Philosophy of Teaching
Teaching philosophies are at the heart of how we teach. My philosophy of teaching is very much informed by a number of factors that include, but not limited to mandated course content that I am required to cover, articulated student learning objectives, my preferred teaching style, instructional strategies and methods, and the chosen methods for the evaluation of student learning outcomes. My philosophy of teaching and its corollary, my philosophy of how students learn, has never been clearly formulated or articulated in my mind and never clearly promulgated—certainly it has never been formalized or codified on tablets likened to those carried by Moses as he descended from the Sinai (Exodus 32: 15-16). Like most university teachers, I have no formal training in education. Like most university teachers, I entered the classroom with an entirely inadequate and wholly undeveloped conceptualization of the values, assumptions, norms and beliefs that would inform my teaching.
During my career as a university teacher, I have had the privilege and pleasure to teach many students. They have shown me much about the craft of teaching and have permitted me to grow as an educator and as a person. As I reflect on the nature of how I teach I am reminded of the dichotomy inherent in the notion of “espoused philosophy” as contrasted with that of “enacted philosophy.” Although I have always had, at least on the surface, a somewhat limited understanding of the theoretical underpinnings to guide my practice (my espoused philosophy), I have a much more complete understanding about how I teach (my enacted philosophy). As an educator with many years of teaching experience, yet with no educational qualification to help inform my practice, I have always found it much easier to speak about how I teach. I believe that my espoused philosophy (the values, assumptions and beliefs) that undergird my teaching can best be understood by a closer examination of how I teach. Yet, only examining my enacted philosophy (philosophy in practice) and using it as a proxy for illuminating my espoused philosophy (philosophy in theory), produces only a partial and somewhat inaccurate picture of the teaching values, assumptions and beliefs that I hold dear.
Upon some reflection, I believe that my teaching philosophy, one that comprise both espoused and enacted elements, are informed by three major factors: where and what I teach, what I believe facilitates and promotes student learning, and my own preferred teaching style. Although each of these elements is interdependent, in order to produce a more coherent understanding of my teaching philosophy, I would like to examine the contributions (and claims) that each of these makes.
My teaching philosophy is shaped by where and what I teach
I teach in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. Our students are graduate students pursuing masters and doctoral degrees in public health. Our degree programs educate individuals who wish to pursue employment as practitioners in public health (through enrollment in the Master of Public Health degree), as well as those individuals who wish to receive training in public health research (through enrollment in the Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees). Our School has six streams of inquiry that provide discrete graduate-level training in the cognate fields of public health: epidemiology, environmental science, global/international health, population health, health promotion, and health policy and management. Holding graduate degrees in public administration, business administration and health services administration, I teach (and conduct my research) in the health policy and management program area. Students in our practitioner-based (MPH) health policy and management program are pursuing professional education on order to become public health administrators, managers and policy analysts in the Canadian public health care system. Traditionally, students who earn the MPH degree in health policy and management are pursuing mid-level and senior-level management positions in hospitals, nursing homes, public health agencies, and government departments or ministries of health. Students in our research-based (MSc/PhD) program are pursuing advanced education and training in order to become academics, scholars and analysts in public health research.
Much of my enacted teaching philosophy is shaped by the mission of the School of Public Health. It is a mission that I understand and one that is fully compatible and consistent with the aim of my teaching. Our mission states that “the School of Public Health is committed to promoting health and wellness, protecting health, preventing disease and injury, and reducing health disparities across Alberta, Canada, and around the world. We undertake this mission by: pursuing research, promoting learning, and providing community and professional service with the highest ethical and scientific standards; educating future public health leaders; translating research into effective practices and sound policies; discovering, evaluating and disseminating solutions to health problems and public health threats; and engaging communities near and far.”(School of Public Health, 2006).
Like our program offerings, the stated mission of our School requires us to always wear two hats: the practitioner’s hat and the scholar’s hat. Being true to our mission requires that our programs have strong academic as well as professional attributes. As professional programs, they must adhere to competency-based protocols mandated by outside accreditation agencies for public health (Council on Education for Public Health), and for health services management (Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education). These agencies place serious constraints on what I teach and how I teach it. Although one might view the mission of our School and its accreditation requirements with its heavy emphasis on competency-based education as potentially producing serious impediments for articulating my own unique teaching philosophy, they have not really acted that way. The mission statement of our School properly articulates the purpose of my practice, one that is informed by and not (surprisingly) inconsistent with my teaching philosophy (at least as much as I understand it). Accreditation requirements that stress competency-based models of education do not adversely restrict nor compromise the aim of my teaching: to improve the management, design and functioning of our healthcare system by enabling and equipping individuals to assume leadership roles. I believe that my espoused and enacted teaching philosophy, and the methods and strategies that I use to achieve this, are highly consistent with this aim.
