Friday 19 February 2010

Philosophy of Teaching

I’m a 40iiish graduate of a “New” university of the 1960’s (East Anglia), who gained a BSc in Computer Science, worked for about 20 years in industry before training to become a classroom ICT teacher in 2002. After 5 years in the classroom, I joined Edge Hill as a learning technologist (2007). In 2010 I gained my MA in e-learning. Given this wide and varied background, my philosophy of teaching, my “Personal Pedagogy”, should be similarly varied. And indeed it is.

I am reminded of the SOLSTICE model of teaching and learning that requires the practitioner to consider the Purpose of the teaching and the Audience it is intended for – these two considerations will assist in the selection of Form, or in this case, Pedagogy.

For example – consider two courses in health – first, teaching first year students nurses cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and, second, teaching experienced practitioners new approaches to an objective analysis of post-operative patient status. For the first, considering the purpose, to TELL students the ideal way to resuscitate patients and the audience, a collection of novice trainees, the form I would use is an instructivist approach. Further reinforcement of this approach would be to consider:

  • Guidelines: Formal procedures exist and loom large in the workspace. These guidelines have been condensed out of empirical research from health workers and academics, professional associations and government publications.
  • There is little debate on what is the best way of resuscitation – though guidelines can change, they have changed very infrequently.
  • Failure to follow set procedures will make institutions, services and individuals liable for any (real or perceived) damage.

I also wouldn’t want to crowd an already overflowing curriculum with notions of “Let’s explore the best way to …”

This approach has been referred to as the “Sage on the Stage” style (King, 1993), a transmissive, behaviourist or instructivist approach that has been the traditional pedagogy of teaching in HE (Kahn, 1997), though perhaps more at early undergraduate levels than later in students’ university careers.

For the second scenario I would begin with an exploration of the purpose and audience. The purpose of this course is to get the audience (experienced operating department practitioners) to understand the complexities and nuances of post operative patient assessment, and in particular be alerted to the twin dangers of relying on subjective assessment, and, on the other hand, be too reliant on objective assessment systems. The latter concern reminds me of the phrase from the anonymous researcher:

“ … numbers are good, though on their own they cannot tell the whole story …”

The anonymous researcher

Unpacking the audience a little, it should be noted that I envisage not only experience professionals with a wealth of experience to call on, but also more than a little scepticism and reticence perhaps born out of a human trait to resist change (Kanter, 1989).

Given this purpose and audience, the form I would select is social constructivism. The material to cover is ripe for a “Debate”, and I envisage the audience to be similarly ready to “Discuss” the topics. I suggest that facilitating this group of individuals would results in a far deeper and more engaged learning experience than presenting them with a procedure identified by others as “Best Practice” – I see the group being able to create their own “Best Practice” (or perhaps the less stringent “Good Practice”) document, and perhaps the journey to this document being part of the assessment mechanism. Such a journey echoes Connolly et al. (2007) who say:

The assessment focus could be on the learning journey rather than on the ‘summative destination’”.

Unpacking Social Constructivism a little, I view this approach to be one based on the notion of giving information to a group, asking them to discuss and debate around the issues, and as a product of such discussions ‘Knowledge’ (the cognition of the topics being discussed to the extent necessary to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct for different contexts) will be created inside these individuals. To support this pedagogy I would adopt a “Guide on the Side” approach (Hertz-Lazarowitz and Shacher, 1990), where the tutor guides, encourages and facilitates a group of students.

Authors such as Khan (1997:62) emphasise that there is a range between “Sage on the Stage” and “Guide on the Side”, a “ … continuum [that] ranges from didactic to facilitative.

Moving on from the two scenarios and considering a return to the secondary school system and what my “Personal Pedagogy” may be if I was going back into school to teach groups of 30 or so 11 – 16 year olds, I would be taking a far more constructivst approach. I think this may fly in the face of much of the school pedagogy I experienced. My school experience as a teacher was very much the teacher being seen as the subject matter expert, and the pupils being expected to listen to the “Sage”, and input little to the lessons; though to be fair there were small (and growing) pockets of practice where contributions from the pupils was increasingly being seen as an extremely effective learning mechanism for the whole class. I would try to take notions of learner engagement, empowerment, knowledge construction, and moreover social constructivism into the school curriculum. Initial thoughts would be to specify topics of study for a term, and then to get the pupils to decide how best they can learn about these. Alarm bells may be ringing in some heads, especially if one has experience of Ofsted, and is perhaps aware of the damaging attacks institutions like Summerhill School was subject to in the 1990’s (Andresen et al., 1995), being placed on a secret “Hit List” of institutions that Ofsted tried to undermine (but failed: BBC, 2000). Against this backdrop, I would still try to get pupils to design their own lessons, own examples of application of data, own homework, own learning outcomes and, perhaps most contentiously, their own assessment mechanisms. Perhaps this approach may yield a different curriculum, one more in tune with the needs of employers, society, though most importantly the learners themselves in this 21st century.

Perhaps before embarking on this approach, a pre-course history lesson in the attacks and tinkering with the education system (Cuban 2001) has been subject to since, well, since for ever, may be useful. Once pupils have been educated to question the education system, perhaps they may be more inspired to design their own?


Andresen, L., Boud, D. and Cohen, R. (1995) Experience-based learning. Understanding adult education and training, 207-219.

BBC News. (2000) Summerhill closure threat lifted. [accessed 12-01-2010].

Connolly, M., Jones, C. and Jones, N. (2007) Managing collaboration across further and higher education: a case in practice. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 31 (2) 159-169.

Cuban, L. (2001) Underused and oversold: Computers in the classroom.Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hertz-Lazarowitz, R. and Shachar, H. (1990) Teachers' verbal behavior in cooperative and whole-class instruction. In: S. Sharan (eds) Cooperative Learning. Praeger. 77-94.

Kanter, R. M. (1989) When giants learn to dance. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Khan, B. H. (1997) Web-based Instruction. Educational Technology Pubns.

King, A., Learning, P. A. and Questioning, G. R. P. (1993) From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41 (1) 30-35.

If I’ve missed a reference, it’s likely to be listed here:

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