On Pragmatic Pedagogical Dreaming: A Teaching Philosophy
Many of the current pedagogical buzzwords focus on the idea of a democratic classroom, or a “flipped” classroom, where the students are heavily involved in decision making and lines of authority are blurred. As much as these trends appeal to me ideologically, I am concerned because they attempt to deny the deep-seated reality of classroom power dynamics and often translate into a laissez-faire attitude from both teacher and students. Additionally, even if you say “this is a democratic space,” someone is still grading someone and everyone knows who that someone is (Hint: It’s not the guy texting in the back row). I say this not to paint an image of myself as a turn of the century schoolmarm or to discredit these trends, but rather to establish from the outset that I am pedagogically a pragmatic realist who nevertheless believes in the power of human connection and communication as key to establishing an optimal learning environment. Thus, I believe in:
- Challenge and support: If someone hands you a fifty pound weight your first day at the gym, you will drop it and pick up a lighter one or perhaps you power through, tearing a muscle trying before becoming discouraged and never lifting again. That’s why no physical trainer in their right mind would do this. On the flip side, you don’t keep lifting the same three pound weight for ten years thinking you’re pumping iron. You must lift what’s within your capacity while continually testing and pushing yourself. The same is true in a scholarly environment. The instructor must create an atmosphere of academic rigor while providing interested students with adequate support to effectively manage these challenges (What qualifies as an interested student and adequate support are shifting salamanders and to try to pin them down in such a short document would cause the whole piece to explode, so it’s best to stay clear of that for now).
- Clear and open communication: For optimal learning to occur, the instructor must clearly communicate not only the course’s core concepts but also the expectations and methods for demonstrating proficiency in the subject matter. In return, the student must provide the instructor with timely feedback about what is and is not making sense in the course. That’s the easy part of clear and open communication. The other part is that both instructor and student must have at the ready two phrases: “I made a mistake” and “I don’t know.” Without some variation of these in everyone’s vocabulary, communication in a classroom environment has too many walls to ricochet against and who knows who might get wounded.
- Multeity in unity: Not to get too Coleridgean, but we must strive to preserve diversity and individuality while maintaining a unified whole. The classroom is a community, but all communities are comprised of individuals. Sometimes we learn the most when someone veers from the expected path, thus an instructor must be flexible enough to allow for these exciting divergences without becoming laissez-faire or tolerating chaos. Although this might sound like a lot of work when dealing with forty or more students in a classroom, it’s work well worth doing.
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