Teaching Philosophy

My teaching philosophy centers on the idea of the teacher being a guiding collaborator and co-conspirator with students. As an instructor, I believe in uncovering issues students are passionate about and building learning environments around them. I have taught at the college level courses at UW-Madison and UW-Eau Claire, supported faculty in both developing curriculum and increasing the efficiency of their instruction, and have taught youth in informal residential camp settings for over twenty years. These experiences have given me great opportunities to hone skills as an educator and guide in a variety of conditions, and taught me the importance of nurturing communities and nudging/guiding students along their own paths into deeper participation in their professional communities.

I practice this by creating, as often as possible, constructionist learning activities, where students individually, and collaboratively design, build, and/or perform for and with each other. The projects stem from their own interests, but center around or include course themes and concepts, and are often evaluated, in part, by their peers.

Backwards Design for Students

When educators talk about “Learning Design” or “Design in Learning” they are typically talking about Pedagogy. The “Backwards Design” documents and sites are great examples of what higher education has done forever: focusing on the pedagogical end of the teaching/learning scale — instructors designing for students.

They typically don’t really address the andragogical side — design done by learners to more deeply situate their learning in practice (and Communities of Practice). This is not to say that it’s not included — Wiggins and McTighe’s “performance tasks” (in assessment) often includes some sort of learner design activity, and Bloom’s Analyze, Evaluate, Create are learner design activities — but these are often minimal or missing from “one-page” documents. My philosophy embraces andragogy.

One example is the need to include and foster a community of practice (CoP) in learning activities. Peer review is the gold standard in academic research, but higher education, like K-12, is hanging on to authoritarian, one-expert, models of assessment, where the instructor has the answer. This minimizes opportunities for students to develop in Bloom’s “Analysis” and “Evaluation” categories. Peer (CoP) assessment opportunities also provide development of Communication, which Bloom’s taxonomy misses. It turns out that there’s not a lot out there (in higher education) about learning by designing/creating authentic activities for a community of practice. This is partly because, as originally envisioned, it tied together three aspects of learning that are often discussed individually, but less often together: Adult Learning, Constructionism, and Communities of Practice.

Designers will tell you that they learn a lot about the content of a field by designing for it. They need to live in the community to succeed. Their design needs to work, but it also needs to fe it the social/cultural norms of the field closely enough for them to accept it. The best designs actually evolve the field — they’re close enough to the norms to be accepted, but change the behavior and sometimes the attitudes, assumptions, and even paradigms of the field.

This is the goal of adult education: to groom active members of a field, who have the experience and agency to contribute new knowledge to a given field/discipline. They need experience to do this. They need practice communicating with others in the field. They need opportunities to succeed (and fail) in the creation of new knowledge in the field — ideally enough low-stakes failures in school so that when they get to high stakes situations in the field, they’re not afraid to try, and they have enough experience to know what works and what doesn’t. Thus the need for Design-based Learning.

Peer Evaluation

To evaluate these projects, I, ideally, get the class to participate at several stages in the process: in a “pitch”; at a “draft”; in the “rough cut”; and in the presentation of the final project. Even more ideally, they’re working with each other and giving each other feedback throughout the entire process — much as my peers and I did as art students in the painting studio in college. We would work on our own painting, but be very aware of everyone else’s painting in the room. And we’d ask questions of each other about why they chose to do one thing or another, or why they didn’t do something else. We’d give each other micro-critiques throughout the entire process, and we’d benefit both by being critiqued, and by critiquing others. By the time the instructor came around for critique, we had often solved many of the problems s/he might have brought up. Unfortunately, while this is a natural process in a studio setting, it’s more difficult to do in a typical classroom environment — especially where students are only in the classroom with their peers for a few hours per week. In those cases, it must be overtly built in by the instructor.

Peer evaluation works for student-created projects because students have just gone through the process themselves (something the instructor might not have done), so they have some some empathy for each other. They bring a “student perspective” and appropriate level of expectations (vs. the “expert view” of the instructor) to their critiques, along with a student ego, and natural sense of performance and competition that allows them to see little, quick fixes that an instructor might gloss over. Peer evaluation offers students an opportunity to see each other’s projects, and gives them a nudge to “step up” their own level of work if they see that others are doing much better — and if theirs is the best, they get rewarded by that sense of pride for a job well-done. In this way, they learn from each other. They experience a theme exposited over and over in different forms, which reinforces it. And if their peers haven’t exposited the theme correctly, that becomes apparent when compared with the others. Finally, they often have little or no sympathy for students who are lazy, and will call them out, whereas instructors are often too timid to be direct.

There are also built-in drawbacks. Students tend to be harsh graders of each other. Or, conversely, at times they may “give a pass” on sub-par work if their own work is also below the bar. For this reason, while I have the students do peer evaluation, I only use it as part (~%50) of grade. This also allows me to factor in my own evaluation in order to give credit for effort and creative ideas that almost work, and other factors the students might miss.

Eating My Own Dogfood

Finally, an an instructor, I am a firm believer in participating. I practice what I preach. If I give an assignment, I do it myself, and use my own often far-from-perfect version as a model for them to reach (or exceed). I take risks and try new things, and am not afraid to make a fool of myself and fail. In some ways, I model, celebrate, and reward risk-taking and failure. This seems to help create a more comfortable culture in class, where students also become increasingly willing to try new things, and move outside of their comfort zone. And that is where the magic happens.

One thought on “Teaching Philosophy

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