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5.6.2 Teaching philosophies and personal pedagogies

Learning outcomes

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Define philosophical approaches to teaching
  • Appreciate how personal pedagogic positions may be informed by philosophical concerns
  • Assess the role of professionalism as offering a way of balancing the personal and the contextual in education
  • Design and complete a teaching statement which articulates your philosophy of education
  • Recognise the usefulness of having articulated a teaching statement for yourself and for learners.

What is a teaching philosophy?

A teaching philosophy is a set of connected beliefs which underpin and inform how educators approach their profession, and also considers how learners are best taught. A teaching philosophy can represent personal positions about the function of education in society, the role of the educator, learner responsibilities, and the methods, theories and psychological needs being serviced by being a teacher.

Some philosophies will be informed by purely pedagogical concerns, and others by broader philosophical positions, as well as by political and cultural factors. Other philosophies will be generated by experience over time, and by the observations made by the educator over their career. Sometimes personal philosophies will be informed by the contexts of one's own education, and by the social and cultural contexts of that learning.

As a start-point, we may separate teacher-centred philosophies from student-centred ones. Teacher-centric approaches to education tend to the conservative, and privilege authority and continuity over time of long-standing principles. Student-centric approaches on the other hand, tend to be more open to subjective experience of the pupils, on the need to prepare learners for the next state in their life journey, and for developing the pupil as a whole person (Sadker and Zittleman, 2015). Teacher-centric approaches will focus on the hierarchical control of the curriculum, the teaching day, and on the content of lessons. There will be a tendency to privilege Western conceptions of knowledge, and on the value of the past in providing lessons for the present. Learner-centric approaches differ, in that rather than assuming that didactic teaching is appropriate, a facilitative mode of teaching is preferred, putting the learner at the centre of the teaching interaction. Progressives might look for vocationally-relevant and experiential learning which has relevance to the social worlds of contemporary learners; social reconstructivists see part of the project of education to address what is broken in communities, and would work to see learners educated in ways which would benefit society as a whole. Existentialists, on the other hands, would strive to have learners be autonomous, and be able to define themselves with total freedom and independent choice (Sadker and Zittleman, 2015).

There are connections to be made between pedagogic theories, developmental and cognitive psychology, and teaching philosophy. One tends to support the other in meaningful and at-times mutually-reinforcing ways. Social constructivists, for example, would see the relevance of supportive pedagogies which articulate the learning theories of theorists such as Vygotsky; theory and practice combine here to inform a philosophy of education. Ultimately, teachers are educated, intelligent, informed and engaged people. Teaching does not occur in a vacuum, but in complicated combinations of geographical, situational, political, and social climates. Each of these may have a moderating effect on the educator, and the educator on them. It is useful for teachers to have an appreciation of themselves in philosophical terms, so that they can better work and be productive in their settings, and in the broader cultural frameworks in which they teach.

How can a teacher balance their personal philosophy of education with core theory / legal and policy frameworks?

Often, a teacher's personal philosophy of education will be a product, at least some extent, of their engagement with academic and pedagogic theory, their classroom experiences - both as a teacher and as a pupil in childhood and in adult life - and with the wider contexts of their practice. Such contexts may include the organisational culture of the setting in which one is teaching, the climates of individual classes, contexts related to subject-specifics and to curricular questions, and to the prevailing political moods of the day, particularly as it impacts of government educational policy and reactions to that policy. As such, a teacher's individual position to the wider contexts of their practice will be in flux, and may sometimes come into conflict with aspects of policy or locally-enacted practice. The challenge for the educator is to navigate these situational issues. An educator's philosophy of education may preclude them from seeking out certain roles or posts; many teachers, for example, are not interested in management careers in education as they feel that doing so might compromise their educational beliefs.

The key here is the development of professionalism as an approach to one's pedagogy. Professionalism goes beyond the capable performance of one's role, and can include the informed and engaged interaction with the contexts of one's teaching. For some, this will mean training and development, for others, engagement with committees and working parties. Individual teachers will be attracted to some pedagogic approaches and be disinclined toward others. Likewise, aspects of the political and cultural relationships within which education is delivered may be problematic or troubling. The way to navigate such issues is through an appropriately professional attitude and performance, and through working with processes rather than against them, and by offering constructive criticism as well as support where and to whom appropriate to the context.  

How can a teacher ascertain and describe their personal teaching philosophy? How does this impact upon their teaching/ pedagogy?

Many people, when either contemplating a career in education, as part of their reflective practice while training, or when in position as an educator, find that personal perspectives towards education provoke themselves or are challenged in various ways by the conjunction of their core beliefs, their experiences, and their developing knowledge. One way to explore what one's teaching philosophy might be is to examine oneself. Records of reflection and continuous professional development logs may be of value here. Another, and somewhat allied, way of conceptualising what one's teaching philosophy might be is to write a teaching statement.

Teaching statements

A teaching statement is an outline of one's own philosophy of teaching. Sometimes called a statement of teaching philosophy, it is an articulation of one's own positions towards the profession and one's position in it. A statement should also discuss the practical implications of such beliefs, such as including worked examples of how one approaches the classroom.

A teaching statement is useful for several reasons. First, it focuses and helps define what might be nebulous and vague feelings and perceptions, and helps you articulate to yourself and to others - peers, students, potential employers in interview situations - your approach to education. Second, it can act as a preamble to the CPD file; the teaching statement being an abstract which summarises and defines the contexts in which the file refers to. Third, a statement is challenging, in that it forces the teacher to confront and reappraise their beliefs and positions from time to time. For that reason alone, a written teaching statement is not a definitive and permanent document, but should be revised or updated periodically to ensure that it remains a valid summary of one's philosophy. A teaching statement does not have to be a long and involved document. Often, such statements of philosophy are between 500 and 1000 words in length.

