Teaching Philosophy

Educational philosophers like John Dewey often focus on control in the classroom: who has it and when; whom is it benefitting; at what cost do the beneficiaries receive said benefits? Thus we have adopted familiar idioms (i.e. “the sage on the stage”) that reflect the struggle for agency between teachers and students.

To resolve this agential struggle Dewey collapses a series of Either-Or binaries in search of a rational middle ground that is proactive rather than a reactive negation of whatever educational system existed before. Likewise, my personal teaching philosophy insists on dialogic learning. That is, two (or more) pieces (i.e. students, teachers, texts, &c.) in conversation with one another. English (as one of my teachable subjects), for example, forces readers to ask questions about the interactions between characters, between texts, and between readers and texts. Similarly, these questions, if fostered, yield answers in the form of further lines of questioning. Thus, where Dewey interrogates theEither with the Or, and vice versa, in search of compromise, my teaching focuses on interrogating student questions and hypotheses to produce valuable discussion, rather than ‘answers’ per se.

The question then becomes: where does control exist in my classroom? I am perhaps naively convinced that it exists in the spaces between questions. That is, control exists in the process of finding answers, and as long as those questions that students ask yield more thought and research, the locus of control is spread out evenly between the instructor, the student, and even the material being worked on. As Dewey notes, “the word ‘interaction’ […] assigns equal rights to both factors in experience–objective and internal conditions” (42). For Dewey, “interaction” accounts for both the student’s frame of reference and the material being studied, so that neither can be considered more important than the other without the other.

Thus, in my philosophy, “interaction” is somewhat self-governing. Where the instructor and the (act of assigning a) text would be objective conditions, while a student’s interest would represent the internal conditions, interaction-as-student-experience has the ability to modify both the objective and the internal. That is, good questions can prompt the instructor to change a lesson or to pose questions more broadly to the class. Good questions might also drive a student to expand their breadth of research, to read ahead, or to read more books in a series, thereby perpetually modifying his or her internal conditions. While fruitful interaction is the sum of objective and internal conditions, interaction has the power to self-augment by modifying the paradigm within which interaction happens.

Consequently, dialogic learning constitutes the heart of my philosophy as, moreover, “bad” or “unfruitful” questions will eventually deaden learning and redirect interaction without the necessity of a “sage on the stage” to direct class flow. Students themselves can each test new questions and experience new interactions within proposed paradigms. When a reading fails, new questions and hypotheses redirect student inquiry and spawn new interactions.

And I think it goes without saying that we need not limit the testing of hypotheses to English or the Arts. As Ursula K. Le Guin notes in the introduction to her foundational science-fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness

[t]he scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night sleeping and awake, for inspiration. As Pythagoras knew, the god may speak in the forms of geometry as well as in the shapes of dreams; in the harmony of pure thought as well as in the harmony of sounds; in numbers as well as in words (xvi).

Though it may be somewhat romantic, I believe Le Quin’s voice of the gods to be the product of Dewey’s “interaction,” –and interaction is fostered by inquiry and dialogue between all participating members of a classroom.

Class Participation

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