When I first began to consider my teaching philosophy, I started with a question: What would the ideal teacher look like? Surely the details would vary across disciplines, but there must be something common between them – some underlying Platonic Form. There was a time when the image of a Greek sage was exactly what I thought of in picturing the ideal teacher. I imagined a figure standing on a raised platform and addressing a rapt audience. When he spoke, people stopped to listen. His voice was commanding, his bearing proud, and his words bold and impressive. In true cliché form, he was much like a prophet dispensing wisdom from above.
However, my mental image of the ideal teacher began to change after interacting with one of my own teachers. Quoting an expression that now seems commonplace, she told me that a good teacher is less “sage on the stage” and more “guide on the side.” I’ve grown accustomed to the idea since then, but at the time I had to figure out how to reconcile that disparity with the Platonic character in my imagination. If I was hoping to be a great teacher, what should I do instead of trying to emulate a Greek sage? How else could I act in his position? Perhaps, as a teacher, I could step down from the podium and out into the crowd. Perhaps I could speak more freely and with a less commanding tone. I could voice open questions rather than bold assertions, implicitly preceding my statements not with “Thus say I,” but with “What if?” And my audience, which might have been frozen in silence before the Greek sage, might instead be willing to move about little by little, to talk and become animated, and to discuss and consider ideas for themselves instead of relying on the decree of authority.
In the process of thinking about this change, I’ve decided that I began my reflection with the wrong set of questions in mind. I had started off with questions about how to talk to students, what I should present, how I should present it, and so on. These are not insignificant questions, but they caused me to focus too much on what I was doing. The important point of distinction here is that what I do matters only to the extent that it contributes to students’ learning. Although teaching and learning are obviously two sides of the same coin, there is a sense in which the sage at his podium might be regarded as an impressive teacher even when most of his audience fails to learn much from him. My goal, however, is not to impress students with my oratory skills or wisdom. Rather, I want them to walk away feeling better prepared to deliberate and decide on their own. I want them to be capable of starting their own intellectual journeys.
So how do I prepare students to embark on their own? I have found that one essential element lies in getting students to want to learn. If they believe that the information from class is useless outside of the ivory towers of academia, they will learn only as much as it takes to achieve a grade they can tolerate. The best learners, in contrast, are intrinsically motivated. They don’t learn because they’re told to or because they must; they do so because something about the subject captures their interest and attention, and they feel compelled to learn more. With that in mind, I design my classes with the idea that I first need to convince students of the value of the knowledge that I can introduce to them. I frame my classes in a way that illustrates how useful, important, or just plain exciting psychology can be. I have students participate in classroom experiments and activities that demonstrate psychological principles in action. I relate the ideas from class to their daily lives and personal experiences, and I require them to do the same. When students can see for themselves the value of psychology, they’re much more open to learning about it.
Additionally, I provide students with ample opportunity to analyze, evaluate, and compare ideas about psychology. Just as no one becomes a great painter without eventually picking up a paintbrush, students cannot cultivate their critical thinking skills unless they practice thinking critically. Consequently, instead of simply telling my students what they ought to know, I give them example scenarios and problems, and I ask them to predict outcomes, to identify the psychological principles involved, to rank order possible solutions to a problem, to reflect on their reasons for making a judgment, to compare their answers with the answers of their peers and decide which is better, etc. By applying these active learning techniques to issues that students find engaging, I’m able to develop significant learning experiences. For instance, when teaching about memory, I might show students a video of a staged “crime” and then test their recollection with a series of follow-up questions of the sort that a police investigator might ask. When students inevitably misremember serious facts about the event, I ask them to speculate about why those mistakes occurred. Then I present several scientific explanations about why memory failures happen, and I test students’ understanding of the concepts through a series of multiple choice questions. Students then discuss with each other to decide which explanation best accounts for their earlier memory problems and whether the same is true of memory errors in general. Through these formative exercises, students receive plenty of feedback to help bolster their understanding of the topic. These are also the kinds of experiences that most students naturally find engaging, which contributes to their motivation to think deeply about the issues involved.
Although I’ve moved beyond “sage on the stage” and toward “guide on the side,” I realize that my quest for teaching excellence will never truly end. Therefore I continue to seek out the guides who’ve come before me – the expert teachers who have already tread a lot of pedagogical ground. From these pioneers, I’ve discovered new perspectives and new techniques that I can use to inform my own, such as readiness assurance testing, “clicker” questions, team-based learning, and so on. I have also found it important to listen to the students who accompany me on each expedition. I encourage them to express their thoughts about where they’ve been and where they would like to go using mid-semester evaluations and other class surveys. I emphasize to students the idea that we have a common goal that can be reached by working together, and they help me to perform better in my capacity as a guide. Through these efforts, I strive to continue improving as a teacher. I must admit that I do feel a twinge of regret about leaving the Greek sage behind, but I’m far more excited by the prospect of helping to send students off on their own explorations.