Philosophy

PHILOSOPHY OF TEACHING AND LEARNING
January 2013

Introduction

I once attended a meeting to reform the undergraduate music curriculum at my institution. The goal was to reduce overall credits and allow more electives. Specifically, we had to decide which courses would stay or go. It was not long before there was an impasse. No one was willing to let go of anything they taught or were taught when they were undergraduates. My colleagues argued "the students must have that" and "how can you eliminate this course?" Frustrated, I brazenly suggested that we eliminate everything that students don't remember anyway. Upon hearing my suggestion, most on the committee laughed and thought I was just joking. Then, interestingly, a long silence followed. However, gradually the meeting returned to sounding as before, with phrases such as "well, you can't cut that" and so forth.

Even though my suggestion was stated humorously, I was not joking. We do so much teaching at the college level because we are determined to give our students everything. Plowing through textbooks and spending hours preparing lectures, we tell our students what they need to know, assuming that because we have told them, we have taught them, and therefore, they have learned.

Authentic Teaching

I believe that skillful teaching is grounded in research. In addition, three educators have greatly influenced my philosophy of teaching. They are the late philosopher Paulo Freire (1970, 2005), the psychologist Howard Gardner (1983, 1999, 2006, 2012) and the pedagogue Bernice McCarthy (2000, 2012). From their research I have gathered bits of information and combined their philosophies into one I shall call "authentic teaching.” Grounded in post-modern theory, and specifically critical pedagogy (Abrahams, 2005), my philosophy views teaching, in tandem with learning, as a partnership with students that supports diversity of learning styles and honors individual aptitudes and potentials. Such authentic teaching produces students who are critical and independent thinkers, capable of thinking, feeling and acting with significance and as independent agents of change. They are able to pose and solve problems and in the process construct and apply meanings for themselves. Ultimately, the teacher's responsibility is to provide formal and informal opportunities for their students to practice what they are learning and to apply that information in real situations.

The interaction of teachers and students in authentic and meaningful experiences, which are acknowledged as important to both of them, constitutes authentic teaching. What we teach is content that becomes significant when situated in a context rich in social capital. The purpose of teaching and learning is to enrich and change the knowings, understandings, and perceptions that students and teachers have as individuals and as members of society. It should facilitate the acquisition of a critical consciousness (Freire 2005) that results in an enlightened vision of what is important and what adds value to the world within the context of each person’s place inside and outside of that reality. Teaching is not something we do to students or for students. It is something we do with students.

Ten ideas provide the framework that bounds good teaching and good teachers. They are:

  1. Good teaching is student-centered. It begins in and honors the student’s world (Abrahams, 2005). Good teachers use the knowledge and experiences students bring to the classroom as a bridge to new learning.
  2. Good teaching promotes substantive conversation through a dialogue. Good teachers know that by learning to summarize, predict, clarify and question (Abrahams & Abrahams, 2010), students craft the abilities to think, feel and act critically.
  3. Good teaching provides strategies for students to connect what they learned in one context and apply it to a new and different context. Good teachers facilitate communities of practice (Wenger, 1999) and are successful when students can learn on their own when that teacher is no longer physically present.
  4. Good teaching facilitates the making of meaning (Vygotsky, 1978; Wiggins, 2009). Good teachers understand that when students and their teachers “know that they know” they can claim that learning occurs.
  5. Good teaching yields transformational experiences for both students and their teacher. Good teachers know that such experiences are liberating and add value to the lives of all engaged in the process.
  6. Good teaching occurs when teachers connect their teaching strategies to the various ways in which their students learn (McCarthy, 2000, 2012). Good teachers acknowledge that students perceive and process information in different ways.
  7. Good teaching focuses on depth rather than breadth (Gardner, 1999, 2012). Good teachers pose and solve problems with their students and know that ideas develop slowing and germinate inside and outside the classroom.
  8. Good teaching is the interrelationship of philosophy and psychology (learning theory) and praxis. Good teachers integrate the habits of the intellectual, technicist and practitioner and consult the research to inform decisions about curriculum, sequencing, teaching strategy and assessment.
  9. Good teaching happens when teachers seize teachable moments. Good teachers begin with a plan that includes an essential or focusing question, but adjust, adapt or improvise as appropriate.
  10. Good teaching in music engages the student’s musical imagination, musical intellect, and musical creativity. Good music teaching empowers musicianship. Good music teachers see nothing wrong with students who love music for its own sake and have fun listening to music informally or performing music inside and outside of school with friends or on their own.

