Statements of teaching philosophy

By | September 24, 2014

In another one of the endless series of interesting LinkedIn discussions, the question arose about statements of teaching philosophy. These are frequently required in applications particularly for adjunct faculty. The degree to which they are read and understood by those hiring the faculty is not clear, but they are part of the ritual process. The question specifically was whether or not there is a standard template for such statements of philosophy, and if so what might it be procured.

There were a number of interesting responses, most of them to the effect that a template is not really a good idea, and that the prospective teacher ought to formulate his or her own statement in his or her own words. My own response was as follows:

When I needed to create one, I simply adapted it from the general statement about learning and teaching that I’d been using, with variations, in every course syllabus I ever put together. If you look around at what you’ve already written, I suspect that you’ll find a lot of what you need there. Above all, this statement has to sound – and really be – personal, not something that you picked up off the internet. I don’t know if schools run such statements through Turnitin; if they did, I suspect that they’d find that a lot of applicants get their statements the same way their students get their term papers.

Slightly snarky perhaps, but nevertheless true.

But this whole conversation caused me to revisit my own statement about teaching philosophy included in various applications for adjunct positions in the last couple of years. Specifically, I was requested to provide a statement in no more than five hundred words.
Here’s what I came up with. It’s not as elegant as I would like it to be, but is also couched in language slightly more formal than it ought to be. But I think the core ideas are good, and therefore perhaps worth sharing with my dedicated audience:

Teaching/learning is fundamentally about sharing – exchange of ideas, meaning, knowledge, and understanding. Everyone, of whatever age, background, or level of sophistication, has useful things to share. Effective sharing is never one-way; if I am not prepared to learn, then I will never be prepared to teach. All human relationships contain elements of teaching/learning, large or small. Some of what we learn is useful, and we hang onto it; some we shed, perhaps retaining elements that later understanding makes relevant. Relevance and utility are largely determined by context – that is, whether we have some mental framework on which to hang ideas and connect them to other ideas. Effective teaching/learning is as much about sharing contexts and frameworks as it is about the sharing of individual facts or ideas.

Formal education is a set of social/institutional arrangements established by a society to routinize and thus control the sharing of ideas. Teaching/learning within formal education requires continual trade-offs between effective idea sharing and the needs of society for certification and credentialing, which typically involve a much narrower range of knowledge and competence than does education generally. Credentialing is largely the mastery of predicted cause/effect relationships among phenomena in a specific field – if I do X in context Y, Z is likely to occur; the more X/Y/Z relationships you have, the stronger your credential.

But sharing of what is known about X/Y/Z relationships is only a part of responsible teaching/learning. Of equal if not more importance is helping your partner in the exchange to see beyond the specific Y context, to be able to generalize to a set of Xn/Yn/Zn situations where different conditions may exist but similar idea dynamics may operate. The model here is Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, finally communicating to the young Helen Keller the concept of “water” as a conjunction of an ideograph and a real phenomenon.

Educational systems ought to be all about the students. Our job is to facilitate students’ access to ideas and to help develop their insights into them. Our ultimate test of success is whether they get useful stuff. If they don’t, we need to figure out how to make it work. We are happiest when all students can earn a legitimate and thoroughgoing A for their projects. When this doesn’t happen, we need to figure out the “whys” (beyond the obvious dimension of student inattentiveness or preoccupation) that we ought to attend to. There’s a basic principle in learning theory that one only learns by making mistakes. Learning is about change, and variable responses to different stimuli; if you don’t make a mistake, you have no reason to change and thus you haven’t really learned anything. There’s no question that we only learn how to fix our courses by examining what the students don’t seem to be getting. Thus, returning to our start, teaching/learning is an eternal interaction among participants in a process, where each respects the other and respects what one learns as much as what one teaches.

I think it is a triumph of some sort that it comes in at exactly 499 words.

I’m going to be revising this in the near future, based on my experiences next week trying to teach the first class of live students that I have faced in about 15 years. I’m concerned about my ability to come back to the live environment, and about other aspects of my teaching as well. I have previously reflected on my sense that I have not adequately responded to student needs, but have been driven more by my own agenda then theirs. This is something I need to work on. I will report after next week on my degree of success in the real world. Stay tuned.

  • R W

    Your statement is nicely done. I especially like this sentence: “Of equal if not more importance is helping your partner in the exchange
    to see beyond the specific Y context, to be able to generalize to a set
    of Xn/Yn/Zn situations where different conditions may exist but similar idea dynamics may operate.” But I think that if presented to students in those words, it might scare them off.

    In my situation, I don’t have to write that kind of thing. But I do have to try to get classes off to a pleasant start. I often begin by telling students a little about myself, about the weird looking manuscripts I read (which I illustrate with intimidating pictures). I then tell them that I’ve dedicated my life to making the works of philosophers who lived between 1200 and 1350 available, that I think long dead philosophers have something important and exciting to say.

    Next I tell students what philosophers we are going to read and a couple things about each of them (including some gossipy bits). Step three is to ask students what brings them to the class and what they hope to get out of it. At the close of this discussion I tell students that I can promise them that their writing will improve, if only by becoming clearer; I warn them that they may not enjoy the process; and I promise that I will work with them if they put in an effort. The last step is to introduce students to the class website, the syllabus, and the requirements. This formula works pretty well for me, in part because medieval philosophy classes seldom have big enrollments.

    Good luck with your live students. I bet they’ll enjoy the experience.

    • DrEvel1

      Gossipy bits are always helpful – the more salacious the better. They are hard to come by among organizational theorists, who tend to be excessively staid. Introducing the topics of generalization and generalizability is always tricky,and you’re right – I do avoid the algebraic notation. It does, of course, boil down to language. Generalization is simply applied metaphor construction, developing a story within which one situation is seen to be equivalent to other situations along certain dimensions, allowing for often major differences on others. That’s how we tell ourselves that, for example, the computer-related help behavior of employees mapped in the administrative offices of a university might predict similar behavior among employees in a regional office of a Federal agency.

      There is also far too much false generalization. Management students everywhere are still being taught propositions about employee behavior developed in studies as far back at the 1950s. But the context of work today is so different, and changing so rapidly, that it renders suspect any proposition based on research before perhaps 2000, with few exceptions. Teaching about management and organizational behavior is fundamentally flawed in this respect, and it may be one reason why students leaving with business degrees are finding themselves woefully unprepared for life in real organizations.

      Generalization is a great tool. But like any great tool, it’s also dangerous.

      [I may work this up with some other stuff I have for a full post on this topic. Thanks for provoking this discussion! Stay tuned!]