Writing my teaching philosophy: abstract claims and concrete illustrations

Sometimes a teaching philosophy is too abstract: “I believe in a student-centred approach and I adopt this in all my teaching. I attempt to create a safe space so learners can blossom.” These can be important claims about you and your teaching, but without concrete illustrations they can mean virtually anything, and so they are almost meaningless.

A strong teaching philosophy is a blend of the abstract and the concrete. It makes clear claims about your teaching, but it also illustrates these up with concrete examples and evidence: “I take a student-centred approach in all my classes. For example, I begin every lesson by asking my students what questions they have, and I reorganise my prepared lesson to make sure I address these questions.”

Constructing a teaching philosophy requires a lot of preparatory thinking and writing, where you first try to figure out what you do in your teaching and why you do it, and then you write it in a form that will make sense to a reader. You can start with an abstract claim about how you teach, and then find examples of this to illustrate. Alternatively you can start with an example of something important in your teaching, and then work out what abstract claim this illustrates. You then work backwards and forwards between abstract claims and examples, each time refining and adding to your understanding of your teaching philosophy. You might elaborate or refine your abstract claim, or add some justification, because your examples helped you to see your claim was broader or more specific than you first thought. Or, you might elaborate your examples, and find more evidence, based on the refined abstract claim you made about your teaching. When you are clear about what you want to say, you might combine your concrete and abstract ideas into one paragraph for your teaching philosophy.

Here is an example of my thinking process as I write my teaching philosophy, moving from the concrete to the abstract and back again:

1. Concrete: One example of something important in my teaching

I give students time to ask questions or to say something. I ask a question and then count to 10 in my head before moving on so I ensure they have enough time.

2. Abstract: What claim does the example illustrate?

I allow my students thinking time so they can make sense of the material I am teaching.

3. Concrete: Give further examples of this abstract claim

I deliberately ask questions that require thinking (eg. what is an example of that?) and also deliberately give students enough time to think of an answer.

4. Abstract: Refine my abstract claim by considering why I do this

Learning requires thinking. Students must engage with the material, otherwise it is only memorisation. So, I need to give my students opportunities to engage with the material, and also encourage them to think about the material. I want them to clarify, give examples, apply the material to their own situation, ask and answer questions, give reasons…

5. Concrete: Refine my examples and consider any evidence I might have

I also encourage thinking by using think-pair-share where I ask students to think on their own or to write down their ideas, then share it with another student, and finally share it with the whole class. Another example is using asynchronous discussion boards where I ask my students to present their reflections, and to respond to the feedback of others. Because this is asynchronous, the task has thinking time built into it. My students often say that my courses really make them think.

6. Turn this into a paragraph

Deep learning requires thinking so students can construct their own understanding. Otherwise it is merely memorisation. So, to encourage deep learning, I build in lots of thinking time in my classes. For example, I ask questions that require thinking, such as ‘What is an example of that? And then I wait 5-10 seconds so students have time to think of their own responses. I also encourage thinking by having paired-sharing where students share their ideas with another student. This is safer and easier than talking to the whole class, but it still encourages think-talk (ie. thinking via talking). Another method is to have individual students write down their ideas, or think-write (ie. thinking via writing). Even if students don’t say anything to the whole class, I know they are engaged at thinking via their paired sharing or writing. My students commonly say “I’ve never had to think so much!”

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About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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