My teaching philosophy is shaped by what I believe facilitates student learning
To me, teaching is a journey of discovery and renewal. To me, teaching and learning are journeys of discovery and renewal. A critical aim of my teaching is to help the student become a life-long learner, and by consequence, my effectiveness as a teacher will be assessed on the basis of whether I am effective in making my students successful. Although these two aims appear to be unrelated, I believe that in the long-term students will not be successful in their careers until and unless they embrace learning and the love of learning over the course of their careers and lives.
As a teacher, I believe that my teaching behaviours have an immediate impact on both of these aims. An analogy that I think applies to my task as teacher is to see my role to that of a “master chef.” Students in a graduate, professional program like mine enter with a vast range of personal backgrounds, educational and work experiences, attitudes, and interests. Our students display a plurality of different learning and career objectives. The challenge that I undertake as an educator is to provide a high level of satisfaction (success) to this very diverse group of learners. Some students enter our academic program and are very “hungry” to acquire new knowledge and skills. These students rapidly consume everything that they encounter, sometimes with insufficient reflection. Other learners, whom have different preference and needs, are more fussy about what they want to learn and will reluctantly “try on new ideas”, sampling a little bit here and there. My job as a teacher is like that of a chef: one who is charged with preparing an “educational banquet” that has the potential to variably satiates each student’s distinct learning needs, yet seeking to instill in all a taste for life-long learning.
I believe that in order to support the teaching aim of “improving the management, design and functioning of our healthcare system by enabling and equipping individuals to assume leadership roles,” my teaching philosophy must be fully congruent. For me, success as a teacher is more than just certifying that students have mastered the course content, demonstrated the correct competencies as articulated by accreditation agencies, or ensure that students secure high paying jobs after graduation. Although these are important indicators of my teaching effectiveness or program relevance, I believe that my success as a teacher will be measured by the degree to which my students have been transformed by their educational experience. My first responsibility as an educator is to create a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to learning and to the love of learning. I try to do this by my enthusiasm for the material that I teach. Because students have different learning styles, I recognize these differences by purposefully designing my course curricula to include activities that play to a variety of preferred styles. I also attempt to incorporate higher-order learning activities wherever possible (Bloom, 1956). Students in graduate professional programs need not only to master core knowledge, but they need to develop the ability to effectively weigh the evidence through application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
I believe that student learning activity must have features that consist of deep learning (Biggs, 1999). Although deep learning characterized by analysis, synthesis, evaluation and critical reflection are clear objectives that are so central to my teaching, I believe that in order for it to occur it requires a foundation of knowledge, comprehension, and application to make the learning process really come alive. For this reason, I believe that one must continuously emphasize a sharp commitment to student development in each of Bloom’s (1956) categories of cognitive learning. To emphasize analysis, synthesis and evaluation (higher-ordered domains), without sufficiently edifying nor adding to the base of student knowledge, comprehension and application (lower-ordered domains), is to insufficiently equip students to engage in a process of life-long learning. I believe that teaching has the purpose of communication of knowledge by bringing about a deepened awareness or consciousness in persons.
The role of values in informing my philosophy of education is central to my philosophy of teaching. As an educator who “values” free thought and expression, I do not generally espouse the intrinsic worth inherent in contemporary formulations of “values-based education.” On the contrary, I believe that the emphasis on values that is so central to contemporary professional education is somewhat misplaced and certainly inconsistent with my role as teacher. I do not believe that it is my role to “indoctrinate” students to the professional values they will need to inculcate as professional managers in health service organizations. If I were to take on this role, I would seriously compromise my role as a scholar—one who still firmly holds to the (simplistic?) notion that the “search for truth” should always guides ones own learning journey and scholarship. (Indoctrination is distinguished from teaching in that the former attempts to bring about an uncritical acceptance of beliefs). Patterson (1979) suggests that the two objectives of adult learning are the development of the virtues of reason, and the learning of moral values. Developing the virtues of reason, according to Patterson, gives a person mental autonomy, while learning values gives moral autonomy. Although I am in strong agreement with Patterson as to these two objectives, I believe that my role in assisting students to attain moral autonomy is not to impart my values or the doctrines of others, but rather to discuss with them the moral implications associated with certain situations and circumstances.
