A Philosophical Essay by Larisa A. White, M.S.Ed., Ph.D.
At first glance, the title of this essay may seem trivial, but it represents a complex belief structure regarding the process of teaching and learning — based on years of practice, and research, and study. Each of the four words indicates a central theme of my personal teaching philosophy, as do the word order and grammatical structure.
Student is the first word in the sentence, as it is always my first thought when I approach teaching. People often ask teachers, “What do you teach?” expecting to hear, “Physics,” or, “Engineering,” or the name of some other academic subject. But the best teachers do not teach subjects. They teach students. Students, as individuals, have unique motivations, preconceptions and expectations which strongly influence their perceptions of and interactions with themselves, others, classroom environments and subject matter. Each student enters class at a particular point in a dynamic state of personal and intellectual development. This state is accompanied by specific wants, needs, abilities and resources, which can be used to either encourage or stymie that student’s life-long learning process. Therefore, the primary duty of a teacher is to become aware of, and be dynamically responsive to, the current developmental needs of their students.
Learning follows student for several reasons. It follows because learning cannot occur until after the identity and innate value of the individual student are acknowledged and affirmed. It comes second because learning is one of the two most important ideas in my philosophy of teaching. Learning is a process of changing perceptions, conceptions, understandings and values. It is not about filling empty minds like the alms bowls of Buddhist monks, but about a process of changing minds which defensively guard hoarded knowledge and past experience. Minds cannot be changed by force. Minds can only be changed by the volitional efforts of their owners. This is another reason that learning was placed adjacent to student. It acknowledges that the goals and process of learning are controlled by the student alone. Course content is incidental to the learning goals of the students. If a student is convinced to adopt the mastery of course content as a personal learning goal, and if s/he is provided with the necessary guidance, the material will be learned. Otherwise, retention of subject content will be minimal. As a teacher, I can suggest goals and contexts for learning, but it is the student who holds the power of choice and the student who will drive his or her learning process.
Is serves three purposes in my philosophy of learning. First, is places student learning in the present. A teacher cannot afford to waste time and energy caught up in the should’ves, would’ves and could’ves of students’ past experiences. They must diagnose their students’ current educational needs, and respond to those needs in the here and now. The second function of the is is to put the statement in the passive voice. This is because there is no place for ego in the practice of teaching. Teaching is not about an instructor performing on a classroom’s center stage. It is about disencumbering student efforts to further their own learning and development. Finally, the is reminds us that student learning is a continuous, ongoing process in which any teacher can play only a temporary, influencing role. Understanding this helps to clarify the role of “teacher” in the learning process.
The proper function of a teacher is to ensure that learning is facilitated. Their role is that of a master architect for whom each student is an apprentice, and each student’s mind the building site for a city of ideas. The students must design and build their own cities, but the teacher can offer input and guidance to help them along. Teachers can demonstrate the process of designing and building a city of ideas by openly pursuing their own learning goals, and by sharing that experience. Teachers can help students through their own design process by suggesting types of structures they might wish to build, by identifying design parameters they need to consider, by providing building materials they might wish to use, and so forth. Teachers can help students to critique their designs. They can provide them with tools and teach them techniques for building upon their existing knowledge base, and for determining when a conceptual sub-structure is unsound and needs to be razed and rebuilt. In the end, the city of ideas each student builds will be his or her unique creation. As facilitator to the process, the teacher cannot expect (nor should they desire) that any student’s city will replicate their own design. But if they do the job well, they can expect that the city will be solidly built and designed to meet the functional needs of that student’s future.
“Student Learning is Facilitated” (c) 1993 Larisa A. White