My philosophy of teaching has evolved since I entered the profession. I now believe that our brains have a need for order and for understanding. All of us develop ideas and reasoning for why things work the way they do to help us make sense of the world. Because of these already established beliefs, students don’t absorb what is presented to them in the classroom, but rather they try to make sense of it based on what is already in their heads. My students have had 14+ years or so to come up with reasons for how the physical world works. We could call these ideas their models for understanding the world. Often these models are naïve or based on limited experiences. The learning process really should be centered around helping students have a broader range of experiences that convinces them of the need to create better models for various phenomena. It should involve having them think about their own thinking and how well it matches up with these new experiences. Then, we can help students to “rewire” their own brains with better models that more accurately predict outcomes.
I think what may often make me unique as a teacher, is that I realize how little of what I say really contributes to student learning. In other words, I could have the best lecture in the world, but students are filtering it and interpreting it based on what is already in their heads and the meaning that I intend is not at all the meaning that they are getting. I try to set up the classroom so that I’m not lecturing very often and when I do it’s short. Most of the class time is spent with labs and activities that force students to make predictions and confront the mental models. Then students discuss their reasoning with their peers and possibly change their mind or change someone else’s mind. Finally, we do the experiment or demonstration or reveal the answer and try to make sense of it together. My role becomes more of a facilitator and guide rather than “the source of all knowledge.” I still spend a large chunk of time in front of the class, but I’m not lecturing to them about the information, I’m helping them think through their own reasoning and make sense of new experiences.
My practice of teaching is coming closer and closer to my philosophy of teaching each year. Do I still lecture? Yes, because I don’t always have time to develop something better. And when I do it is usually with gritted teeth because I know its not the best approach.