My Teaching & Learning Philosophy

My Teaching Philosophy in a Nutshell: The Teaching-Learning Relationship

Good teaching enables good learning; however, I have always aimed beyond “good”. Since I started teaching adults in 1986, I have worked toward a teaching-learning relationship that is a pathway to creating one’s identity. This is a teaching-learning relationship that amplifies abilities and knowledge of all those participating in the dynamic transaction and dialogue that learning necessitates.  Being a teacher and advancing my skills as well as constantly expanding my repertoire of strategies and tools, is who I am.TESL_102910_0441

Hence, I have never ceased learning and seeking answers. In order to grow in my abilities to teach and thus serve all my students and their changing needs and preferences, I have been actively exploring and experimenting with an array of teaching and learning methodologies, resources, and technologies. To stay concise, I can summarize my current teaching philosophy in one short expression: e+learning. The letter e signifies teaching that engages and empowers learners by (1) involving them in the active discovery and experimentation process, (2) drawing on learners’ inherent curiosity and creativity, (3) accommodating and celebrating individuality and personalized learning, (4) integrating innovative technologies and technology-enabled strategies that match students’ needs, lifestyles and preferences, as well as (5) motivating learners through relevant learning activities that combine a variety of participatory tasks with those activities that allow time for individual exploration, reflection and practice.

The diverse students I have worked with and whose feedback I collected through the research studies I have led, acknowledged that they felt motivated, engaged and empowered when creating and co-creating their own learning multimedia artifacts, such as e-portfolios, webinars, YouTube videos, e-books, podcasts, audio debates or educational websites. In my classroom, such student-generated learning resources are subsequently evaluated by peers and experts, refined according to the feedback and shared with others who together form a learning community.  This requires another vital element of the teaching-learning relationship, namely expert facilitation and guidance.

Although my evidently learner-centred approach to learning and teaching assigns a vital role to the active learner, I have observed over the years that even the most motivated and autonomous graduate students still require some expert support and direction. Most educational contexts today are multi-layered and “messy”; for instance, my classroom tends to be dynamic, distributed, contextualized, socially-situated, co-constructed, dialogical, participatory, and characterized by high levels of interaction among combinations of experts, learners, content, technology, and the environment in which the learning takes place.  In the absence of the guidance I provide and the “flexible structure” of the course, students tend to side-track or shift their focus away from the main course outcomes. Another critical role of a teacher, in my philosophy, is that of selecting and validating the primary course resources and learning materials.  Although students “Google” the latest facts and information, they do rely on the teacher’s subject matter expertise and experience to validate and aggregate those pieces into a whole, together with other sources of information, that leads to creating new knowledge in a cohesive manner.  In my experience and from my research, learners value direct teacher feedback more than any other form of evaluation.  It indeed takes an expert teacher to balance out all these elements and offer a combination that is most appropriate for each unique learner and the subject matter being addressed. It also requires experience with the numerous educational tools and familiarity with the emerging technologies to identify those innovative technologies and applications that are optimal to augmenting our students’ learning.

Emerging technologies is thus another e in the equation mentioned above. As Dewey succinctly put it: If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow. I am therefore committed to technology-enabled teaching and learning and to research that promotes effective integration of the right tools for the right job. As an online learner of many years (during my Athabasca University Master’s and subsequent Doctoral program) and a teacher who has worked online, face-to-face, and in blended settings, I have always searched for technologies that optimize access, communication and interaction as well as motivation. With the advent of mobile technologies, I was one of the pioneers to introduce these in my own classroom and those of other teachers (while working as a Mobile Learning Specialist and consultant). Encouraged by the ubiquitous character of the mobile technology, I explored its pedagogical value through my doctoral research. As a result, I contributed to the implementation of m-learning in many classrooms and academic programs. I am a strong advocate of integrating pedagogically-sound mobile learning into online and blended learning environments in order to afford learners with access to experts and resources, enhanced collaboration and communication, context-embedded authentic practice, spaced learning and reflections, inclusion of student-generated artifacts, and interaction with the environment which is a source of powerful learning experiences… just to mention a few of the benefits of m-learning.   As new technologies and applications emerge, for instance the many Augmented Reality tools and edugames, I practice reflective research before I introduce such technologies and applications into in my teaching.

The discussion above brings me to the concept of ecology which has been a significant element of my personal teaching philosophy. From an ecological stance, which I adopted during my exploration of Mobile-Assisted Language Learning, people learn by processing meaning through a fluid system of mediated verbal and non-verbal relationships which are contingent on the information available in their context and on how they interact with that information.  These relationships may be mediated by their peers, experts, signs and nuances in the environment, technology-based resources and the technological tools themselves. Knowledge may be therefore viewed as emergent and dynamic, and dependent, not only on information, cognitive processes, and external processes of mediation by tools and people, but also by the context within which learners interact. Indeed, my approach to teaching-learning practice is characterized by an ecological and holistic perspective which includes the importance of the learning environment and focuses on the interdependencies of the many elements comprising the technology-enabled learning system, notwithstanding its complexity which has to be addressed with agility and knowledge which is both deep and practical.

