Thursday, July 12, 2012

Philosophy of Teaching

(sorry, this is a longer post)

I had a teacher friend of mine share with me a paper he wrote on his philosophy of teaching. I found it so insightful and fascinating for two reasons:

  1. It covered several facets of the many dimensions of education.
  2. I suddenly realized that I have never thought about what I do for a living that deeply.

Don't get me wrong, I've thought about how and why I do what I do. But I've never been one for theories of teaching. I have no degree in education. I have never taken formal classes in education. Often when I go to teaching workshops I feel like I'm sitting through a lecture by Professor Umbridge on how to use only Ministry-Approved curriculums.

For me, being a successful teacher is not determined by learning teaching paradigms, but by how much smarter your students are after taking your course. And almost all of that comes by rolling up your sleeves and putting chalk to board.

But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't have a philosophy of teaching. Over the course of the last 11 years, I think I have discovered a successful philosophy of teaching.

Now I take the topic literally Philosophy has four areas of concern:

Metaphysics: The study of what exists.
Anthropology: The study of human nature.
Epistemology: The study of how we come to know things.
Ethics: The study of how we should act.

Now some may say that teaching should be restricted to Epistemology, since it is the science of how we learn. But unless you know what there is in the universe to learn and what a human being is, you cannot know how best humans learn. So for a complete philosophy, I should cover each of those areas:

As a devout Catholic, I believe that we live in a universe created by God that has a rational order. The universe has laws that must be followed by those that exist in this universe. These rules can be physical (physics) or abstract (mathematics), but they are all rational. Even disciplines like history should focus on real things that happened. Interpretations of events comes second. First we must know what the events are. We must always start with the objective, even in such fields as the fine arts. Here, I also believe that there is an element of the objective, even though the subjective plays a larger role. I do not agree with Jeremy Bentham that “push pin (a English children's game) is as good as poetry if it makes you happy.” I believe some art is better than others objectively. This is because some art is better able to give you a window into the Beautiful. This of course means that I believe Beauty to be a real, objective thing.

As I teach religion, I also believe that the God who created the universe is infinite and eternal, omniscient and omnipotent, etc, etc, big-words, big-words. As God exists, but is not physical, I therefore assume the possibility of non-physical things existing.

Human beings are rational animals. We are not beings of pure reason; that would be something like a god or an angel. And we are not beasts; we have reason and free will. This can be seen most concretely in our inquisitive nature. We ask questions. Aristotle once gave a lecture and asked if there were any questions. When no one asked, he became frustrated and something akin to this:

There are only two types of being who don't ask questions: gods and beasts. Gods don't ask because they know everything. Beasts don't ask because they are too stupid to reason. Which are you?

We ask questions. And humans love to learn. We do. Yesterday I spent an hour learning how air conditioning works. It blew my mind and I was utterly fascinated by how evaporation causes an object to lose heat and how passing a fan over that object cools a room. Humans desperately seek out new information, this is one of the reasons we obsessively check our email, twitter, facebook... We want to learn.

We just don't like to be taught.

That I think is key to understanding how best to teach. If you told me that I was going to sit through a lecture on air conditioning theory and application, I would probably hang my head in anticipation of the boredum to come. Have you ever loved a subject, but hated taking a class on it? How many artists hated art class? How many teachers hated teaching classes? Our minds our hungry for knowledge, but hate the taste of the classroom.

Actually, that goes a bit too far. Some of us are little Hermione's who enjoy going to certain classes. But because of our dual nature (rational animal), we ground our understanding in both reason and in the passions. We want truth and we want happiness. We want to learn but we also want to be entertained. That, I think, is why we many of us avoid the drudgery of school work. We want to be fascinated not lectured. I can think of a number of students I have had who got poor grades, but could also tell me with great precision where to find all of the hidden goddess cubes in Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. They did not learn the classroom information but learned the video game information because they WANTED to learn it.

And we must also acknowledge the fallen nature of man. Yes, we are made in God's image, thus we reflect Divine reason, will, love, beauty, etc. But we are broken. We want to do things our way. Very often, this will gets in the way of reason. And a bad will can block the light that reason gives. We often desire to do what is easy over what is right (to borrow a line from Dumbledore). I once asked my students what would happen if no matter what they did or failed to do, the lowest grade they would get in my class would be a C-. They all agreed that most everyone would tune out or not even show up. I asked if that meant that they wouldn't learn and therefore wouldn't become smarter because of it. They said yes, but it was easier to be stupid.

Ignorance is easy. Intelligence is effort.

There has been a lot of theory as to how people learn. Some learn best by visuals. Some learn best from listening. I think that this is accurate because our tastes are so varied. One size does not fit all for everyone. This will be problematic because a teacher will have very different types of learners in a class, but only one teacher.