Impact of a teaching statement

The statement will offer ample opportunities and inspiration for reflection, and you may find that you go back to the statement in the weeks after completing it as you continue to refine your conceptualisation about who you are as a teacher. You may find also that the statement gives you a set of expectations to live up to; that the version of yourself in the statement represents a more perfect you, and as such, the statement clarifies a quality threshold for your teaching.

The statement can also operate as a reward structure; by assessment against the statement, you can recognise when your performance in a session has been at its optimum, and explore whether your work has not only been true to the core educational values held, but has been executed with diligence and with coherence to the moral framework described in the philosophy. As such, a statement of philosophy can be freeing, as it validates performance and can reconfirm existing values.

How does having and channelling a personal teaching philosophy benefit learners?

It may sound straightforward to say that learners will tend to benefit from engaged and motivated teachers, but it is nevertheless true. As in any aspect of professional life, in education there are those who are time-serving, who are inspirational, or who may even seem not to care. Such people may have a negative effect not only on the learning impacted upon in specific lessons or subjects but across learners' whole educational experience. Though we may all at times have crises of professionalism, or be burdened by workplace stress or anxiety, there is an imperative that this should not cause learners to be inconvenienced; to some extent at least, the teaching statement can play a part.

Studies repeatedly show that staff who are engaged and motivated have a positive effect on learners; those making a critical and proactive investment in their own professionalism by investigating and defining their philosophical standpoint too education can exemplify this to learners. Where educators foster an environment conducive to learning, then this has the effect of stimulating pupils positively to engage and to work towards succeeding (Trowler, 2010).

The teaching statement can also be used in other practical ways, Though the whole document may be impractical to use, an edited version of it can be shared with pupils as part of a learning contract between teacher and class. Having mutual expectation, not just of behaviour, but of approach to class and of working in certain positive ways can also reinforce the unity between pupils and teacher as the whole class works together to achieve session and curricular outcomes.

There are, in short, a number of benefits to manifesting a philosophy of teaching; not only is engagement fostered, and direction and purpose engaged, but there is a sense of investment and care in the learners which communicated to pupils and to colleagues alike. Benefits can only result from this, not least when other peers notice such positive tendencies, and work similarly in their own teaching practice.  

Conclusion

Teachers do not work in isolation. The contexts of teaching are multiple: there are subject-specific concerns, questions related to the level, age, and maturity of learners, the setting where delivery occurs, the wider social, geographical, and political cultures in which teaching occurs, amongst other things, to consider. Add to that our own educational experiences, incoming preferences, dispositions, likes and dislikes, our moral and ethical frameworks, and the moderating effect of the academic and vocational study of teaching and education.

It may take time for a personal philosophy of education to fully emerge; taking into consideration the diversity of potential influences on our feelings, perceptions, and intellectual focuses, that is perhaps not surprising. But it is nevertheless well worth considering, and reflecting on again at periodic intervals, what teaching means to us, how we are constructed in part by our influences, and the nature of decisions and choices we make that in turn have an impact on the learning of others. The value of doing so is that we have given time to such consideration, and can therefore reappraise them, as well as put them into operation in our teaching and in our wider professional lives as educators, and so make valid and informed contributions informed by a combination of moral, ethical, and philosophical considerations.

Bibliography

ATL (2012) Position statement: teacher professionalism. Available at: http://www.atl.org.uk/Images/Teacher%20professionalism%20-%20April%202012.pdf (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Boye, A. (2012) Writing your teaching philosophy. Available at: http://www.depts.ttu.edu/tlpdc/Resources/Teaching_resources/TLPDC_teaching_resources/Documents/WritingYourTeachingPhilosophywhitepaper.pdf (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Carnegie Mellon University (2014) Writing your teaching philosophy statement. Available at: http://www.cmu.edu/gcc/handouts/Teaching%20Philosophy%20Handout.pdf (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Feinberg, J. (2014) Wordle: Beautiful word clouds. Available at: http://www.wordle.net/ (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Lone, J.M. and Burroughs, M.D. (2016) Philosophy in education: questioning and dialogue in schools. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Phillips, D.C. and Siegel, H. (2013) Philosophy of education. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/education-philosophy/#DifBodWorTraIncFie (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Sadker, D.M. and Zittleman, K.R. (2015) Teachers schools and society: a brief introduction to education. 4th edn. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

Trowler, V. (2010) Student engagement literature review. Available at: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/studentengagementliteraturereview_1.pdf (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

University of Minnesota (2015a) Teaching philosophy statement examples. Available at: http://cei.umn.edu/support-services/tutorials/writing-teaching-philosophy/teaching-philosophy-samples (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

University of Minnesota (2015b) Writing a teaching philosophy. Available at: http://cei.umn.edu/support-services/tutorials/writing-teaching-philosophy (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

University of Minnesota (2016) Teaching philosophy template. Available at: http://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5x7J1Vso_k6dE52LTdKclhqaEk/view (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Zauha, J.M. (2009) 'The importance of a philosophy of teaching statement to the teacher/librarian', Communications in Information Literacy, 2(2), pp. 64-66. doi: 10.7548/cil.v2i2.57.


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