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I recently prepared an essay on my philosophy of teaching. Part of my rationale for starting this blog was to explain to friends and family members how I do my research. Teaching is really the core of what I do, however, so I should also spend some time talking about teaching. I prepared the essay for two reasons: firstly, I think it’s important for students and other teachers to know where I’m coming from, and what they can learn about concepts in education. The other main reason was to have some kind of a record for myself of all the research I’ve done on the topic, and also construct a set of working hypotheses to guide my teaching work.

The philosophy has three main hypotheses: (1) children are born motivated, i.e. motivation is not something that teachers have to put into them; (2) students can, and should be encouraged to self-assess, i.e. to find their own answers; and (3) research and teaching are essentially the same activity, not things to divide up a scientist’s schedule. The corollary to all these is that the teacher’s main jobs are (a) to set up the right environment for learning and (b) remove obstacles for learning.

Motivation is probably the most important aspect. Motivation is a matter that I often find troubling to talk about with my fellow educators: I’m simply surprised how often I find that scientists think that their own topics are so boring that they need to get students interested. The students are interested already! For one reason or another, they want to learn. Many of them just love learning.

Self-assessment is easy to implement, encourages students by making assessment part of the discovery process, and offers genuine, highly informational feedback. The main way I do this is by never answering a question directly: I tell students to test their own logic, do their own research and figure out if their particular guess is “right.” This gives them more information, is more fun, and incorporates more learning than simply checking “right” or “wrong” and giving them a grade.

Research and teaching are bound together like painting and seeing. I find this to be a necessity: I just can’t teach something unless I apply the same learning attitude as I do when I’m doing research. All I have to do to teach students is demonstrate the approach (show them!). Last semester when I was teaching a topic I had never studied myself (cell and developmental biology) I showed them the approach that I was currently taking to learn the topic. There is no good reason we can’t have the same attitude about our large-scale research projects.

Starting in the 1950s Carl Rogers brought Pers...

Carl Rogers who developed student-centered teaching along with his client-centered therapy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to emphasize that this is my philosophy of teaching. I am not suggesting that anyone wholeheartedly take on my own philosophy. There are lots of teaching philosophies out there in science education, and I’m glad to see people experimenting. The lecturer I’m working with this semester is one of several who has a reputation for experimentation, and it’s fun being in that setting. If you wanted to pick a teaching philosophy out of a hat, you could. You would be better off to work closely with someone who has a definite philosophy, and then adapt that philosophy based on your own experience.

Much of the research I’ve read falls under the heading of “motivational psychology,” which is largely concerned with (depending on perspective) how to motivate people, or what motivates people. I would suggest reading Alfie Kohn‘s classic book Punished by Rewards for a start on that topic. Much of our theory of education and governmental policy is based on operant conditioning, an adaptation of animal training that was elevated to the status of an all-encompassing scientific theory. Kohn’s book challenges the logic of that in education, parenting and the workplace.

Here’s an excerpt from my teaching philosophy:

Observing children, students and my own learning history has shown me that the energy to learn comes from within students themselves. Spending time at the playground and with my own children, I see that children don’t need to be taught: do children need to learn from a book how a family works before they play house? Children set up organizations, create dramas and negotiate conflicts by figuring it out as they go. They also conduct controlled experiments, especially when playing alone: “If I roll the ball this way, how fast does it go? What if I roll a bigger ball down the same track?” This is exactly what Galileo actually did, and kids do it all the time. Richard Feynman first discovered inertia while playing with a ball and a toy wagon before he was five years old. Note that I’m not saying children would do these things without being told about them; they are not born with the concepts needed to play house or form a club on the playground. But they do figure out how to do it without instruction.