Philosophy of Teaching

It seems to me that developing a philosophy is a career long exercise and as an early career academic I am at the beginning of this journey. As a starting point I reflect on why I have chosen a career within a teaching department rather than within a research centre. I think I can summarise this decision into three main points.

Firstly, work would soon become rather dull if all I did was research. I am not suggesting that ‘research only’ means that you are locked up in your ivory tower. No, serious research require communication with peers as well as with the literature; and all good research only academics should belong to a team. But teaching is more that just these things, it is about putting something ‘back into the system’ so to speak. It is also about interacting with students and learning from their experiences.

Secondly, I believe that there is an intrinsic link between teaching, knowledge and research. As the saying goes, “you do not know a subject until you have had to teach it”. I would suggest that you need to teach it more than just once. Another common saying that I think is most relevant is; the difficulty is not in explaining the correct answer to someone, but in explaining why a line of reasoning is wrong. In doing this you truly learn.

Finally, teaching helps you maintain your passion for your area of research. Here a quote from the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith is most illustrative.

When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion. To him it has all the graces of novelty; we enter into the surprise and admiration which it naturally excites in him, but which it is no longer capably of exciting in us; we consider all the ideas which it presents rather in the light in which they appear to him, than in that in which they appear to ourselves, and we are amused by sympathy with his amusement which thus enlivens our own. (Adam Smith (1984) The Theory of Moral Sentiments; Liberty Fund, Indiana; Eds: Raphael, D. and Macfie, A. page 14). The original first edition was published in 1759).

How do you achieve the most from your teaching for both your students and yourself? I believe that it is important to draw on your own enthusiasm for your research area and your desire to develop the knowledge of your students (noting that a student’s motivation levels can be heavily influenced by the enthusiasm that the teacher has for the subject). Here one word comes to mind more than any other; preparation. There are many elements to which I have outlined below. While I have an idea as to where I want my subjects to go, it is important to emphasise that this is a work in progress and it will take a number of years of teaching a subject, and I suspect a number of attempts as well, before I start getting it about right.

  1. Preparing the course to cover all the necessary information; Here you must identify what the students need to know. As part of this process it is help to touch base with colleges (particularly in other institutions) and where relevant attend workshops and talk to people in industry. Not only will this mean that the students are not short changed, but that you are identifying gaps in your own knowledge of the area. I would include identifying all necessary external sources of material such as text books, solution manuals, internet resources etc.

  2. Structuring the subject so that students understand how the material being taught links together; this clarifies in your own mind how subtopics are linked together which can be very helpful for your own research. It also identifies to students why they are studying a particular subtopic and how it fits into the broader picture thus providing motivation to learning. In certain instances it also helps the students identify aspects of the subject that are most relevant to them.

  3. Structuring the lectures and tutorials/lab secessions to provide the material in such a way that it is relevant to the student and that it builds upon their existing knowledge; my feeling is that to do this job justice it is important that the teacher takes ownership of the material. In turn, this requires a strong understanding of the material. For first year subjects this may mean adapting lecture material to suit the background of the student and the ultimate leaning goals of the subject as identified in point one. For higher level subjects, and particularly honours level subjects I suspect that this means preparing your material from the ground up based on many different sources of material. As learning is an interactive process it is important to challenge students by asking questions. This should be done even in cases where the class is too large to be able to receive individual answers. For example questions could be a prelude to discussions between students (for a set period of time) or you could simply ask questions on material before covering it in lectures (with a suitable pause between asking questions and then answering through the lecture notes). Another possibility is role-playing within a tutorial or even a lecture. When preparing your lectures or tutorials, the cultural background of your students can be important. For example some students may be shy and not wish to answer questions, other students may dominate. I feel it is important to establish up front expectations that all students are to be treated with respect and that there are no bad answers to a question thus creating a comfortable atmosphere where dialogue is encouraged.

    I currently teach first year economics and statistics subjects. Being in a business school it is important that the economics be taught in a way that is linked back to the business sector. However, I also feel that a strong link back to theory is important for any economics course. Having spent over 10 years working in government, private and regulatory institutions I have a background from which to draw personal experiences. With statistics it is important to give an overview of how statistics is used in business so that, as a minimum students can enter the workforce and understand, and make decision based on, a statistical analysis. For those students that may which to undertake statistical analysis, it is important to provide the background for them to step into such a role including providing many examples for the student to undertake and ‘well structured’ material that they can use a reference guide in the future (including material such as menu commands for statistical packages). When I hear feedback from students saying something along the lines of “now I see why economics is important” then I think I have achieved a little something.

  4. Ensuring that the assessment re-enforces the learning experience rather than something that is “tacked onto the end” as an (albeit necessary) distraction to subject. For most students the most important thing is passing the exam and assessment and learning have a symbiotic relationship with assessment not only defining the curriculum (what they actually study) but also determining students approach to learning and motivation levels. It is therefore critical that the assessment assists the learning process rather than detracts from it. Further all assessment must be fair and marked fairly (including marked down where appropriate).

The above is set out as a ‘building block’ approach and it is important that this information be provided to students prior to the commencement of subject. This can easily be done through the subject guide. As a final note, it is important to make yourself available outside of lecture and tutorial times. My preference is to set aside a time when students can ring or come see me in my office without notice. If a student can not make it in these times then they are able to set another time but by appointment only. Unless an e-mail can be answered in one or two lines, and by a single e-mail, then generally speaking I will insist that the student comes see me in person.

In higher education the teacher is responsible for: developing the teaching material; structuring the subject; giving the lecture; and setting and marking assignments. This is a time consuming job if done properly. Therefore, it is important that the academic is given the necessary time and support to do their job properly and to gain maximum benefit for the student and themselves. If not the student, and the academic, are short changed.