My Educational Philosophy
Teaching for Real Life
“The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.” – Tony Wagner
If the purpose of school in the industrialized age was to prepare workers for a job, then the purpose of school in the 21st century is surely to prepare young people to be innovative, creative and entrepreneurial.
Tibor Kalman, one of the most infamous design thinkers of the 20th century, once said, “As soon as you learn, move on. You’ll see it better if you look upside down. Success equals boredom. Mistakes, misunderstandings, and mis-comprehensions provide fresh ideas.” I have long been a fan of Kalman’s work and this philosophy of lifelong learning, which I borrow here for my own philosophy on education. If you are no longer being challenged, you are no longer learning. If you make mistakes, you will invariably learn from them, and if you look at things from a new point of view, you will see the world, and perhaps yourself, differently.
I believe that teachers should apply Kalman’s philosophy by challenging students to look at things differently – to view a problem from many angles, to place themselves in the shoes of various stakeholders, to take on a role in an authentic situation. Teachers should encourage students to make mistakes and to explore many methods for solving any given problem. Students should be graded on their process, not just the product, so when they are met with challenges and setbacks, they can still find success by reflecting on their successes and failures.
My goal is to develop a culture of thinking in my students (“question everything” is the motto in my civics classes). In this new economy described by Mr. Wagner, young people need to be able to think, create, and innovate just as much as they need to know the “right” answer. In order to impart values such as citizenship, thoughtfulness (or the act of making decisions with intent), and empathy, students should also be encouraged to think deeply about complicated questions, for example, “How is urban design linked to democracy?”
Furthermore, if teachers want to prepare our children for an uncertain future, we need to embrace uncertainty ourselves. We need to adapt, grow, and change with the times. We need to be flexible, both on a day to day and a decade-to-decade basis. I believe that my role is to learn alongside my students, to model curiosity, optimism, perseverance and a growth mindset.
Students learn best when they have the opportunity to direct their own learning and take ownership for their work in an authentic situation. I strive to take my students outside the classroom and into the community. Whether we are using the city as a teaching tool by exploring landscape design in Toronto’s waterfront, talking to experts on green roof technology, or building a school garden for an inner city elementary school, my students engage in real life experiences.
These experiences allow students to learn by doing, to respond to various dilemmas that arise, to think for themselves, and to realize that I trust and respect them as individuals. I don’t ask my students to memorize information and regurgitate it back to me on a test. I put them in a situation where they have to knock on a neighbour’s door and tell them what they know about the Emerald Ash Borer. It is my belief that this allows students to become the owners of their learning and also to prepare them for the unexpected challenges that life will throw at them when they leave the relative comfort of our school.
Evaluation Questions for My Students:
- Describe a time when you felt challenged to develop innovative ideas to unfamiliar problems in this course.
- Describe a time when you felt that you had the ability to direct your own learning in this course.
- Make a list of two tough questions that you grappled with in this course, and describe how you went about resolving those questions.
- What is one failure you had in this course (not grade related, but in trying to solve a problem) and what did you learn from this failure?
- Were there any times during this course when your audience was someone other than Ms. McBeth or your classmates? Who was this audience and how did this change the way you approached the assignment?
- Describe a time in this course when you had to look at a situation from multiple viewpoints. What did you learn from this experience?
Our first full day at the Klingenstein Summer Institute (KSI) has come to an end we’re all feeling like we’re about to step off the deep end into a pool filled with more ideas than we can possibly remember, more inspiration that a single mind can process, and questions that will challenge us for years to come.
Dr. Pearl Rock Kane’s morning address foreshadowed this feeling: “We will complicate you.”
Her speech itself unveiled the complexities that are present in the very foundation of the Independent School world in which we practice. Viewing the results from the school demographic survey, it became obvious that beyond just challenges we face in the classroom, schools are facing challenges on many levels ranging from financial solvency and managerial challenges to the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.
For me, this discussion made it clear to me that the finances and personnel issues in an independent school can at times drive the mission and purpose of a school. Having good leadership will allow the opposite to happen. Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore these ideas further, although I hope that we will come back to them later in the program.
