Thursday, September 4, 2008

My Philosophy of Teaching

By C. Radhakrishnan

Before I begin my reflections about teaching, I am reminded of one of Mark Twain's dictum, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." I think that the goal of educating school students can only be achieved by presenting them with more than lectures, rote memorization tasks, and straightforward projects (i.e., traditional schooling), an educator must move beyond the traditional model of schooling to a point at which students can learn effectively.

In the fast moving world to succeed as an individual one must learn to be faster, smarter, more creative, and be able to learn from mistakes. How can we prepare students to succeed in this competitive environment? The answer is, at least in part, to move them out of their comfort zone by presenting them with realistic problems that have undefined boundaries and solutions and that require cooperation as well as competition. The goal of this is to help students to learn to be critical thinkers and effective problem solvers so that they can be effective in the days to come.

My Methodology
To achieve the goal of helping students learn, an educator must have a teaching strategy that guides the delivery of the subject content and specific tactics that can be used to achieve success. Several of the principles that I use to guide my teaching activities are presented below.

Preparation is Vital
I believe that one of the most important ways for me to provide high quality teaching is to be prepared for each and every class period. I always strive to be prepared by knowing the material, having visuals prepared, and ordering the class in a logical and consistent manner.

Understand My Subject
A corollary to preparation is the need to understand the subject matter. To present subject content adequately, it is critical to know what I am talking about. This does not imply, of course, that I create a false fa├žade to my students by pretending that I know everything about the topic. This is impossible in most cases. Rather, it is critical that I know the material well enough to help students see how the material relates to society, organizations, and/or themselves.

Know the children
A second corollary to preparation is to know my students. When I say that I need to know my children, I not only mean that I need to learn their names so as to personalise my relationship with them. In addition, I believe that to be an effective educator I must know pertinent information about my pupil. I should be knowledgeable about things like their skills, their reasons for taking the class, and their expectations about the class. This comes from something that I learned from my experience as a teacher. To write well, you must know your audience so that you can write to your reader. This adage is appropriate for educators as well. To share knowledge that is pertinent to students, I must know their needs, expectations, and goals.

Individualised Instruction
I think that an educator should treat each student as an individual. This comes from my recognition that the original role for educators was as a mentor. The mass number that is so common in the school setting today was a later adaptation so that a greater number of students could be educated. Although the mass setting is a necessity, students can still benefit from one-on-one interactions with the teacher. Therefore, I attempt to learn each of my student’s names and address them as individuals in and outside of the classroom. This not only helps me to have a better rapport with students, but I am sure that it improves many students self esteem and positive feelings about the class and the topic presented.

Learners Involvement
A corollary to individualized instruction is encouraging and expecting participation by each student. The classroom should not be a venue for one-way communication. An important part of the learning process is expressing individual opinions and receiving feedback about these opinions. Therefore I use a number of approaches to encourage individual students to participate. For example, I generally require that students in my classes earn participation points via activities both inside and outside of the class. Further, in all of the classes that I teach I frequently call on individual students to answer questions or respond to my inquiries. Finally, in project-based lessons involving difficult concepts I generally ask students to work on in-class cases and exercises. I have found that practical examples help students to better understand complex concepts because each student will need to actively focus his or her thinking on the concept rather than passively listening to a lecture.

Quality is Important

I strive to deliver a quality product to students. Quality is a critical part of effective teaching. To maintain high quality standards, an educator must define realistic objectives, re-examine subject content to make sure the objectives are being met, and implement positive changes that will maintain and improve quality service to students, colleagues, and the society. One of the tools that I have used to incorporate quality improvement into my classes is a supplementary evaluation form. This supplementary form includes both open-ended and scaled questions that deal with both general and specific issues that are pertinent to each class. By monitoring and tracking these evaluations, I have been better able to monitor each class more precisely and tune each class as needed.

Co-relation to Daily Life

I think that to properly educate students at the school level, an educator must make the lessons he or she is teaching pertinent to students. Often this means that lessons should be taught in such a way that each student is able to relate to the topic and apply it to his or her life. This can frequently be accomplished by providing real world examples and cases that demonstrate the concepts that are being taught. For example, I frequently utilize current events to illustrate important concepts and ideas. By discussing information that is in the news and relating such information to the history and political science topics, students often maintain high levels of interest and are better able to see how the concepts operate in a real setting. I can make the topics in history and political science relevant by using it extensively in teaching and managing the classes that I teach. It is somewhat ironic that teachers frequently do not practice what they preach to students. I think that it is critical that when I teach topics related to my subject that I demonstrate its value by using it inside as well as outside the classroom. For example, take different current issues that the world face today and explain to the students how such issues are settled in the past.

