Essays onTeaching Excellence
Toward the Best in the Academy
Nancy Van Note Chism, OhioState University
When asked to write a statement on their philosophy of teaching, many collegeteachers react in the same way as professionals, athletes, or artists might ifasked to articulate their goals and how to achieve them: "Why should Ispend time writing this down? Why can't I just do it?" For action-orientedindividuals, the request to write down one's philosophy is not only mildlyirritating, but causes some anxiety about where to begin. Just what is meant bya philosophy of teaching statement anyway?
In the current academic climate it is likely that most faculty will be askedfor such a statement at some point during their careers. The emphasis onportfolios for personnel decision making, new commitment by institutions to theteaching mission, and the tight academic job market have stimulated morerequests of college teachers to articulate their philosophies. At many collegesand universities the philosophy of teaching statement is becoming a regularpart of the dossier for promotion and tenure and the faculty candidateapplication package. Such statements are often requested of nominees forteaching awards or applicants for funds for innovative educational projects.
Besides fulfilling requirements, statements of teaching philosophy can beused to stimulate reflection on teaching. The act of taking time to considerone's goals, actions, and vision provides an opportunity for developmentthat can be personally and professionally enriching. Reviewing and revisingformer statements of teaching philosophy can help teachers to reflect on theirgrowth and renew their dedication to the goals and values that they hold.
The Format of the Statement
One of the hallmarks of a philosophy of teaching statement is itsindividuality. However, some general format guidelines can be suggested:
Components of the Statement
The main components of philosophy of teaching statements are descriptions ofhow the teachers think learning occurs, how they think they can intervene inthis process, what chief goals they have for students, and what actions theytake to implement their intentions.
Conceptualization of learning. Interestingly, most college teachers agree that one of their main functions isto facilitate student learning; yet most draw a blank when asked how learningoccurs. This is likely due to the fact that their ideas about this areintuitive and based on experiential learning, rather than on a consciouslyarticulated theory. Most have not studied the literature on college studentlearning and development nor learned a vocabulary to describe their thinking.The task of articulating a conceptualization of learning is thereforedifficult.
Many college teachers have approached the work of describing how they thinkstudent learning occurs through the use of metaphor. Drawing comparisons withknown entities can stimulate thinking, whether or not the metaphor is actuallyused in the statement. For example, when asked to provide a metaphor, oneteacher described student learning in terms of an amoeba. He detailed how theorganism relates to its environment in terms of permeable membranes,movement, and the richness of the environment, translating these into theteaching-learning context by drawing comparisons with how students reach outand acquire knowledge and how teachers can provide a rich environment. Grasha(1996) has done extensive exploration of the metaphors that college studentsand teachers use to describe teaching and learning. An earlier classic thatalso contains an exploration of metaphors of teaching and learning is IsraelScheffler's The Language of Education (1960).Reinsmith (1994) applies the idea of archetypes to teaching. Such works mightbe consulted for ideas.
A more direct approach is for teachers to describe what they think occursduring a learning episode, based on their observation and experience or basedon current literature on teaching and learning. Some useful sources that summarizecurrent notions of learning in a very accessible way are contained in Svinicki(1991), Weinstein & Meyer (1991), and Bruning (1994). Teachers can alsosummarize what they have observed in their own practice about the differentlearning styles that students display, the different tempos they exhibit, theway they react to failure, and the like. Such descriptions can display therichness of experience and the teacher's sensitivity to student learning.
Conceptualization of teaching. Ideason how teachers can facilitate the learning process follow from the model ofstudent learning that has been described. If metaphors have been used, theteacher role can be an extension of the metaphor. For example, if studentlearning has been described as the information processing done by a computer,is the teacher the computer technician, the software, the database? If moredirect descriptions of student learning have been articulated, what is the roleof the teacher with respect to motivation? To content? To feedback andassessment? To challenge and support? How can the teacher respond to differentlearning styles, help students who are frustrated, accommodate differentabilities?