There are basically 2 types of knowledge: intellectual and experiential. Sometimes this is divided into “book smarts” and “street smarts” but that is an oversimplification. Intellectual knowledge involves acquiring data. The experiential involves the process of activity. Both are necessary. In science, you start with the theory and then perform the experiment. In history, we start with the dates and places and then tell the story so the student can experience the event in their imagination. In English, we learn our grammar and then we write an essay. In theology, we study the doctrines and then live out the implications. To lean too heavily on one over the other will lead to problems. In theology, earlier generations can recall having to memorize doctrines. But many would never go further and experience Christ in a deep relationship. Many of this generation can talk about the feelings they get from retreats and youth groups, but would be unable to articulate doctrines such as Purgatory. You can apply this to any subject. You need to know THAT a thing is and also WHY a thing is.

But as stated before, humans are curious by nature. We learn by asking questions. In this way we are not like a computer that only process information that it is force-fed. You can force a child to read something, but it does not mean that it will be remembered. The child must ask questions. Humans must reach out mentally in order to learn. That is the only way to hold the attention of the mind to keep it open long enough for the information to feed the intellect and experience.

In the 6th grade I had a teacher walk into the room with a bucket of water. She then, without a word, began to spin the bucket around in a giant circle with her arm. Some of us ducked. Others chuckled. A few gasped. When she stopped she asked out loud the question that we were all thinking: “Why didn't the water fall out of the bucket?” By igniting in us the question, we hungrily ate up the information.

When I was a sophomore in college, I had a professor walk in on the first day and, without a word of introduction, told us a long, complicated story about a glutton named Peter Zah who ate himself into a heart attack. He then asked was it Peter's fault that he died. My mind raced with questions. And I was hooked.

Why did this happen?” “What happens next?” “How does that work?” “What does that mean?”

These are all questions that motivate us to seek knowledge. We learn best when we are fascinated.

How must a teacher act? Or in other words, how must a teacher teach?

This is a difficult question to answer because I don't want to get specific. Just as there is no one size fits all student, there are no one-size-fits-all teaching styles. Some of the methods I use would not work for others and vice versa. So I will write in general principles of behavior based on the metaphysics, anthropology, and epistemology.

  1. Discipline. As stated above, humans can tend towards the easiest path. It is easier to zone out than to pay attention. It is easier to break rules than to follow them. A necessary precondition for learning is classroom discipline. Students must know that they are in a place of business And the business of the classroom is learning. Students should be given very clear guidelines regarding all aspects of expected behavior. Any infraction of the rules should be immediately addressed. While teachers should be open to extenuating circumstances, they should hold a firm line of discipline. 

     I once sat in on a class for a fellow teacher who was struggling. His lecture was good and his notes were manageable, but the students did not learn because he did not have control of his class. Discipline does not always equal punishment, but it lays out that there are consequences for behavior. If the environment is consequencesless, students cannot behave in a way where learning can occur. 

     Also, as a wise teacher told me, starting with a firm hand is good because “you can always get nicer, but you can never get meaner.” But it is important to keep a certain distance between teacher and student. You are not their buddy. That would be a disservice to them. You cannot teach effectively if you can't be their disciplinarian.

  2. Knowledge. Know everything. I know this is daunting. In fact, it is impossible, but you can never stop learning. Students should not be given the disservice of your opinion. As a Catholic, I know that I am not the source of knowledge, nor am I the center of the universe. It is not my job to get them to think like me. I must pass on the knowledge about what IS.

     One of the worst teachers I ever had was a physics teacher who would not let us use calculus in class. When asked why, she said, “Because I don't know calculus.” She let her ignorance be our problem, and not hers. As a result, we actually learned more physics in our calculus classes. 

    Also, many students will test your knowledge. Sometimes this comes from a natural curiosity. This should be nurtured as best as possible, because as I stated earlier, it is only by asking questions that we learn. The more and better answers you give, the more likely they are to keep asking. Sometimes these questions are confrontational. If a chink can be found in your authority's armor, then that can justify their disinterest. This is especially true in theology when we could be talking about David's Psalms and then I find myself drawn into a debate on In Vitro fertilization Answer you questions as intelligently as you can, even when you know that the student who is asking will not listen. At that point, you are not arguing for that student, but for the others who are listening. 

     The more competently you can answer your questions, the greater the fascination should be with your students. But this only works with...

  3. Integrity. Be genuine. Students can usually tell when someone is pandering to them. I was at a school assembly where an educator was speaking about the dangers of online activity, like sexting. Her information was good and accurate. But during her talk she said, “I know that many of you might think that this is whack-” And at that point she lost every single student. She was obviously trying to use vocabulary that was not her own (and 5 years behind the times. She may as well have said “Let's raise the roof.”) 

