Philosophy

As an educator working in higher education I believe it’s important that I understand-and, from an ethical perspective, endorse-much of what the university requires to demonstrate “learning.” I could not work in higher education if I felt the enterprise served the interests of students poorly. I also see, however, multiple ways in which this enterprise can be shifted, refined and evolved into something that is learning centred (Chickering and Ehrmann, 1996) rather than learner centred (Anderson, 2004). From my experience having high expectations of students often means pushing them beyond (and through) their initial ideas of what can be achieved in a learning context…although many other students do not need this sort of cajoling.

Learning centered means that learning is, well, at the core of effective teaching. Though my post-graduate work is in adult education I find aspects of Knowles’s (1980) notion of andragogy problematic. From my experience adult learners are not always intrinsically motivated, nor do they always wish to engage in self-directed learning. In higher education, a number of students are here to collect a credential, and to do enough work to achieve this. For them, learning is incidental to a credentialing process. Doubtless they all learn something during their studies; I remain unconvinced they learn what we think they need to learn, much of the time. I say this without cynicism or guile: I have been that student. And I think it’s legitimate for learners to enter a learning context for very specific, often material reasons. I think no less of my students who follow this tack, though I do think they sell themselves short when they allow credentialing to be the primary driver of their educational activities.

I view learning as a both a cognitive and social process—and therefore find both cognitive/psychological and sociological approaches to learning limiting and incomplete. I also belief that education—particularly public education—is the most liberating tool for social change known to man. Thus, the work of Freire (1971; 1973; 1997) where he describes “education as the practice of freedom” inspiring. Though I would argue Freire offers a specific model for adult basic education and an educational ethos, rather than a learning theory.

In term of adult learning theory, transformative learning theory (Mezirow, 1981) comes closest to a satisfactory integration of the two. His differentiation between “meaning schemes” (specific nuggets of knowledge, usually contextualized in experience) and “meaning perspectives” (one’s overarching understanding of life, a sort of detailed philosophy perhaps) resonates for me. My professional students often come into my courses in pursuit of meaning schemes, often competency-based. I endeavour to meet that expectation in ways that allow them to surface—and perhaps shift—their meaning perspectives, particularly related to technology, learning and pedagogy. I would define learning, therefore, as “the individuated and social experience of acquiring knowledge, examining beliefs, and developing personal agency.”

Professional Education

With much of my teaching having been in professional programs (education, but also public health), linkages to practice have been integral—though none of the courses have had an explicit service learning component. However the degree to which students comport themselves in a professional manner remains important—and a key aspect of how student performance is formatively and summatively assessed.

Students who successfully complete a degree at UBC often use their credential as evidence of their readiness for specific roles in the work world. Therefore, part of my responsibility as an educator is to ensure the work they submit to me will bear up to scrutiny.  Any industrious student who completes a course I teach should leave with the competencies described in the course objectives. There’s always a way to make it work if the student is willing to work. Always.

Flexibility in terms of process is, at times, appropriate–so long as the importance of producing polished, substantive work in a timely manner is not lost.  To deliver work on time and to professional standards is critical to real-world success. Or, as I tell my students: “life is pass-fail: your work is either good enough or it’s not. There are rarely chances for a ‘do-over.'”

Any fluidity in standards is not to me the practice of social justice; rather it is the opposite.  Assessing students’ work to a lower standard because of their lived experience–with respect to gender, ethnicity or race, sexual orientation, social class, or dis/ability–is patronizing, and all too often perpetuates marginalization. Had I been held to a differing standard during my K-12 or undergraduate education because of my working class family, I would have been set up for success, rather than failure, later in life.

Methods

Depending on the course, students and institutional context, I employ a range of pedagogical strategies. Lecturing (“transmission”) is not part of my core teaching toolkit, but I have used it—relatively effectively. More often I adapt Socratic methods and facilitate subject-oriented discussions. I do not assign readings for their consumption and regurgitation; rather I try to offer a range of resources with which students can ground themselves for subsequent learning activities. I tend not to validate “right” answers; I strive to direct students away from wrong ones. My methods place the responsibility for learning on my students, even as responsibility for their having the resources available to do so remains mine. Integrative assignments that require the synthesis of applied knowledge are at the core my approach to assessment. In the last few years I have found great utility in portfolio-based assessment—even as this has increased my assessment workload.

TPI

I have taken the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI) previously at least twice; each time my scores have flattened out. This largely correlates with the broadening and deepening of my teaching experience, along with a more robust and varied pedagogical toolkit. When I first completed the inventory I worked almost exclusively in adult community education: as my teaching work has migrated almost entirely to higher education, so too have my scores evolved. I think this serves me and my students well.

My (somewhat) dominant perspective is Developmental, which, according to Pratt and Collins:

Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”. Good teachers must understand how their learners think and reason about the content. The primary goal is to help learners develop increasingly complex and sophisticated cognitive structures for comprehending the content.

The key to changing those structures lies in a combination of two skills: (1) effective questioning that challenges learners to move from relatively simple to more complex forms of thinking, and (2) ‘bridging knowledge’ which provides examples that are meaningful to the learner.

Questions, problems, cases, and examples form these bridges that teachers use to transport learners from simpler ways of thinking and reasoning to new, more complex and sophisticated forms of reasoning. Good teachers adapt their knowledge to learners’ levels of understanding and ways of thinking.

Pratt & Collins, n.d.

I find this rather stunning to re-read: I use inquiry-, case- and problem-based learning extensively in my teaching. I recently delivered a professional development workshop at a private secondary school in Vancouver about problem-based learning, in fact. Upon reflection it is surprising I did not make this connection sooner!

In fact, not only my most recent TPI scores are interesting. The changes in my TPI scores between September 2011 and February 2012 have been intriguing, as indicated in Table One below:

 

September 2011

February 2012

Notes
Transmission – all

33

26

intensions, actions dropped

Beliefs

10

10

Intentions

11

7

Actions

12

9

Apprenticeship – all

28

27

little change; 4 point gap

Beliefs

6

7

Intentions

10

9

Actions

12

11

Developmental – all

34

33

little change; well-aligned

Beliefs

11

11

Intentions

11

11

Actions

12

11

Nurturing – all

35

32

lower beliefs only; 4 point gap

Beliefs

12

9

Intentions

13

13

Actions

10

10

Social Reform – all

29

25

mostly lower beliefs

Beliefs

11

8

Intentions

10

9

Actions

8

8

Table One: Synopsis of Egan TPI scores – September 2011/February 2012

I found three things particularly noteworthy. First, in my dominant perspective – Developmental – my beliefs, intentions and actions are well-aligned. Second, the four point gap between my beliefs and intentions for Nurturing perhaps demonstrates: 1.) I see the value of nurturing approach, but am perhaps less accepting of this, in terms of my own values; or, 2.) because I teach online I have to make a conscious effort to bring my “affective self”—my emotions—into what is largely a text-based, static environment. Finally, for Apprenticeship I accept that this perspective is one valued in professional education (particularly pre-service and professional development teacher training), even if it’s not reflective of my own values as an educator; this perhaps explains why I have found the normative practices of pre-service teacher training at times distressing.

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