What Is Your Teaching Philosophy?

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By Kendra Nordgren, Postdoctoral Associate, University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth, Minnesota

Many postdoctoral positions include limited and sometimes no training on pedagogy, yet for those researchers who choose an academic career track, teaching will most likely be an important part of their future job. I am beginning my third year as a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth and recently began the process of applying for faculty positions. In addition to a research plan and evidence of productivity, I have found that many universities require a statement of teaching philosophy. This is not something that is commonly discussed in training: what is a teaching philosophy, and how do you know what yours is? To be honest, a few years ago I had the same questions. The requirement of a teaching philosophy statement is an increasing trend for many universities. However, as this also is an emerging trend, many of us may be in need of additional mentors with experience writing such a statement. So, from one postdoc to another, here is a brief synopsis of what I have learned about my teaching philosophy through my postdoctoral experience.

To start, what is a teaching philosophy?  A teaching philosophy is a self-reflective statement of your beliefs about teaching and learning. You might be asking yourself right now, “Do I even have a teaching philosophy?” The answer is a resounding YES. Even if you are a less experienced instructor, you have been a student for a long time, and you have been in all types of classes. Undoubtedly, you have opinions about teaching, learning, what works, and what doesn't work. Those opinions are the basis of your philosophy. If you don't have much teaching experience, consider the great teachers you've encountered, and what made them so effective. What did they do that inspired you to spend all those years in graduate school and then as a postdoc? 

Having taught graduate-level toxicology courses for the past two years as a part of my postdoctoral training, I have concluded that the goal of education should be to develop in students an interest and desire for lifelong learning. It is my philosophy that this can be accomplished by encouraging students to actively seek answers and by cultivating their ability to find, evaluate, and utilize new information. In addition to ensuring that students learn the fundamental content of the courses, my objectives as an educator are to do the following: (1) foster critical thinking skills; (2) facilitate the acquisition of lifelong learning skills; and (3) help students develop evidence-based clinical and “real world” problem solving strategies. Furthermore, it is vital to place knowledge in context. Instruction should not lead students to believe their education is an endless list of independent, unrelated facts, or a passive process involving faculty encouragement to memorize unrelated phenomena and details. Jules Henri Pioncaré, a French mathematician, said “Science is built with facts as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more science than a heap of stones is a house.” Our responsibility as teachers is to reveal how seemingly independent, unrelated facts are integral to the larger structure. 

Part of your reflection on what you think teaching should be would address how you put your beliefs into practice. Anyone can discuss teaching in an idyllic setting; you need to give some detailed examples. If you say you work to encourage collaboration in the classroom, then explain how you do that; if you're a new teacher, how would you do that.  It is easy to say, “I want to encourage collaboration in the classroom,” or, “I want to get students to think more critically,” and to leave it at that. But who doesn't want to do that?  By providing specific examples, you have an opportunity to show your reader your classroom. This helps them to visualize what you do in the classroom and the exchange between you and your students. Concrete examples of how you implement your teaching philosophy establish who you are as an educator and personalize your statement for the search committee.  

In my experience, I have found that when students actively apply knowledge in creative and meaningful ways, they demonstrate a greater understanding of core concepts. Although a teacher may inspire students, I believe the primary purpose of a teacher is to engage students in an active pursuit of knowledge. To do this, I use a variety of strategies and techniques including, but not limited to, cooperative and active learning strategies, lecture, assignments designed to foster analytical/critical thinking skills, and collaborative exercises involving “real world” problem solving. For example, a method I frequently utilized in teaching a graduate level Investigative Toxicology course was asking students to present their classmates with a current controversial topic related to an aspect of toxicology we were studying. Students divided into groups and  defended one of the positions. Only arguments supported by rational mechanistic or putative explanations, scientific findings reported in peer-reviewed journals, or from in-class demonstrations of crucial concepts were permitted. The purpose of the exercise was for students to be actively involved in the learning process and to give them opportunities to practice their critical thinking, research, and communication skills.  After each of the exercises, students passionately discussed the various positions as they left the classroom. Testing clearly demonstrated students retained information and were able to apply concepts related to these debates.

Finally, remember that different institutions have different expectations. Do your homework! Depending on their mission and how they view the role of teaching within the broader responsibilities of being a faculty member, you may need to tailor the examples you give or the methods you describe for implementing your philosophy in the classroom. You need to know about class size and the specific student population you will be teaching. Does the university focus on small class sizes, specific student groups, or programs to increase diversity? Know the mission and  current programmatic efforts of each school. It will help you know what to stress in your statement, because above all, the search committee will be looking to see if you understand what is expected of you at their institution.

When I was asked to write this post about my experiences teaching during my postdoc, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I had learned through teaching, what the challenges of balancing teaching and research were (by the way, the answer is time!), and how teaching had been beneficial to my career development. In the end, however, I realized that all of those experiences and issues were just components of a bigger lesson. Discovering my personal teaching philosophy and experimenting with different methods to implement it were the most valuable career elements that I gained from this experience. I’ve talked about how I teach, but I want to end this post with why I teach. I am choosing an  academic career not only because I want to develop new knowledge through research, but also to contribute to my field and society by training  top-rate students, researchers, and physicians. I view teaching as inextricably linked with research scholarship. Universities have the resources to support research and the power to guide what skills students develop during their education. Graduates entering clinics and academia apply research findings to their practice and initiate new research questions. Therefore, I believe it is imperative to approach teaching with the same seriousness and effort as is devoted to research.  

But that’s just my philosophy…What’s yours?

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