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TeachingPhilosophy

Page: Main.TeachingPhilosophy - Last Modified : 2008-04-07

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Statement of Teaching Philosophy
April 2008

Teaching in the formal sense is something I have come to relatively late in my professional and academic journey. On the other hand, in a broader and less formal sense it is something that I have been doing from the beginning in other settings, such as extension and training. The evolution of my interest in classroom teaching relates to my work in development and increasing appreciation of the importance of training a new generation of scholars and practitioners to make a positive difference in the world.

In the following I will discuss my teaching philosophy under four headings: conceptual framework; goals and methods; evaluations; and teaching and training (a tentative comparison, since I have some experience in both).

Conceptual Framework: What Happens in Teaching and Learning?

Teaching is a relationship, in the same class as other power-differentiated relationships between one person (usually) and a group (usually) like training, management, coaching, etc., but unique in some important respects. As a relationship, teaching involves roles, expectations, communication, and achieving identified tasks in order to impart something to learners (in the formal academic setting, students).

Students are expected ultimately to progress to other teaching relationships with an enhanced knowledge, so any class is a temporary relationship based on standards and a system. The latter require a fair and appropriate means of evaluation.

Teaching is also a dialog with learning – as processes the former exists for the latter. The teaching-learning dynamic involves obviously a transfer, exchange and discovery of knowledge – with the teacher managing content, process, and a catalyzing of awareness. The interaction between teacher and student is thus the major dynamic in this dialog, and is itself a complex mix of motivations, methods, messages, and ultimately change.

Teaching is also about the establishment and maintenance of a positive learning environment, in which the above can take place.

Goals and Methods

The role of the teacher or instructor is unavoidably central in the learning environment, even in more non-directed approaches, but necessarily more explicit with younger students and where there are standards to be adhered to, as in the academy. Establishing this role in a clear and comfortable way – which in part means meeting expectations of students – is the first task of a teacher, though one that skilled teachers may not have to think about. (I am tempted to go as far as to say that teaching is a special kind of leadership or leadership skill.)

A key is to balance rappore with effectiveness. In reality the two are necessary: a likable professor may leave students with little to show for the effort (I have seen this) and a task-driven one may not make the connection with students necessary to facilitate learning (this seems common, though rarely in extreme degrees – it is reflected for instance in student evaluations that state how they don't understand the professor).

However it is fundamental to the role and accomplishing the goals of teaching is that the teacher know the material and know how to communicate it. (This is obvious but bears mentioning.)

Within the above context, the overriding goal of the teacher is to maximize the learning of the students. To achieve this means to understand and accommodate different learning styles and make use of different approaches. Teaching and learning can be productively enhanced through judicious and innovative use of information technology.

As a teacher I try to use an enthusiasm for the material to generate a positive learning dialog. This sounds simple but often needs translation, to meet the expectations of students. It is important to get a positive lead, a good start to a course, to set the tone and manage the dialog. This is analogous in some ways to the lead in a journalistic article – something that grabs attention of the reader and around which the rest can be built. That is reflected often in the titles of many courses. Beyond that, a simple goal for each class (reading/lecture combination) is to focus on one key concept or cluster of information that students would take with them (at least it is important to guard against overwhelming students with material).

The basic goals for students are also measured in content and process: knowledge of the material (concepts, facts) and advancing skills (learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills). Optimally one wants both. To achieve this a certain degree of challenging students to do more is necessary (often this is through evaluation means).

Approaches to different levels of courses will differ. An introductory course provides a particularly crucial opportunity to inspire interest in and provide reference points for students starting out their academic career (not that one can expect to see the fruits of seeds planted, and many of those may not germinate). On the other hand upper division undergraduates and grad students normally will have a more clear idea what they are interested in as well as having a better knowledge base with which to ascend new material.

For the teacher it is important also to see and contribute to students' evolving expectations of professors, course material, and college itself.

Evaluations

In terms of evaluation, I prefer to have multiple means including participation, short assignments, exams and perhaps papers. The exact configuration depends but one of the purposes is to afford different learning and work styles the opportunity to shine.

Long ago I realized that tests show how well you do on a test. So I like the concept of a mix of short assignments (which have the added virtue of keeping students in touch with assigned readings), tests, and perhaps a longer assignment. Since students tend to study to the evaluation tools, a mix I think helps encourage broader studying.

I have made a proposal (discussed on H-Africa) to use wikis and perhaps contributions to Wikipedia (despite its shortcomings) as a way of making class papers more than just an evaluation and process-learning exercise.

Teaching and Training

From the viewpoint of working with a group of learners and delivering a learning experience in segments of time, I tend to see classroom teaching and training programs as part of a continuum, even while there are some fundamental differences (notably that teaching in theory imparts knowledge intended to facilitate more learning, and training often is focused on skills for particular tasks or situations). Practically speaking, many skills are transferable from one to another (notably planning a sequence of presentations and delivering them, and relationship with a group). On the other hand there are often different kinds of motivation in the typical classroom (where students may take a course because they “have to” for certain requirements) and training. The following table sketches some differences as I see them:

AspectTeaching (classroom)Training programs
ContextPart of process leading to other classes and degreeDiscrete, focused on set of skills and application
FormatLecture, one to many, with generally formal structureTraining session, often with exercises, much interaction
StructureSyllabusTraining program
AssistantsMay involve TAsOften by a team or involving advanced peers
GuestsOccasional guest lecturesGuest experts may be prominent aspect
AssignmentsKey aspect; readings, productionMay be important; usually self motivated
ParticipationSought and may be gradedEssential
EvaluationGradesPass (fail is rare); proof is in post-training

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