Goals for students. Describingthe teacher role entails detailing how the teacher can help students learn, notonly a given body of content, but also process skills, such as criticalthinking, writing, and problem solving. It also includes one's thoughts onlifelong learning - how teachers can help students to value and nurture theirintellectual curiosity, live ethical lives, and have productive careers. Formost teachers, it is easier to begin with content goals, such as wantingstudents to understand certain aerodynamic design principles or the treatmentof hypertension. The related process goals, such as engineering problem solvingor medical diagnostic skills, might be described next. Finally, career andlifelong goals, such as team work, ethics, and social commitment, can bedetailed.
Implementation of the philosophy. An extremely important part of a philosophy of teaching statement is thedescription of how one's concepts about teaching and learning and goals forstudents are translated into action. For most readers, this part of the statementis the most revealing and the most memorable. It is also generally morepleasurable and less challenging to write. Here, college teachers describe howthey conduct classes, mentor students, develop instructional resources,or grade performance. They provide details on what instructionalstrategies they use on a day-to-day basis. It is in this section that teacherscan display their creativity, enthusiasm, and wisdom. They can describe howtheir No Fault Test System or videotaping technique for promoting groupleadership skills implements their notions of how teachers can facilitatelearning. They can portray what they want a student to experience in theclasses they teach, the labs they oversee, the independent projects theysupervise. They can describe their own energy level, the qualities they try toexhibit as a model and coach, the climate they try to establish in the settingsin which they teach.
Personal growth plan. For somepurposes, including a section on one's personal growth as a teacher is alsoimportant in a statement of teaching philosophy. This reflective component canillustrate how one has grown in teaching over the years, what challenges existat the present, and what long-term goals are projected. In writing thissection, it helps to think about how one's concepts as well as actions havechanged over time. It might be stimulating to look at old syllabi orinstructional resources one has created, asking about implicit assumptionsbehind these products. Dialogue with colleagues, comparison of practices withgoals, and examination of student or peer feedback on teaching might help withthe task of enumerating present questions, puzzles, and challenges. From these,a vision of the teacher one wants to become will emerge. Describing thatteacher can be a very effective way to conclude a philosophy of teachingstatement.
Examples of Statements
By far, the best philosophy of teaching statement examples for most collegeteachers are those of peers who teach in similar settings or disciplines. Sincestatements tend to be tailored to specific contexts, peer examples are thushighly appropriate models. Dialogue with colleagues on these statements canhelp to stimulate ideas for one's own statement as well.
Other examples are contained in several recent books on teaching portfolios,such as Seldin (1993) and O'Neil & Wright (1993). Reflective books oneffective college teaching often contain extensive descriptions of teachingphilosophies, such as the chapter on "Developing a Personal Vision ofTeaching" in Brookfield's The Skillful Teacher
Brookfield, S. (1990). The skillful teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bruning, R. (1994). The college classroom from the perspective of cognitivepsychology. (pp. 3-22) In K. Pritchard & R. Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook ofcollege teaching. Westport, CT: GreenwoodPress.
Grasha, A. (1996). Teaching with style.Pittsburgh: Alliance Publishers.
O'Neil, C., & Wright, A. (1993). Recording teaching accomplishment
Reinsmith, W. (1994). Archetypal forms in teaching. College Teaching
Scheffler, I. (1960). The language of education
Seldin, P. (1991). The teaching portfolio. Bolton, MA: Anker.
Seldin, P., & Associates (1993). Successful use of teachingportfolios. Bolton, MA: Anker.
Schmier, L. (1995). Random thoughts: The humanity of teaching
Svinicki, M. (1991). Practical implications of cognitive theories. In R.Menges & M. Svinicki, (Eds.) College teaching: From theory to practice
Weinstein, C., & Meyer, D. (1991). Cognitive learning strategies andcollege teaching. In R. Menges & M. Svinicki, (Eds.) College teaching:From theory to practice. NewDirections for Teaching and Learning, 45, pp. 15-26. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.