here as do the external factors of community (secular and/or religious) and extended family. Again the teacher’s role in this realm is minimal.

So in a sense it must be understood that the teacher’s sphere of influence in total education is not all-encompassing but largely limited to school-based pedagogy. Too often I believe, teachers forget about the dynamics and importance of non-classroom education leading to myopic expectations. This is certainly not to downplay the role of a teacher. School-based pedagogy is vital in stimulating self-initiative thinking and can in many cases make up for shortfalls in other avenues of the total education process. However a realistic sense of expectations and boundary is essential.

In my philosophy I see teachers as builders – constructors of frameworks upon which the student can develop skills for knowledge acquisition. A teacher is both an assessor and an evaluator but most important a linkage facilitator supplying the student with the tools to close the gaps between the known and the unknown. In such a regard my philosophy has been influenced by the Russian thinker Lev Vygotsky who referred to these gaps as ‘Zones of Proximal Development’[ii]. Like Vygotsky I see the force of culture as aiding this bridging interplay, but without the input of a competent teacher, the process would be compromised in the classroom.

I have seen this first hand in my own learning experience where sub-standard teaching failed to close the gaps of understanding at the time leaving me with a sense of under-accomplishment and an overall lowering of self confidence. It is therefore a factor that I am always conscious of in my praxis. At both my private school teaching, as well as my practicum I have made it a strong priority that my students are not left with any erroneous understanding of concepts (in the complexity of my teachable, physics, these pitfalls are all too abundant).

Teaching in another sense is about the development of skills as well as the opening up of the student’s mind to various social and cultural perspectives. It is about finding the real essence in what there is to know and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our assumptions. It is about learning to think and analyze not merely for purely sophist reasons but to add to human understanding and improvement – both on a personal and then perhaps a universal level.
So in a way I am a pragmatic idealist (I don’t see these philosophies as mutually exclusive) but if one does not enter with a full heart then one’s role as a teacher is easily reduced to that of a mechanical processor – a system shunter – which is not in my opinion what the profession is supposed to be. I don’t believe in languishing in the mundane for it is in the extraordinary that our species moves forward and overcomes its difficulties. Too often students don’t see this as they trod disparate pathways, but what they need to know, is that the extraordinary is not only a product of self but often arises through co-operation with others and the breaking of stereotypes. Therefore I am a strong believer in project based team learning opportunities as a format for ideas generation, synthesizing of academic synergies and enrichment through cultural meme exchange.

I am a fervent proponent of the cultivation of the holistic learner and of cross-disciplinary teaching. I feel that it is important to go beyond the subject divisions (that have their basis in Aristotelian philosophy[iii]) to make the connections between academic fields and so nourish the meshwork that provides for both novel thought and informed action.

Understanding the activities of the understated Han, Mayan and Songhai[iv] civilizations is directly linked with the mathematics behind their calendars and agricultural systems, a comparative theme that I have consciously reinforced in both the history and science courses that I have taught. If one looks further with the foresight to bridge it will become evident that such examples are ubiquitous and that divorced from a blinkered outlook provide for a clearer picture to the student of the total knowledge panorama.

In a sense the product created extends far beyond its parts and begs for the inclusion of differing perspectives for further enhancement. Learning then enlivens fueled by a dynamic inclusion of the broader human picture. For this is what school-based pedagogy is. Not just a series of eureka moments, but a strengthened matrix of knowledge that complements and prepares the student for their complete education so that they can live fuller with a richness of life and an enhanced understanding of others.

[i] Muuss, R.E. (1980). Peter Blos’ Modern Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Adolescence. J. of Adolescence, 1980, 3, 229-252.

[ii] Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[iii] The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation (2 Volume Set; Bollingen Series, Vol. LXXI, No. 2), edited by Jonathan Barnes ISBN 0-691-09950-2

[iv] For more on the Songhai Empire read Duiker W. and Spielvogel J. (2004) World History 4th Edition Thomson Wadsworth pg 400-405.
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