Are You a Teacher? Then You Need a Teaching Philosophy

My simple definition of teaching is: organizing and fostering a learning environment. For a positive environment to function, it must have balance; making sure all parts work together in sync.

The environment a teacher creates and fosters is at the discretion of their unique combination of personality, beliefs, skills and knowledge.  It can be difficult for a teacher chose a distinct teaching style because there is always new research, trends, curricula, and teaching styles being flashed in front of us in the form of inservices, PD, research, articles, and opinions.

It is imperative that a teacher find a teaching philosophy or method that works for them. In order for a teacher to work effectively and earnestly, they must find a teaching philosophy to stand by and develop with confidence.

I feel I have found the teaching philosophy that is ideal for me. After much searching and trial by fire, I have recently initiated project-based learning (PBL) in my classroom after extensive preparation (see here). One challenge I encountered was learning how to reapply my teaching skills to suit a new framework. I had to sort out how all my ideas could be delivered while still being student-centred. At first, I was very focused on the student-centred part, asking the class a lot of guiding questions so students, getting them to ask questions in turn and voice how they think the unit should operate. I couldn’t just ask “what do you wanna do?” to a class full of kids and just make a project on the go. It needed the touch of a professional to bring it to life.

The Buck Institute for Education, gurus of PBL information and resources, define PBL as:

a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

Teachers who want to implement PBL will need to do a considerable amount of planning and preparing. A structure needs to be established, and they need to be there to guide the students through it. It will be difficult at first, but as the project unfolds, it becomes more fluid. Teaching a unit, in the traditional sense, requires the teacher to prep lessons, deliver, assess, and repeat. PBL is different because you have to have a large process planned, what the students produce to demonstrate their understanding will vary.

I’ve learned that a teacher using PBL can’t just “go with the flow” and wing-it under the guise of “student choice” or “inquiry”. That’s lazy and the unit will end up be chaotic and rudimentary.  If anything, fostering student choice and inquiry takes a considerable amount of planning and forethought. A teacher needs be active in setting up structure and parameters in a project-based learning unit for students to work within successfully. Starting an unstructured PBL unit is like throwing students into the deep-end of a pool. Yes, some will benefit and do it successfully. But that misses the point.  When planned properly with structure and parameters, students will have freedom to work within a dynamic learning environment where they can inquire, learn, and collaborate.

I’m literally excited that I’ve found a teaching style that suits me. It’s a great teaching style for me because it’s diverse, goal-oriented, and collaborative. It can incorporate a multitude of essential learnings, assessments, and content delivery methods. It’s critical and creative. Inquiring and reflective. The main thing I’m getting at is that I’ve have found a teaching style that suits my attitude, beliefs, and skills. I’m invigorated by this method, and I think that transfers over to the students. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

Are you a teacher with a philosophy? Don’t use that as an excuse not to incorporate new technology or pedagogy!

Are you a teacher without a philosophy? Then do some shopping and find one. You’re not doing yourself any favours by  being at the mercy of everything that PD, inservices, and research tells you. Assess who you are and how you learn. This will help determine how you can teach most effectively.

Are you a new teacher? Then you need a teaching philosophy!  I recommend you do some floating around to see what’s out there and what works for you, but make sure to have some foundation to build upon. I think the foundation of being a teacher is to have a solid set of beliefs to build your professional skills upon. It’s up to you to decide that.

Who am I to say all this? Just some teacher guy with a blog. Take it for whatever you think it’s worth.

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Beginning Project-based Learning in the Classroom

What I Learned: PBL is about student choice, not the teacher’s.

I can hear it already: *lonely clap* “Yeah, that’s the point man!”

Now for me to elaborate on this groundbreaking material.

First off, I’ve done considerable “planning” for this unit. As in: I’ve invested much time into the thought and production of ideas and questions, gathered resources, researched methods, searched for ICT and online tools, written a lot of notes, then reflected, deleted and edited those notes, and repeated this whole process multiple times. In the end (or rather beginning) it lead me to create a handful of questions and a project idea. Yeah, lots of time, not much tangible planning. That’s it.

In our Social Studies class the goal is to make a book on Blurb.com about Ancient Greece and Rome.

I’m already excited and I think the kids are excited as well… well as excited as kids can be for school. The day went well and I feel like I learned more about PBL in one day than I did with all the planning I did previously. But I would not have learned that much from this one day unless I had done all that planning and research.

When I started today’s class I was at the front doing my regular thing. Trying to “present” and “tell” the information about what we’re doing and what the goal was. I looked around and saw all the yawns, bored faces, and other indicators of students who were not into it.  I had a mini-epiphany, “This doesn’t look or sound like PBL”. I gave my head a shake and thought, “What am I doing? This is the same old me talking.” The voice inside my head rebuked me, “Yeah… student voice, student centered, you’re the guide.”

I quickly sought to rectify my mistake.  I just started asking students how we might be able to accomplish this goal of making a book. How do we get to our desired result? How could we incorporate ICT and social media into the learning experience? How should we structure the groups/teams? How do we incorporate both Greece and Rome into the process? What do you students need from me to get going?  This is just a loose paraphrasing. I didn’t ask all these questions overtly, rather, I structured and prompted in a way that they came to an understanding of their own. This went much better than me just directing what to do.

I got to give the kids credit here too. They haven’t done this before. Yet, they were firing off ideas, criticisms, counterpoints, and telling me what they needed for next steps. It was only a start, but it got my blood flowing knowing that “yes, WE can do this.”

So yeah, going back to what I learned.

1. Overplan, then go with the flow.  2.Questions are much better than directions.