My teaching philosophy is shaped by my own preferred teaching style
My approach to teaching is to illuminate both the knowledge base and the illuminate the value systems of students by introducing them to critical analysis and reflection. Health service managers must have the ability to look outside the common nostrums that guide traditional thinking. To facilitate this, I sometimes play the “devil’s advocate” with my students, especially during those times when “popular wisdom” around an issue is overpowering or when common nostrums dominate discourse. This approach to teaching can sometimes backfire because it exposes a student’s ignorance, prejudice, or lack of preparation. Regardless of what transpires in the classroom, I have learned that it is essential to respect the dignity of each student. I make an effort to maintain an atmosphere in the classroom that stresses open tolerance of ideas, respect and mutual understanding. Of course, learning needn’t just be about hard work, it should also be fun. Many students have told me that the thing they like most about my teaching is my cheerfulness and high energy level that I demonstrate in the classroom. Students learn best when they observe an instructor is both knowledgeable about a subject and demonstrates a strong passion for it. I also know that I am aware (whether it is appropriate or not) that I am a role model for my students—how I behave both inside and outside the classroom counts! Never underestimate the power of social modeling and vicarious learning.
I also try to adopt a variety of approaches in my teaching style. Because I teach graduate students in a small classroom setting, I utilize a seminar format that both “student-centered” in its context, but is has the ability to become “teacher-focused” because I want to be able to control the learning experience. By doing this, I am able to exploit “teachable moments” when I can quickly shift emphasis back to me to elucidate a new concept, idea or theory. As I contemplate this switching between teacher and student during teaching-learning process, I believe that the tensions produced by conceptualizing one’s teaching orientation as an exclusive dichotomy of being either “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” to be somewhat misplaced. I believe (or would like to believe) that I am “learning-centered” and “student-sensitive.”
Over the years I have developed a more Socratic approach to student-teacher interactions in the classroom, asking probative questions rather than merely providing answers. Even though I give limited didactic lectures where appropriate, the appropriate learning modality in the graduate courses that I instruct is to develop student skills in critical thinking, analysis, evaluation and reflection. An over-reliance on didactic
teaching will clearly not accomplish this objective. Rather, this requires a teaching style that allows students to come to understand their own value system and those of others. In the end, students must be willing and able to accept alternative points of view as legitimate and be able to deal with objections, obstacles, and criticisms of one’s perspective without becoming incapacitated, threatened, or angry.
I am cognizant of Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development (Perry, 1970). My teaching philosophy and preferred teaching style reflect teaching attitudes and behaviours that quickly move students along the continuum from simplistic constructs of learning predicated on “dualism and received knowledge” to more sophisticated ones that focus more on “commitment and constructed knowledge.” I strongly believe that knowledge of management and of policy is always contextual and that the study of contexts allows one to determine what works and does not in any given situation. The role of the student is to understand the contribution rendered by different and diverse contexts, and examine different perspectives, competing ideas, and explore issues of social and ethical responsibility.
The means by which I achieve my teaching aims and fully elucidate my teaching philosophy are many and varied. Although I do use limited didactics such as formal lecture, I use it primarily as a means to provide structure and focus to a subject theme. The teaching methods that I employ that I believe best articulates my teaching aims and philosophy include a variety of methods to enhance the decision making skills of “health care managers-in-training.” In order to sharpen all cognitive domains of students from knowledge acquisition to evaluation, a variety of teaching methods and modalities must be utilized. In addition to formal lectures, I strongly incorporate the use of case analysis, managerial role playing, managerial decision making aids such as “in-basket” analysis, and debates into my teaching.
This exercise has not been easy but it has helped to open a door for me—a door of self-reflection. To date, much of my teaching has been unexamined—I teach in a particular way that has historically been uninformed by any overarching philosophy. So, why do I teach this way? I am not sure that my musings here have provided a very persuasive answer to this very important question. I suspect that my teaching philosophy, style and methods have been strongly shaped by my own experiences as a student. Clearly they have never been informed by formalized education in this regard--as I teach without a teaching credential. When I reflect on the “great teachers” that I have had the pleasure to experience in my life, I can identify three individuals that have had an inordinate role in shaping how I teach and why I teach. If I possess any worth as a teacher, their contribution to my effectiveness must be clearly recognized.
Teaching (like golf) is a humbling game. As any endeavor worth performing, it must be approached with a firm commitment to its mastery. Like golf, teaching takes a great deal of practice and patience. Just when you think that you have it all figured out, something happens which requires you to reassess your approach. I have had the opportunity to do a great deal of teaching in my academic career. I have not always been successful in the classroom. During my time as a university teacher, I have learned a little about the craft of teaching but much about me as a teacher.
- Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals; pp. 201-207, Susan Fauer Company.
- Patterson, R.W.K. (1979). Values, education and the adult. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Perry, W.G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: a scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Mezirow, J., Taylor, E.D., and associates. (2009). Transformative learning in practice: insights from community, workplace and higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- School of Public Health (2006). School of public health: mission statement. Edmonton, ALTA: School of Public Health, University of Alberta.
- Zinn, L.M. (1991). Identifying your philosophic orientation. In M. Galbraith (Ed.). Adult learning methods. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.