Learn Best by Doing

Another corollary to the tenet of making subject content relevant is the issue of activity-based teaching. I believe that the best way for a student to develop a good understanding of a topic is to create opportunities for him or her to act rather than to merely read a book or listen to a lecture. To do this, I incorporate numerous hands-on activities in the classes that I teach. For example, as early as 2000, I have required that students in most of my classes prepare either individual or group projects related to the topics taught such as a report writing, painting a historical scene, writing a historical fiction, biography, skit or organising an open forum, seminar or mock parliament. To meet the challenges of multiple intelligences I give options to the students for selecting the type of projects. This is a very practical exercise that most students find to be very useful and which provides them with experience that helps them understand the difficulties involved in doing all these. This type of exercise is very practical and helps students to understand important concepts related to the topic.

Accept Change
To provide a quality teaching environment, an educator should be willing to change the way that he or she teaches. I am open to change and constantly try to re-evaluate the topics that I teach with the goal of improving the teaching environment. In addition to changing the broader components of the topics, I also try to vary the way I present lessons to students on a day-to-day basis. It is somewhat counterproductive to use the same teaching style day after day. Therefore I often vary the mode of presentation by using, for example, the blackboard on one day, PowerPoint the next day, and hands-on activities on the third day.

Role of Information Technology in Classroom
A corollary to the previous point is to make use of information technology (IT) by using it extensively in teaching and managing the classes that I teach. I utilize technology in presentations, in multimedia quizzing, in contacting and tracking students, and in disseminating information and study materials. For example, I often utilize PowerPoint, the Internet, and software packages that are very popular and useful in order to make presentations or convey ideas to students in a catching style. One very useful tool to accomplish this goal is the Internet because it can be used to show students web sites that illustrate in more concrete ways the concepts being discussed in the class. In addition, I extensively use e-mail to keep in contact with students and in effect, create a virtual classroom environment. In fact, my use of e-mail in the classroom dates back to the late 1990's. As with e-mail, I began using a web page, in 2006 and have continually used this technology since that time.

Be Fair and Straight Forward
I think that it is critical that students be expected to act responsibly, to learn to be professional, and to meet high standards in the classroom. At the same time, it is also important to be fair and even-handed with all students. To achieve these goals I require that students adhere to deadlines, that they produce quality work, and that they act professionally in their interactions with one another and with me. To make sure that all students have the same opportunity to achieve these goals I always attempt to make my expectations about required performance clear both in written as well as verbal instructions. In addition, however, I also attempt to be fair to all of my students by being impartial in grading and interacting with students and by treating individuals with respect.

Research and Reading is Key

The elements of reading and composition - knowledge, comprehension, comparison, application, analysis and evaluation - are the skills whereby the sun illuminates the darkness from Plato's cave of shadows.I think that the research that an educator is involved in is very relevant to teaching. In my experience, every study material that I have prepared has been relevant to my classes in one manner or another. In addition, the excitement that I feel in discovery cannot help but spill over into the classes that I teach. Thus, reading, scholarship and teaching are closely intertwined and are critical to successful teaching.

It's Fun to Learn
I think that one of the most fulfilling facets of teaching is the joy I feel when I see a student get it. In general, students seem to express a similar sense of joy or happiness when the light beams on in their minds about something that we are covering. In general, learning is something that is supposed to be fun for all concerned. Yet, too often it seems that students and teachers don't experience the fun part of teaching. I think that the best way to learn is to make the topic enjoyable and to create an environment in which students can have a good time while they learn. I therefore try to inject not only humour into lectures and discussions but also make projects fun and enjoyable. In addition, I try to express to my students the fact that I think that the topics that I teach are not only interesting and important, but also that they are usually fun to learn. One of the best ways to do this is to maintain a high level of excitement about the topic and express that excitement to students. In this way I hope to spark the flame of excitement from learning in their minds as well.