Linked to the ecological view on knowledge construction is my belief in expanding learning outside the classroom. There are two key dimensions of out-of-class learning. Firstly, knowledge construction and skill acquisition require the learning process and its integral element, hands-on application, to be embedded in a relevant setting, such as a real-life classroom for student teachers or authentic communicative practice for language learners. Secondly, formal learning should be seamlessly linked with informal learning across temporal, physical and transactional spaces.  This approach is further elaborated in a book chapter I recently authored on blended learning and expanding learning spaces with mobile technologies (in press), in which I discuss how innovative mobile technologies can enable knowledge and competence building either directly by means of purposeful m-learning activities or indirectly by enabling the development of metacognitive skills and personalized learning strategies, leading to the development of lifelong learning habits.

Taking learning outside the classroom calls for a mention of the role of the community and the need for exchange exemplified by the sharing of knowledge, feedback, observation within the teaching community and the community at large. My conceptualization of exchange encapsulates the importance of collective effort to enrich the teaching-learning network with contributions and perspectives from the research community, industry partners, interdisciplinary projects, and our local communities, to design and develop better education tools, methods, resources and experiences. Such exchange should include sharing our expertise through collaborative educational projects across geographical and socio-economic barriers, as exemplified by the project funded by GCC (Grand Challenges Canada), on which I have been working in partnership with the University of New Mexico, Cen­tral Uni­ver­sity Col­lege in Ghana, and Athabasca Uni­ver­sity: Mobile and E-Learning Solutions to Reduce Critical Health Disparities in Ghana. This project demonstrates the power of interdisciplinary and intercultural group effort and expertise, which enables the adaptation of an existing e-learning and m-learning framework to the needs of diverse learners in a new context.

The letter e in e+learning stands for many other aspects of my teaching philosophy, but for the sake of conciseness, let me turn now to the significance of the plus sign (“+”) in this expression. The e+ reminds me to always strive for excellence in teaching, for evolution in understanding how people learn and what particular conditions and settings are more conducive to optimal and lasting learning outcomes.  It emphasizes how crucial it is for me to be forward-thinking and stay a step ahead of the latest educational technology advancements. By understanding digital technologies and more traditional tools and resources, I have been able to contribute to the learning of numerous students through the sound design of mobile and online applications that are progressive yet sustainable. These applications, some of which I co-created with George Brown College programming students, reflect my conviction that good teaching is done for people by people – and often with the help of technological tools that mediate this relationship. Accordingly, the plus is also a reminder that there is much more to excellent teaching than using electronic tools, which is also reflected in the various course and program curricula that I have helped to review and develop. Finally, the plus represents my ever-growing effort to advance my understanding and my skills so that I am able to better serve my learners, my institution, and the world of education.

2. The Theory behind My Teaching Philosophy:  Some More Detail

In the first part of this paper, I reflected on my teaching philosophy as it emerged from my own teaching and learning practice. I have decided to also include this more theoretical section for the readers who are interested in what theories and concepts my educational beliefs derive from.

Over time, my epistemological teaching perspective has evolved from behaviorist thinking to seeing education through a more cognitive and, eventually, constructivist lens. Although the social constructivist perspective on learning has influenced my practice the most, I have ventured to explore other paradigms and do not subscribe to one particular theory of teaching, but rely on what proves to work for a particular group of students in their unique learning context.

Nevertheless, some essential elements are required for successful teaching. The sine-qua-non of effective teaching starts with adequate instructional and educational design, including a variety of individual and group learning activities organized around relevant learning outcomes and optimized via assessment activities. Apart from well-communicated learning objectives, hand-picked resources, often teacher- and student-generated comprehensive materials and activities, and on-going assessment and feedback, effective instruction requires a balance of what Garrison and colleagues (2000) and subsequently Cleveland-Innes and Campbell  (2012) refer to as social, cognitive, teaching and emotional presence. This can be achieved by encouraging collaborative environments and exploration through discussion and reflection, both individually and as a group.  Self-study should be combined with peer-to-peer interaction supported by the teacher. His/her expert intervention may introduce new information, guide learners back on track, initiate or conclude exploration, challenge discussion, provide feedback, or contribute to social presence (Garrison et al., 2000).