Teacher Roles

McCarthy (2000, 2012) believes that teachers assume four roles while engaged in the act of teaching. I call these the roles of authentic teaching. First a teacher becomes a motivator. Students will only commit to remembering when they see a reason to learn. Timothy Gerber (in DeGraffenreid et all, 2006), professor of music education at Ohio State University, states that all learning is problem solving. As a motivator, the role of the teacher is to present learning situations which engage the students in problem solving. Problem solving promotes cognition. Paulo Freire (1970) concurs. In his most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he writes:

The role of the problem-posing educator is to create, together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of the logos. Students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation (p. 65). Problem-posing education...affirms women and men as beings who transcend themselves, who move forward and look ahead, for whom immobility represents a fatal threat, for whom looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future. (pp. 62, 65)

Problem solving also promotes higher-level thinking. Students learn and understand when they can find solutions to problems. Once they analyze and evaluate multiple solutions to situations, they can effectively select and justify the best solution.

My students are digital natives (Prensky, 2001). They are the first generation to grow up in a world rich with computers, videogames, digital music players, and cell phones. They text, tweet, instant message, SKYPE. Multiple times during each day, they post details of their personal lives, complete with pictures and videos to their “friends” on Facebook. They bypass cable TV and watch television on their own schedule freely streamed from the Internet onto their laptops. Ten years ago college students took classes in technology to learn how to author a PowerPoint presentation, to cut and paste text, or to notate a musical composition on Finale. Today, they sit in classes with laptops and have access to information they can find instantly if called upon by their professor to do so. And, many prefer to take classes online where they can learn at their own pace, on their own time and in their own physical space. Such time is often late at night in hours historically reserved for practice and homework. As a result, scientists posit that the exposure to and interaction with technologies produces a student who thinks and processes information in ways that are fundamentally different from those who are teaching them.

Inside the classroom, teachers must wrestle with what information should be stored within the student’s long‐ and short‐term memories and what information may be stored on the hard drive of the student’s computer, tablet or smartphone? As Ward states, “At its core, teaching is still about connecting with students, exploring ideas, and understanding the world better. Technology is part of that, but only a part” (p. 3). Like Ward (2012) I found, I found it necessary to rethink assignments with what Prensky (2001) calls “Digital Native methodologies.” In other words, the assignments must match the technology. Since playing games or watching movies, TV shows and videos were the most satisfying uses of the iPads for the students, teachers would be well-served to find ways to integrate more video into courses as well as find ways to create ways to deliver content through games and simulations.

Case studies (Abrahams & Head, 1998, 2005) provide situations where students solve problems. Because students can identify with the characters in a case study, they become engaged and hooked into the learning experience. Perceiving a need to know, students prefer learning from content placed into a concrete context. Music students particularly like case studies because they can empathize with the characters, and they can project themselves into the same situation. Also, case studies provide an opportunity for students to discuss issues together cooperatively. By engaging in meaningful conversation, students teach themselves and each other. And, at the same time, long-lasting understandings develop. "Through dialogue" writes Paulo Freire (1970), “the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach” (p. 61).

The students become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) suggest that students understand when they can use new information in the context of a conversation. Further, according to Freire, dialogue is indispensable to the act of cognition. Teachers must engage students in discussions. Students learn best while immersed in dialogue with the teacher and other students. Gardner (in Newmann & Wehlage, 1993) defines understanding as the ability to use information learned in one context and apply it to a new and different context. Likewise, case studies provide that opportunity.

The second role is that of an informer. This is the "telling" part of teaching. One of a teacher's responsibility is to present information to the students that will assist them in solving problems and making connections. Students need to be informed so that they can make connections to the concepts being taught. Many students expect college professors to be experts in their particular content domain. Thus, a teacher’s guidance is a valuable resource for each student. In order to be an effective informer, the teacher must lecture well.

Authentic teaching requires the teacher to make decisions relative to the amount of content to be presented. Many teachers feel bound to completing a textbook over the span of a course. Because of this commitment, they present large quantities of information without much depth. Authentic teaching forces the teacher to decide what content to include, and more importantly, what to leave out. Once established, teachers can then cover the remaining material and delve beyond the surface. By focusing on quality instead of quantity, students do not get overloaded with too much information, which often is quickly forgotten. Instead, they are taught the subject matter in depth, and the learning is long-lasting. In my classes, I often assign a reading and follow with a classroom activity, which connects or relates to the content of each reading. Although I always give students an opportunity to ask questions, I choose to use the majority of classroom time to build on that knowledge or content. Students need to learn to think for themselves and to learn on their own. My desire is to push them beyond their perceived limits.

