“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” – William Arthur Ward
During one of my classes this past week, my professor assigned us to construct a teaching philosophy. As I reflect on how I might construct my own philosophy of teaching, I thought it may be helpful to blog about what I have learned about teaching so far to get my creative juices flowing. While I’m certainly not yet an expert in this area, I have taught as an adjunct instructor for over four years in the counseling and human sciences fields on both the undergraduate and graduate levels and have learned a few tips. So here goes…
What is the most important aspect of teaching?
Teaching has more to do with the end than it does with the beginning. Working backwards is how we discover the answer to what’s most important. What is the end? It is the outcome of learning. It’s more important that we facilitate an environment of learning so that everyone in class learns something valuable from the experience. Each student feels differently, thinks differently, or behaves differently as a result of being in class. If that happens, then students will see the world differently. More on that in a minute. The true purpose of pedagogy, the art of teaching, is doing something so students get it. Because when students get it – when they grasp the material, effective teaching has already taken place.
How do we teach with this end in mind?
Sounds simple, right? Actually, it sounded really difficult to me at first. However, I will answer that question by providing some practical strategies I’ve learned on how to teach with learning in mind. Some of this information is gleaned from the book What the Best College Teachers Do written by Ken Bain (2004). This book, now considered a teaching classic, has been insightful and applicable to me on many levels. Ken published the results of his qualitative research in this book after he studied what the best college teachers do at various college campuses around the country. A definite recommend and an easy read!
And now for those strategies…
Strategy #1 –Impact students in such a way that changes how they feel, think, or act.
What Ken discovered when he conducted his research was that students who experienced their teacher’s class came away seeing things differently about the topic being taught. This change took place because the teacher actively challenged students’ age-old beliefs and created an environment for critical thinking to emerge. As an adjunct instructor in counseling, I enjoy the opportunity to challenge counseling students’ perceptions about what is important within the profession of counseling. One common misperception among new counseling students is that they believe that because all of their friends and family members come to them for advice, they are going to be effective counselors. However, this is rarely true because giving advice has very little to do with counseling and psychotherapy. When I confront their inaccurate perception, I see the look of disappointment and bewilderment on their faces. I intentionally watch them struggle with this…often waiting a few moments before saying a word…allowing them to process this new information. This struggle creates a ripe environment for feeling or thinking differently about the profession. At some point I will explain that being approachable to others is also vital to being an effective counselor. Students instantly feel relieved about those people approaching them for advice. However, these students have reframed what constitutes the effective qualities of a counselor by working through their inaccurate perceptions of counseling. They now think differently about the profession as a result of this struggle, and it reinforces their desire to learn more about the material because this learning experience made such an emotional and cognitive impact on them.
Strategy #2 – Know and incorporate the different learning styles so that each student learns something.
If I am going to impact students’ learning, then I need to be aware of the concrete ways that learning occurs. And awareness isn’t enough. Simply knowing the different learning styles doesn’t cut it. I must teach to those styles so each student comes away with learning. Not only is teaching to the learning styles important, but also being aware of my preferred learning style is critical, as I tend to prefer a certain style when I’m teaching. You can learn more on learning styles from reading David Kolb’s model on Experiential Learning. One main way that I incorporate the learning styles is by varying my teaching. Whether it is an engaging lecture, a group-based case study, or a multimedia presentation that asks tough questions, varying instruction methods is a fairly simple way of engaging the major learning styles.
Strategy #3 – Converse with students regarding their expectations about the course, giving them more ownership of their education.
One way I facilitate this concept is by asking students what they expect from the course. For instance, I taught counseling theories this past summer and asked students what were two things they wanted to learn from the course. At the midpoint and at the end of the course, I asked for feedback and if their expectations were fulfilled. The good thing was that they got what they hoped to gain. Hypothetically, if they wouldn’t have learned what they hoped to by the midpoint of the class, it would allow me to address their expectations by the end of the term.
Strategy #4 – Provide feedback before giving a grade.
Ken explains that the best teachers often provide multiple opportunities for performance from students before the teachers give a grade. This helps ease students’ anxiety about grades in general and helps them focus on their learning without any fear of not getting an A. Of course, that’s never happened to you, right? Hmm, hmm, sure. From my summer class, one of the most important assignments for students was creating a counseling conceptualization paper based on an actual client case. Therefore, I created at least two opportunities where they could work in groups to conceptualize a case before they had to turn in their individual conceptualization at the end of the course. I provided concrete feedback about their in-class activity without giving a grade. They raved about these opportunities to learn in class before being formally evaluated. It helped them to relax and get what they needed from the exercises. Not to my surprise, all of the students performed well when it came time near the end of the course to conceptualize for a real grade.
Knowing how to teach effectively is really more about how students learn in class than it is about imparting information. If you pay close attention to learning, then this creates a ripe environment for effective teaching to take place. That’s what I think William Arthur Ward meant when he said “great teachers inspire.” What do they inspire? True learning. After all, learning is the true goal of teaching. And great teaching begins with the end in mind.