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Teaching philosophy

09 December 2017

Teaching Philosophy

From 2012 to 2014, I was a senior lecturer in the Department of Zoology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where I taught all years (1st, 2nd and 3rd years as well as postgraduate students). Lecturing responsibilities changed from year to year, but my regular commitments included Cell Biology (approximate class size 120) and Population Genetics (approximate class size 30). During this period I attended a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) course, and for this was required to develop a teaching portfolio, including a teaching philosophy. 

I still teach undergraduates now, and so the following teaching philosophy, adapted from the SoTL portfolio that I wrote in 2013, is still relevant. 

A teaching philosophy statement should be recognised by students as being something that they can relate to and value in their teacher. A teaching philosophy statement should also be something that I can look to in order change and improve my teaching on a day to day and year to year basis. It should be timeless and continually inspire me to improve my teaching content, practices and ideas.

It is with this last thought that I have come to my new teaching philosophy statement:

“To facilitate the learning of acquisition of skillsets for the 21st century workplace, using biology as a model system.”

The rationale behind this teaching philosophy is as follows:

  • The 21st century workplace is not a traditional job (job-for-life) scenario, but one that is dynamic (typical contracts are 1-5 years) and each new job is likely to require the acquisition of new skills.
  • New skills are likely to have a shelf-life (particularly in terms of information technology), but the approach to learning new skills is likely to remain the same. Thus I do not expect students to learn the same skills in the framework that I am teaching them, but I do expect that they will have the ability to learn new skills.
  • The philosophy requires of students that they are open to learning in new ways. This challenges them against their previous learning experiences in school, but also enables and unburdens them to new possibilities of learning in different ways. The hope is that each will discover how to learn in a way that suits them best.
  • I do have a responsibility to teach students biology, but I know for a fact that few will find jobs in what is a specialised field. Instead, I consider it more realistic to use biology as a model for learning core skills in a 21st century environment. Biology is a relevant subject here as it has a long history (they remain as founding departments of most universities), dating back to the origins of human scholarly interest with Aristotle (384-322 BC: Owen 1992), and continues to be at the forefront of human scientific endeavour.
  • I cannot expect that all students will finish their degrees and gain employment in a zoological field, or if they do that this will last anything more than a few years. Indeed, students may come to a biological job after many other contracts and find that it has little bearing on the degree that they did years before. There will be a few (lucky) students who do get jobs that are directly relevant to the discipline and the lectures that they have been taught, but this will be a minority as there are simply not many jobs available that relate directly to this subject. They will not, however, be disadvantaged by this teaching philosophy which will continue to provide all the information and skills that they require. But this approach will benefit them in providing for them as aspects of their job change with time – as change they will.
  • In order for me to achieve this teaching philosophy, I will need to keep abreast of advances in skillsets used in workplaces. An important part of this is done through my own research where I work with many collaborators who are employed in different areas of the biological sciences. Re-skilling has become a constant theme of my own career, spanning some 30 years and (almost) as many techniques and skills. I think that at first the constant need to learn is daunting, then annoying but eventually liberating as the challenge of learning new skills becomes a pleasure.
  • As their teacher, I provide both the environment and materials for students to learn key goals: proficiency in written communication, verbal presentation and team working. To some extent, I also provide the motivation through my chosen model subject area of biology. My approach is to provide this support through as many different avenues as possible.
  • Learning itself becomes the subject of this new philosophical statement, with the (somewhat tautological) “learning to learn” objective of studies.

There are some skills that students must learn for any work place, and these will be at the core of the teaching: written communication; verbal presentation; team working. These core skills will be at the basis of each course and progressive courses should develop these skills as the degree proceeds. These then become the main goals for my students.

One key point is to make these goals (and my teaching philosophy) explicit to the class. Without this, it will be hard for them to set their own goals, or see the significance of tasks that are set. I think that there is a duality between who the students in our classes are, and who we would like them to be. I believe that one of the only ways for teachers and students to come closer to common goals is to make the goals explicit with explanations of how tasks and exercises aim to achieve the goals. To this end, support for students should be given in the context of achieving the common goals with a reiteration of how those goals are relevant to their own advancement.

Owen, R. (1992). The Hunterian Lectures in Comparative Anatomy (May and June 1837), Phillip Reid Sloan (ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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