From here, we dove into a meatier, practical exercise in philosophy (sounds like an oxymoron, I know). Donald Morrison, Institute Co-Director, introduced the morning’s activity in which we were asked to evaluate a colleague’s statement on his/her educational philosophy. The process of thinking about our philosophy was designed to help us investigate the difference between theory and practice.
We were each asked to think about an ideal day in our own classrooms. A day when we left at the end of the day feeling “ah, that was a nice day.” We were prompted to think about:
- What were the students in my class doing?
- What was I doing?
- What did the learning space look like?
- What was the assignment of the day?
Next, we swapped philosophy papers with a partner, without describing it to them in person. Our partners read our philosophy statement and then answered the above questions, in writing.
Reading my partner Kelsey’s predictions for my class was uncanny. Here are her predictions for my course, followed by how her prediction actually has played out in my classroom:
- She guessed that my students would be doing research by conducting interviews (Revitalizing Regent Park documentary), educating the general public (Emerald Ash Borer Outreachassignment), or building something and perhaps not actually in the classroom (Lord Dufferin School Garden project).
- She thought that I would be supervising various projects at various stages and prompting the students with questions to deepen their understanding (The Indoor Farm Project running simultaneously with the Sustainable Farming Research Report).
- She predicted the classroom itself would be busy, possibly messy, and include computers, tools, and plants as well as images of the city posted on the walls (Have you seen my classroom?!)
- Finally, she concluded that a final project in my classroom would involve research on sustainability, perhaps a debate about the value of green space in a city (The Great Green Roof Debate), and a component that involves building something tangible, such as a school garden. She predicted that students would design their own projects and develop their own work plans (Choose Your Own Adventure).
Kelsey could not have been more accurate about my classroom, based on knowing the subject that I teach and by reading my Philosophy of Education Statement.
However, just because Kelsey made accurate assumptions about my classroom does not mean that my statement was fully realized; only that it was somewhat comprehensible. The real benefit in this activity was that in reading Kelsey’s statement, I was inspired to improve my own. She is a history teacher, and her statement included some thought provoking aspirations. For example, she focuses on getting students to ask tough questions (“What does it mean to be patriotic?”), to look at historical events from many perspectives (“What was WWII like for the Germans?”), and to learn to prove arguments using primary documents.
So, in reflecting on my own philosophy, I began to wonder how some of these goals can be applied to my own classroom, and how much of my philosophy is aspirational vs. practical. One thing that I know I can improve on is ensuring students are getting depth of knowledge that will challenge them to ask deeper and deeper questions. Due to the “newness” of the subject for many students, I don’t always ask them to dive too deeply into the subject. For example, because in Grade 12 Green Industries we are learning a variety of new hard skills such as drafting and model building, they don’t always “question everything” as I aspire them to in my philosophy. Another theme that continues to rise here at KSI is that of trusting that students can take on more challenges that we perceive them to be capable of. It would be effective to have the 12’s do a more thorough examination of how urban planning affects socio-economic divisions; how good design is democratic; what is the long term value of investing in cities?
I could even apply historical thinking models to the investigation of cities by prompting students to question broader topics such as politics, economics, and social values as they apply to the design of cities. Later in the day, during my curriculum group meeting, I was sitting next to Gregory, who is designing a course on the history of urban planning, and he had plenty of ideas for me to incorporate historical thinking in my classroom.
Don ended the session with a final reflection question: “What are three values you want to impart to students and how are these values portrayed in your philosophy?
I see these values as citizenship (or belief in a common good), thoughtfulness (or the act of making decisions with intent), and the ability to value and empathize with others. How can I further weave these values into my philosophy?
I need to embed more tough questions into my courses. I ask broad questions about the value of public space and pose challenges that require students to be intentful in their thinking. But, I need to ask more questions about why things are the way they are? Why does design affect communities? Why does it matter? Why should we care about sustainable agriculture? I also need to give a lot more thought to the ideal of empathy. A lunchtime conversation with another teacher led me down a path of asking the question: “How do you really develop empathy in teenagers?” To which I had no good answer.
In the end, it seems as though Dr. Kane’s prediction was as accurate as Kelsey’s. It’s already getting complicated….
* To read the current version of my Philosophy of Education Statement, click here. It’s still a work in progress!