Renate Kahlke (Faculty of Education)

Philosophy of Teaching

In building my philosophy of education, I situate myself as an educator in higher education within health science disciplines. Like Susan Toohey (1999), I define higher education as activities within the University and other postsecondary institutions which are “primarily concerned with abstract and theoretical knowledge” (p. 46). As Toohey suggests, these institutions often engage in skills training in conjunction with a focus on theoretical knowledge.  This combination of skills training – such as the psychomotor skills needed to suture a wound – and theoretical knowledge is particularly visible in the health sciences. The former is often taught in vocational programs outside of higher education, and, though it constitutes important learning in many fields, does not necessarily qualify as higher education. Within the context of university higher education, I will set aside skills training and define higher education as focused on learning that is abstract and theoretical.

Despite situating myself as an educator within the health sciences, philosophically, I straddle two disciplinary domains. From my background in the humanities, I draw on radical philosophy, characterized by thinkers such as Paulo Friere and Ira Shor.  From my current work in interdisciplinary education within the health sciences, I draw on an analytical philosophy that is marked by a strong historical role for the instructor/content-expert, and by a contemporary call for discovery (or problem-based) learning through which students integrate and analyze the huge amount of information that they receive. These philosophical positions do not encompass all viewpoints in the humanities or the health sciences – each of these domains is made up of many disciplines, none of which are philosophically unified.  However, the distinction is useful in framing some of the tensions that emerge in my educational philosophy.

Most clearly, I see my radical philosophy emerge in what I believe to be the aim of education: that education has the primary responsibility to effect positive social change (Zinn, 1991, p. 47).  I believe that this type of change can occur when students are engaged in critiquing social and organizational structures.  In Freire’s words: “through education, we can first understand power in society… we can also prepare and participate in programs to change society” (Shor and Friere, 1984, pp. 31-32). Given that health science students learn and, later, practice in settings that are marked by various forms of violence against patients (Berwick, 2009, p. w556) and between health science practitioners (Duffy, 2008), it is critical that higher education prepare students to act for change in the hierarchical organizational and professional relationships that produce these forms of violence.

In most health science programs, education occurs through a combination of instructor-directed lectures and labs and instructor-structured, student-directed problem based or discovery learning.  In contrast to the radical philosophy behind my beliefs about the aims of education, I believe that strong direction from an instructor, who has considered the field and holds beliefs grounded in evidence, can enhance student learning.  For this instructional model to be successful, the instructor must possess well developed analytical skills and an overview of their field that equips them with the evidence, knowledge and insight required to “critically evaluate existing knowledges … that would render the new understandings transparent to and for the world” (Barnett, 2005, p. 793), including their students.  Course content, focus and structure, then, are largely determined by the expertise of the instructor. According to Elias and Merriam (2005), in analytical philosophy, “teaching is an intentional activity in which communication is intended” (p. 195); content and learning activities are planned and executed by an active instructor.

However, I do not believe that effective learning can occur when students are passive recipients of the instructor’s knowledge.  To achieve what I believe to be the aim of education, students must learn to critically evaluate ideas that they encounter and construct their own views.  In this process the educator’s role is to: present ideas and findings to students, model critical evaluation of ideas, and guide students to develop their own analytical processes, create their own ideas and challenge assumptions.  The role of the learner is to engage and evaluate ideas presented, and to investigate those ideas beyond the information presented through critical thought and research.  This educational model draws on methodologies that provide didactic, but not necessarily lecture-based, content selected by the instructor.  However, it also requires experiential methodologies such as group discussions, critical reflections or case studies, through which the learner can investigate, discuss and test ideas and theories.  As proposed in the University of Alberta’s Academic Plan, Dare to Deliver, these types of collaborative discovery learning are critical to engaged learning (University of Alberta).  Further, these methodologies follow analytical theorist R.W.K. Paterson’s assertion that “teaching is a collaborative process, involving exchanges, outgoings, and interaction” (as cited in Ellias and Merriam, 2005, p. 195).  Learning can occur in interactions between students, and between students and the instructor, both in the classroom and outside of it.  In this sense, although the educator sets the educational objectives, the content and the learning activities, learning is actually driven by both the instructor and the students.

I believe that for this educational model to be effective, the educator/student relationship requires mutual trust. Though the instructor assesses student learning, in some sense, there must also be a trust that the student will apply the information in ethical and meaningful ways.  The learner, on the other hand, must trust that the educator has a firm grasp of material, giving up some freedom to the instructor.  The relationship must also contain enough trust to allow for instructor and student views to be challenged in the educational environment.

Problematically, it is not always clear how analytical views about instructional methodologies and the instructor/student relationship produce results that fulfill what I believe to be the aim of education – to effect social change.  The connection relies on the idea that students’ critical appraisal of ideas will lead to critical appraisal of social relations in a broader sense. Further, it assumes that through critical thought, both students and instructors will, like me, find existing social relations, including the relations characterized by violence in health organizations, unacceptable.  I find that there is not always a clear link between engaging students in critiquing social issues in the theoretical sense and praxis, or “conscious, willed action …; the synthesis of theory and practice seen as the basis for or condition of political and economic change” (Praxis, 2009). In contrast to Friere’s radical assertion that education is always value laden, analytical philosophy proposes that education should be value neutral, only influencing society indirectly by providing a liberal education to students (Elias and Merriam, 2005, p. 198).  Like Friere, I believe not only that a value neutral education is impossible within contexts that are always value laden, I also believe that educators and students have an obligation to use their learning to actively promote social change.

Further, higher education has an obligation to intentionally prepare students to act on their learning.  Tom Reeves suggests that higher education currently neglects the conative learning domain, which “is associated with action … or the act of striving to perform at the highest levels” (Reeves, 2006, p. 297).  According to Reeves, conative objectives might be achieved partially through “authentic tasks (Herrington and Oliver 2000) such as real world inquiry or service learning” (Reeves, 2006, p. 304).  Likewise Dare to Deliver asserts that community service learning with “non-profits, industries, and international partners” (University of Alberta) provides students with engaged, relevant discovery learning opportunities.  Though more research in this area is needed, I believe that engagement with potentially diverse groups could invite students to learn about social issues faced outside of the university, and to become advocates for social change.

As an educator, I continue to wonder to what extent some of these problems and contradictions can be fully resolved, and to what extent they reflect a system and a society for which no complete ‘solution’ can be proposed.  However, in order to have praxis and apply my working philosophy to my teaching practice, I must also apply my beliefs to the philosophy itself and model reflexivity by continuing to investigate and ground my philosophy in evidence, while also ensuring that it remains a work in progress, continually reevaluated and open to critique.


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