My teaching draws heavily from a constructivist theory of learning which emphasizes active learning constructed from experience in a real-life setting enabled by interaction with people, artifacts and places, but requiring both personal and group reflection (Lebow, 1993; Merrill, 1991). Constructivism sees instruction as a process of supporting the construction of knowledge rather than transferring knowledge (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). My role is, thus, to ensure the creation of a learning environment which “fosters personal meaning-making and discourse among communities of learners” (Jonassen, et al., 1995, p. 13).  As a facilitator, I make certain to relinquish some of the control, and empower the learners to accept more responsibility for their learning (King, 1993). While the uniqueness of individual learners is an integral part of the learning process (Wertsch, 1991), meaning is generated and transformed in sociocultural settings, in which individuals become “collaborative meaning-makers among a group defined by common practices such as language, use of tools, values and beliefs” (Spikol, 2009, p.125). Consequently, I always ensure that the collaboration element is seamlessly built into the course design and further enhanced by a feeling of community across peers and teacher. In my classes, such collaboration and communication is supported by computer and mobile technologies which are integrated into a dynamic web of learning. As a result, my students frequently engage in constructive debate and reflection in class and on their own time. They often take that discussion and reflection into their own communities. Therefore, they are able to actively create personally useful knowledge and develop critical thinking skills while solving real-life problems.  Students’ motivation is successfully sustained through social interaction, “flexible structure” coupled with expert guidance, relevant content, engaging assignments, authentic assessments and verbal encouragement.

Overall, the collaborative, participatory and active character of the social constructivism paradigm (Vygotsky, 1978), supported by educational technology, makes this approach to teaching appropriate for the learning of today and tomorrow. Accordingly, my teaching has a strong constructivist flavour and, as such, emphasizes learning by engaging in meaningful activities and an experiential approach to instruction. My students are guided to apply their knowledge and creativity not only to develop their mastery, but also to acquire metacognitive skills and the ability to replicate the learning process outside the formal learning setting. As mentioned above, my students are authors of original e-portfolios, YouTube videos, audio podcasts and many other authentic projects, generated as part of their assignments and for assessment purposes. Learning is enhanced when students create tangible, meaningful artifacts (Ackermann, 2002). I subscribe to the constructionist observation that the teacher should adopt a constructionist role as opposed to an instructionist position and thus mediate learning by assisting students in knowledge creation, not knowledge transmission (Papert & Harel, 1991). In my classroom, students learn by (1) designing meaningful projects and sharing them in a community, e.g., creating student radio; (2) manipulating objects and information to encourage concrete thinking about abstract phenomena, e.g., designing informational websites; (3) combining ideas from different realms of knowledge, e.g., working on interdisciplinary projects; and (4) incorporating self-reflective practice, e.g., peer critique assignments. They also create artifacts through which they can personalize their learning and contribute their individual perspectives to the body of knowledge.

In terms of teaching presence (Anderson, et al., 2001), I ensure that the facilitation of discourse and provision of direct instruction is not limited to the instructor, but rather, this role is extended to students, especially graduate students. I create opportunities for learners to engage in articulation of their thinking, leading them through a process both of clarification and of exposition. When working with ESL learners, I incorporate additional language supports and opportunities to practice sociocultural competencies, yet still expect students to co-create the learning content, collaborate and interact.  I have always made it my responsibility to ensure an environment in which learners could articulate their views, constructively challenge each other, rework their thoughts, make mistakes, and “develop increasingly complex and sophisticated cognitive structures for comprehending the content” (Pratt & Collins, 2006).

All in all, my university and college students have taught me that a blend of individual cognitivist study, experiential and constructionist learning, reflective practice, and co-construction of knowledge often prove to be the winning approach in both undergraduate and graduate level educational contexts. Informed primarily by social constructivism my approach to teaching has also incorporated elements of the ARCS Model of Motivation, andragogy, self-regulation, connectivism and, most recently, ecological paradigms. Such an integrated theoretical framework forms the foundation of my personal teaching philosophy. As expressed above, my approach to teaching would not be possible without educational technologies which afford currency, creation, access to resources and supports, mediation of both cognitive processes and relationships, communication amongst the learning community, and, above all, flexible interaction with individuals and their environments wherever they are in a real-life learning context.

In summary, I believe that students have the responsibility for their learning, but it is my duty as an educational expert to provide them with, or point them to the appropriate environment, resources, strategies and tools. It is up to me to guide and mentor them, facilitate their learning, provide expertise when necessary, and assess the process and the results through ongoing feedback exchange.

References

Ackermann, E. (2002). Piaget’s constructivism, Papert’s constructionism: What’s the difference? Future of Learning Group Publication.

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. R. & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1–17.

Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 13(4), 269-292. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1234

Duffy, T. & Cunningham, D. (1996).  Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. In D. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J., & Bannan Haag, B. (1995). Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 9(2), 7-26.

King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side.  College Teaching, 41(1), 30-35.

Lebow, D. (1993). Constructivist values for instructional systems design: Five principles toward a new mindset. Educational Technology Research and Development, 41(3).

Merrill, D. (1991). Constructivism and instructional design. Educational Technology, 31(5), 45-53.

Papert, S. & Harel, I. (1991). Situating constructionism. In S. Papert and I. Harel (Eds.), Constructionism. Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Pratt, D., & Collins, J. (2006). Summary of five perspectives on “Good Teaching”.

Spikol, D. (2009). Exploring learning practices through co-design of mobile games. In G. Vavoula, N. Pachler, & A. Kukulska-Hulme (Eds.), Researching mobile learning: Frameworks, tools and research designs (pp. 123-136). Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang AG. International Academic Publishers.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. First Harvard University Press.