My teaching philosophy represents an evolution of experiences and reflection from nearly two decades of work with adults, teens and children in multi-faceted settings. The cornerstone of any educator’s philosophy, I believe, should be influenced by critical assessments of successes, as well as challenges to the effectiveness of our work, as viewed through student feedback, peer assessments, and prevailing best practices in the field as they develop and change over time. More than that however, teaching for me represents the privilege of being able to touch the life of a learner in ways that inspire them to:
Learn to teach themselves as much as they desire to be taught
- Reach inside themselves to find the unique strength of the experiential and/or tacit knowledge that is within them, and
- Begin / continue the journey of adding to and moving that knowledge to the forefront in order to positively influence the world and encourage someone who sees their light, to do the same.
Inspiring learners of any age is primarily about motivating students to engage with the subject and to glean from that engagement. For me, this equates to encouraging students to shift towards saying ‘I want to learn the skills and theoretical base needed to empower, and to advocate for’ and away from only saying ‘I want a social work or psychology degree with credentials behind my name’.
It is my experience that context-based instruction (experience-based, whether simulated or within the field) engages learners with subject matter in ways that allow them to construct more authentic representations of reality, and inspires learners to acquire more meaningful and interconnected knowledge, skills and attitudes. Through this approach, context-based knowledge construction by the student becomes at least equally as important as textbook knowledge reproduction. Within the social work and psychology fields, I have seen that learning experiences predicated on context-based settings, combined with the classical model of knowledge assimilation, are more instructionally productive than one or the other alone. Context provides meaning and relevance for the learner. A meaningful clinical context (simulated or experienced) engages and motivates the learner more easily and enduringly than abstract sets of concepts that are taught alone and out of context.
Accomplishing this within the traditional classroom setting is more easily done than within the distance learning environment. Creatively facilitating virtual discussion for encouraging online interactions through case study and required responses to differing points of view, towards generating the necessary interaction with students (and between students) is a critical component in accomplishing contextual learning within the virtual environment. Within the context of managing and facilitating effective discussion is the designing of questions to evoke online discussion and follow-up questions to maintain the discussion, which is also helpful within a design aimed at being able to effectively monitor how students are responding to the instruction. On-line presentation of required research further engages learners with subject matter and cultivates knowledge expansion beyond simple text-book reproduction.
Any effective delivery of course material involves the encouragement of strength-based student engagement through vehicles such as (but not limited to) vignettes or consumer / client-based scenarios. These are enhanced when set within the context of application to consumer / client care, thus allowing exploration of the effectiveness of evidenced-based practices, as well as resource management. Students are then further motivated to explore wider issues related to the environment within which such service provision occurs. I have also found that the ability to assist learners to create virtual, in-the-field type experiences through the use of visual media and/or guest presenters (when possible) from within the field and related disciplines is another critical component of learning that engages the student on a deeper level than can be accomplished solely through presentation of written concepts.
One such level that can be reached is that of reflective thinking and learning. The benefits of instruction through this vehicle (in conjunction with others) are many, including (but not limited to):
- The ability of students to draw meaning from virtually experienced clinical occurrences
- Allowing students to experiment and learn for themselves within a safe environment
- Providing structured opportunities to think critically about clinical situations
- The ability to draw links between clinical simulations/experiences (context) and course materials (concepts)
- The implied demand to answer to the question “Is what I am doing effective?”
- Helping students to identify clinical, learning and personal priorities
Another vital level of learning I have seen accomplished by instruction through the use of reflective thinking and learning is the increased knowledge of “self”. As one learns about the field and how to operate effectively within it, it is crucial for students of all ages to also learn about themselves based on their reactions to operating within that environment. The process of becoming attuned to ones internal reactions/monitors/gut feelings, etc, and the resulting impact on ones ability to effectively respond to the needs of consumers / clients based on how one assesses and acts on that information, is an essential piece of the learning process toward becoming an effective professional. This is the beginning of the development of the “healthy” professional self. Reflective thinking and learning involves the ability to accomplish the following along a relative continuum of situations:
- stepping back from a clinical situation and,
- stepping out of one’s emotional self
in order to think about and observe both the situation and the self, towards gaining a new perspective on both, as well as on helping solutions. Through reflective thinking and learning, professionals can construct meaning and knowledge that guide their actions in practice. In addition, reflection is a way of overcoming the divergence between theory and practice, and a strategy to develop knowledge embedded within practice (Benner et al., 1996).
Separate but intertwined is the impact of diversity within the learning environment and the inherent charge for any teaching professional. Inspiring learners to teach themselves, find their unique strengths, and use what is inculcated in every setting to influence the world around them, is only part of the directive. Critical to the development of the balanced learner (and ultimately contributing to the balanced self) is the ability to completely embrace (with an inherent acceptance) the uniqueness of both who they are, as well as who others are (distinctive from each other, within their respective environments), and accept, respect and integrate wholeheartedly what that means that they and others bring to their world stage, as learners, future professionals and leaders. Whether that diversity is cultural, spiritual, socio-economic, gender-based, sexual, stage-of-life, racial or otherwise, the charge is to inspire my students to actively and positively engage that diversity within the learning environment. The mandate is to motivate them to:
- think critically about its impact in clinical situations,
- draw meaning and context as regards the impact of diversity on themselves and those with whom they will work,
- assess its impact on their ability to be [more] effective practitioners for the populations they will ultimately serve,
- think critically on how diversity can, and should, shape the development of their clinical, learning and personal priorities, and
- choose to embrace inclusion in its many forms, rather than to ignore diversity, and its ever-growing impact on the field and on humanity at large.
For me the practice of inspiring and motivating students must be embedded in dynamic, constantly evolving, flexible relationships with learners, who come with different, yet equally valuable experiences that enhance the learning relationship and process. My role as an educator pulls at all available threads that can be found at any given point in the learning relationship, to begin or continue the creation of the quilt that will be tomorrow’s effective practitioners.