Outside the classroom, teachers serve as mentors and role models. Students observe their teachers in many ways. They examine our writing and research and observe us in the library or the office. Sometimes, students discuss an idea or share a problem to solve. They seek advice, approval and support. In addition, I maintain correspondence with the undergraduates in the music education department through our mutual accounts on the Internet and a departmental listserv. In some classes I use blogs or discussion boards where I post on the Internet an issue or topic of relevance to them and invite comments and discussions. This serves several purposes. First, it helps me insure that they are informed. Second, it provides them with an access to me on a one-to-one basis. Third, I gain insight into their thinking which helps me guide them and monitor their development. By asking probing questions, I can help them to think at higher levels and to develop a point of view. This adds personalization and dimensionality to my relationship with them.

Further as the third role a teacher becomes a facilitator. In this Vygotskian (Wink, 2010; Wink & Putney, 2002) model, teachers act as a coach, the teacher must get out of the way and allow students to take ownership for their own learning. Learning is meaningful when it has broad applications and connects to the world beyond the classroom. The responsibility of a dedicated teacher is to help students see and make those connections. Aesthetic educators claim that music should be taught for music’s own sake. This absolutist view is a narrow one. Music has cognitive properties. It offers all students a way of thinking and access to an aptitude or potential in everyone. Music teachers need to help students discover how they may use their musical thinking in contexts and situations inside and outside the domain of music-making. For students in pre-service teacher education, this is paramount. Education that is liberating affords students the opportunities to discuss the thinking and views of the world explicitly or implicitly (Freire, 1970). In the role of a facilitator, a teacher designs activities that help students to synthesize concepts and to theorize. They also assist students in the application of the knowledge by guiding students as they add their own individuality to the material and make it their own. Bernice McCarthy once said that students know a piece of music when they are able to improvise around it. This is a powerful notion. Students must add something of themselves to their learning for learning to be long-lasting and meaningful.

Finally, teachers are evaluators and assessors. In partnership with their students, they assess and help to revise, refine, refocus and redefine. Teachers with their students set standards and seek excellence. Teachers and students are reflective. They are critical of their own work. They question and challenge each other. Freire (1970) writes of the importance of students feeling like masters of their thinking. Teaching is also praxial. It is not only theory; it is action. Freire (1970) says that action and reflection occur simultaneously and that human activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action (p. 109). "People will be truly critical," he continues,

[I]f they live the plenitude of the praxis, that is, if their action encompasses a critical reflection which increasingly organizes their thinking and thus leads them to move from a purely naive knowledge of reality to a higher level, one which enables them to perceive the causes of reality. If [educators}... deny this right to [students}..., they impair their own capacity to think--or at least to think correctly. (p. 112)

As assessors, teachers provide social support for student achievement. Although the basis of authentic teaching is cognitive rather than behavioral, there is no denying the power of positive reinforcement. When students are praised, rewarded and supported by their teachers for work that is well done, it reinforces their self-esteem and motivates them to learn more. This often occurs outside the classroom. By attending student performances and escorting students to conferences or other professional meetings, teachers demonstrate their support of the students. It is at this point that teaching and learning becomes transformational.

For me, authentic teaching is acquired through this entire cycle of motivator, informer, facilitator and evaluator with the over-riding goal of teaching students to think critically, to ask questions and to challenge new ideas inside and outside the classroom. Different students have a pre-determined favored role for their teachers; therefore, it is important that all four roles be present in order to help students meet their individual learning needs.

Conclusions

The impasse at the curriculum meeting described at the beginning of this paper might have been avoided if the attendees were of one philosophical mind. However, this would not be consistent with the very nature of academe. Diversity of opinion and philosophy make colleges strong. Authentic teaching provides one perspective. Some suggest that we must ask the essential questions and teach the essential elements. Often, this requires making hard decisions such as what stays and what goes. Courageous teachers, regardless of their personal teaching philosophy, are not afraid to make those decisions. Paulo Freire (1970) concludes, "knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other" (p. 53). Dewey (in Simpson, et al. 2006) suggests reflective practice. Likewise, I believe good teaching results when those interactions empower, liberate and add value to the lives of both teachers and their students.

References

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