Teaching Philosophy

The ultimate purpose of education is to help students acquire the tools to become competent and self-actualized members of society. Academic skills are an important part of this, but are not the whole picture. Acquiring “soft” skills that allow students to be successful in complex social situations is also critical. As a teacher, it is important for me to help my students grow in both domains.

If you asked my students what they learn in class, they would probably talk about microscopic creatures, density, or how hurricanes form. This information is valuable, but it is just as important for students to learn to reason critically as it is for them to master any particular set of facts about science. I want the children to be able to formulate answerable questions, design experiments, evaluate the quality of data, draw evidence-based conclusions, and share their findings with other people in a clear and understandable manner. No matter what professions my students ultimately choose, these skills will be relevant and useful.

One thing that all good classrooms have in common is a positive social atmosphere. Although I allow my students to boisterously express their enthusiasm when making exciting discoveries, I place a high value on having a fundamentally orderly classroom with clear expectations for behavior. This is part of having a class that runs smoothly, but the more important reason I spend time teaching students what behaviors I expect from them is that the classroom is a place for them to practice social skills that will be necessary for their success later in life. These include:

• The ability to work effectively with both friends and non-friends.
• Listening carefully to others (and giving body-language cues to show others that you are listening).
• Sharing information in a way that is easy for others to understand.
• Giving thoughtful, useful, and non-hurtful criticism of other’s work.
• Accepting constructive criticism and integrating suggestions into your own work.
• Learning to accept and give genuine compliments.

It is possible, even natural, to teach all of this together. By using an inquiry-based curriculum, I am able to give students many opportunities to practice their critical reasoning. Since they must work together, they also have ample opportunity to work on their social skills.

A nice example of students demonstrating strong critical reasoning skills occurred in a middle school physical science class when I showed the students a Cartesian diver as an informal assessment near the end of their unit on density. Cartesian divers can appear almost magical; when a bottle is squeezed an object inside sinks to the bottom and when the bottle is released the object promptly floats to the surface again. Although the students were initially perplexed, when they were given the chance to talk things over with their classmates, they came to the conclusion that the Cartesian diver must sink when the bottle is squeezed because the squeezing causes the volume of the object to go down (while the mass stays the same) and thus increases the density. I was particularly pleased with the way this assessment went because the students were able to successfully evaluate the reasonableness of the hypotheses that they developed without me stepping in to guide the conversation.

Recently, another one of my middle school classes has been making me proud by showing tremendous improvement in their social skills. Eight of the children are developmentally normal; the ninth, “John”, has a variety of executive functioning deficits as well as severe ADHD. John is good-natured and intelligent, but his differences are obvious. Academic and social situations can be very hard for him. On the first day, none of the other students voluntarily spoke with John, he was disengaged from all class activities, and he appeared only peripherally aware of what anyone else was doing. After months of instruction and modeling on my part, along with intensive help from John’s nanny, the class is now able to function as a cohesive unit. A particular breakthrough occurred when one of the developmentally normal children stopped me as I was forming lab groups and asked me if he could please be in a group with John. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as happy as John was when that request was made! Less dramatically, but just as importantly, all of the students are now actively including John in group discussions without prompting from me. John has shown personal growth as well; he puts tremendous energy into listening to his peers and completing his portion of the lab work. He is now participating fully in all aspects of the class. Progress hasn’t been easy, but both John and the other students have grown to meet expectations.

Knowing about Cartesian divers is unlikely to change anyone’s life; being able to work together to solve a difficult problem is a tremendously important life skill. Likewise, being able to engage positively with people who are different is one of the foundations of being an effective adult human being. I think the most valuable thing I can do as a teacher is to model, explain, and expect these behaviors.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Philosophy

  1. Wow–it sounds like you have made a real impact on the lives of your students. Thank you so much for seeking ways to improve students understandings and acceptance of each other.

    I also like inquiry-based learning. It focuses attention on students and eliminates a lot of problems just by its nature.

    Like

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