September 19, 2016 When people ask me what I do, I might summarize what I do in my work with "I am an Assistant Professor" or "I work in a university." However, my usual answer is “I am a teacher.” My primary professional identity and how I choose to describe myself is as one who teaches, but just what is teaching? I describe here my personal philosophy of professional teaching.
Professional teaching, by which I mean teaching as practiced by those who consider themselves primarily educators rather than including the likes of role models, mentors, and parents, can be loosely divided into three main areas of activity. One, teachers promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including critical thinking skills. Two, teachers promote the development of desired behaviors and habits. Three, teachers make conscious pedagogical decisions regarding learning objectives and content as well as the specific tools and techniques to use to achieve these desired outcomes.
Regarding pedagogical decisions, professional teaching is deliberative; teachers must make a number of decisions about their practice. These decisions include selecting content that is to be taught, setting the goals or learning objectives, and determining what techniques and tools to use. The decisions taken in teaching may be rooted in pedagogy – in teachers' knowledge about educational research and theories as well as their own experiences in teaching and learning. Some decisions may be driven primarily by the instructional content area. Decisions may also be rooted in culture, with options narrowed by common practices, shared ideals, or administrative directives.
Professional teaching may produce behavioral changes in learners, and behaviorist theories of learning view it as encoding responses to stimuli (e.g. GSI Teaching & Resource Center, n.d.; Standridge, M., 2002). One element of teaching is shaping learner behavior, often to be socially acceptable and productive. Standridge (2002) describes how behavior can be shaped or modified through a half-dozen step process, which includes specifying outcomes, reinforcement of desired behaviors, and evaluation, all of which are familiar to professional teachers. Professional teaching includes providing models and encouraging attention to them, and aims to produce desirable habits of thinking and behaving in learners. This is not only to promote social cohesion, which is a goal of some but not all teachers, but also to promote expertise and transferability of knowledge though building habits of thought, or schema, which save mental effort (Bransford et al, 2000; Duhigg, 2012; Wiseman, 2008).
Professional teaching promotes changes in the knowledge of learners and their ability to apply that knowledge. Good teaching involves helping learners gain useful knowledge and schema, or mental organizing structures (see, for example, Cherry, 2016). Schema allow for what Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) call conditionalized knowledge. This may be factual knowledge, concepts or processes that are known in such a way as to be linked with a useful context, and this helps people apply their knowledge efficiently (Bransford et al, 2000; Resnick, 1987). Teaching should encourage situated learning, in which the knowledge, the use of the knowledge, and the learning are intimately interconnected (Brown et al, 1989). Professional teaching should also actively encourage metacognitive attention on the part of learners. This means helping learners think about what, how and why they are learning, and subsequently promoting transfer of learning, short-term self-management of learning, and life-long learning. Good teaching also leverages various modes of instruction in order to increase learner engagement and understanding (Willingham, 2010).
In my language teaching, I aim to promote acquisition and use of communicative skills, build learner autonomy and positive attitudes towards learning and using English in school and beyond, and encourage personal responsibility. I provide my learners with what I hope is meaningful and comprehensible input and opportunities to produce written or oral communication of their own. I emphasize that language is a tool to be used to communicate rather than an academic subject to learn enough of to pass a course, and I ask students to practice actively in pairs and groups. Even with reading and writing assignments, my students are asked to share reactions to what they have read with their peers, peer review each others' work, and produce some work in teams. They also are asked to do both informal and formal reflections on their work, including portfolios for some courses. I aim to match my assessments to my instructional objectives and include ongoing formative assessments. I also use learner reflections, my own observations of learner progress, and anonymous course evaluations from students to help gauge and guide improvement in my own practice.
I teach in Japan, and there seems to be a common belief that if you know something you can teach it. There is a whole cram-school industry in which the bulk of instructors are college students tutoring children as a part-time job, and the conversation school and assistant language teacher industries are built on teaching by largely untrained native speakers. While it is true that people can learn things from others without these models or mentors being trained teachers, professional teaching brings far more to the learner than just the content to be taught. It means teachers with pedagogical knowledge and skills making measured decisions about the content and the learners, and promoting the efficient and continuing growth of learners. Professional teaching is a multi-faceted practice deserving of greater recognition and respect.
Note: This philosophy is an adapted version of a paper submitted for CEP 800 in Summer, 2016.
References: Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.