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Teaching Philosophy

I have been asked many times to share my teaching philosophy with friends or students who are applying for teaching jobs. I hope that this will serve as an example for those of you on the job search. And if you aren’t looking for a job (lucky you!) this will tell you a little more about what my classroom looks like. A teaching philosophy is  living document; this is the one I used when I applied for promotion last year.

As I watch my six-year-old son interact with the world, I am inspired by his curiosity and inquisitiveness. He questions the mundane world to a degree that is difficult for most adults to comprehend. As I watch him, I find myself seeing the world in a new light, and often incorporate lessons he teaches me in my classroom. Many recent educational reforms encourage teachers to get students to think like scientists, but in my experience the goal is really to get them to question the world like children. As educators, we need to find ways to encourage students to question the world around them and through these questions engage in scientific inquiry that can lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the world.

My teaching philosophy is based on a constructivist theory of learning, meaning that students must construct their own understanding of the world around them. The most important part of teaching science is to ground lessons in students’ experiences and to connect science learning with their understanding of how the world works. Students come to the classroom with a variety of backgrounds and levels of interest in science. All students have ideas about how the world works, some more scientific than other, but they all enter the classroom with ideas. We need to recognize their ideas, correcting misconceptions and building on partial understandings.

Research shows that students will not really believe new scientific explanations if they conflict with their previous conceptions. As teachers, we must force students to articulate their ideas, and encourage them to apply them in novel situations. If their existing ideas cannot explain the new phenomenon, they now have an incentive to create a new explanation. These discrepant events create a “need to know” environment that motivates students to learn. Students will undergo conceptual change when they consciously recognize that their old ideas are inadequate, and that the scientific explanation does a better job explaining new phenomena.

Creating this cognitive conflict is the tricky part. Standing at the front of the room, lecturing to a room full of students will rarely force them to question their assumptions about how the world works. Rather than playing the role of an all-knowing authority, I see my responsibility as a facilitator and guide. In my classes, lecture is kept to a minimum. Through carefully chosen activities and small group discussions, students engage in questioning and apply their ideas about how the world works to new situations.

It is very common in science education circles to talk about teaching through inquiry, but this term is often misused. Inquiry means questioning. True inquiry should not be equated with hands-on activities. Many hands-on activities are fun and engaging, but do not force students to think critically about the phenomenon or create explanations. Meaningful inquiry activities force students to question their understanding of how the world works, and use systematic investigations to find answers to these questions. This can take the form of guided inquiry experiments in the laboratory, open-ended investigations, or activities that require critical analysis of data sets. (For example, case studies can require students to engage in inquiry without leaving their seats.)

I am a firm believer in fostering conceptual understanding before introducing quantitative representations (i.e., physics equations). Too often, physics students are taught exclusively through the use of equations that they do not understand. By starting with a conceptual understanding of the material and then introducing equations, students are better prepared to understand equations as representations of important physics concepts. In teaching problem solving skills, I am adamant about only using fundamental equations that hold in all circumstances. Continually forcing students to return to basic formulas (e.g., definition of acceleration, Newton’s 2nd Law, Law of Energy Conservation) reinforces fundamental concepts instead of rote memorization.

Beyond teaching the content, I want my students to understand how science is relevant to the world around them.  This is particularly true for students who are not physics majors. Science does not exist in isolation; it is an integral part of modern society. In my classes, we often use case studies based on real world events. Case studies can be a simple news article brought in by a student, or a more formal instructional tool. The case studies can be used either as introductory activities to motivate learning, or as summative assessments to apply new content knowledge.

For science majors, I have the additional goal of teaching students scientific inquiry skills that will be useful in their future work as scientists. This includes learning how to model a physical system (both conceptually and mathematically), designing experiments to test that model, and analyzing the data to determine whether or not the model is valid. Through this process, students learn that scientific models are simplifications of how the world works; they need to examine their assumptions and identify error in their measurements (among other things). This is challenging for students who have only ever done nice, neat textbook problems. It is exciting to show them where the physics breaks down and what the limits of our understanding are.

Underlying my teaching philosophy is the belief that all students are capable of learning science. Ten years down the road, I don’t care if my students can recite Newton’s Laws. I want them to remember how to question the world around them, to conduct a systematic scientific investigation, to make evidence –based decisions, and to be able to think critically about questions their kids ask them. I hope that they remember both my enthusiasm for the aesthetic value of science and for the value science has when applied in the real world.

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