     Students can tell if you are not interested in what you are teaching. If you are not fascinated, then they will definitely not be. And if you do not know an answer, it is not a weakness to admit ignorance. But make it a point to seek an answer as soon as possible.

  4. Enthusiasm. This is a contagious quality. I do not follow sports, but I can remember being caught up with my friends as the were glued to the television, waiting to see the NBA draft order that would determine if the Cavs would get LeBron James (no comment on how we feel about him now). A teacher should remember why they are teaching. A teacher should be passionate about their subject. Passion ignites the heart, and if the students hearts are ignited, that may push them to ask questions and become engaged.

  5. Entertainment. As stated above, we desire not just to learn, but to be entertained. There are many teachers who decide that class will be fun. As a result, students enjoy their time, but learn little. I knew a teacher who let his students sleep in the corner when they got tired. Keep in mind, this was not kindergarten, but high school. Those students didn't learn much. Other teachers would show movies all day that had nothing to do with the topic. These students also did not learn much.

     Some teachers go the exact opposite way and only lecture with no thought to entertaining the minds of the students. These also tend to be ineffective

     A good idea is to marry both teaching and entertaining to promote learning. There is a reason by Sesame Street has lasted so long. Every teacher should find what method works best for them. Some use computer graphics. Some have students play games. For the most part, I tell jokes and stories. If paying attention pays off in laughter, then the pleasure of that laugh will condition them to pay attention more. If I can weave an interesting tale to hold their imagination, then they are much more likely to remember the data that I am imparting.

  6. Arguments and Analogies: know the difference. An argument appeals to logic and tries to prove a conclusion This reaches out to the intellectual part of the mind. Analogies don't prove anything, but they show how a thing can be true in a way that appeals to the experience. 

     For example, when I teach about purgatory, I use logic to prove its necessity: if you must be in a state of perfection when you die in order to enter heaven and most people don't die in a state of perfection, then most people would go to hell when they died if there is not a third place to go that we call purgatory. This is an argument trying to prove a conclusion.

     When I try to explain how purgatory makes sense, I choose a girl in class and ask her to imagine that [insert whatever teeny-bopper heartthrob is currently popular] is taking her to prom. But just before he arrives she gets violent diarrhea all over herself. If the hunk sees her and says he still wants to go to prom with her, does she immediately get in the limo. NO! She says, mortified. She wants to get cleaned up first. And so it is with purgatory. Sin is the stinky diarrhea of the soul that we need to wash off ourselves before entering into the presence of one who loves us more than anything: God. This analogy helps give the student an experiential knowledge of the doctrine, but it is not an argument that proves the truth of its existence.

     Be sure not to confuse these two things.

  7. Encouragement. Students need to be encouraged in their questions, even if these questions are challenges. If a student asks, “Why do I need to learn Shakespeare?” this question should not be dismissed out of hand. Often when we have a debate in class, a student will make a point, but in a rather clumsy way. I try to restate their heart of their position and point out to them that their question has merit. This builds them up and encourages them to continue question. 

     Children often don't realize what gifts they possess until they are nurtured to try. I had a student who was in my Socratic Club who told me when they graduated that they used to think that their opinions were worthless and that they couldn't defend their ideas until they joined the club. Here is a case where they discovered a skill they did not know they had that may have remained hidden if not given the opportunity.

  8. Love. You can only be a truly successful teacher if you love your students. The wall of appropriate behavior should always be maintained. But a teacher must put his students before himself. Your time and your effort must belong to them. If a student is struggling, you must sacrifice your free time to tutor them. If they need help writing, you need to be willing to read their rough drafts. If they come after school for questions and guidance, you must be there for them. 

     Your students need to know that even though you are not their buddy, you will always have their back. You are on their side and you want them to succeed. They may love you or they may hate you or they may be indifferent. Regardless, you must give to any of them that need it the same attention they need to excel.

So that encompasses the four areas of philosophy. Of course the question should be asked: to what end? What is the ultimate purpose of teaching?

As stated at the beginning of this essay, success is measured by how much smarter the students are when they leave your class. We are called to make our students smarter. Passing on intellectual and experiential knowledge have the purpose of giving these children the tools to be independent adults who can think for themselves. Only in thinking for themselves can they be free to find the truth.

And that is what it means to be a teacher. We are called to guide our students on the path of wisdom to the destination of truth.


  1. (((There are only two types of being who don't ask questions: gods and beasts. Gods don't ask because they know everything. Beasts don't ask because they are too stupid to reason. Which are you?)))

    I like "IT" but teacher, I have a question for ya! Was Aristotle real or was he just another so called imaginary MAN? :(

    For what "IT" is worth, keep UP the good work and words. :)


  2. I demand CatholicSkywalker reviews this movie:

  3. Victor, out of curiosity, is that a Zeitgeist inspired question?

    1. Only a true GOD knows safely for sure the heart of an Unknown! :)