Teaching Philosophy

Earlier this month, as a participant in the National Writing Project’s Making Learning Connected MOOC (#clmooc), I was asked to create a creed that explained my beliefs about teaching and learning. I finally settled on three points:

To the best of my abilities, I want

  • To make spaces where it’s okay to ask questions and perfectly fine not to know the answers.
  • To give people the resources, support, and time to try, to rethink, to revise, to start over, and, generally, to keep working until they reach their goals.
  • To help people connect with others in ways that provide support, encourage collaboration, and help one another grow as writers, thinkers, and learners.

All three beliefs highlight the open, interest-driven, and socially connected learning that is the focus of Connected Learning and a participatory approach to education, as described by educators like Howard Rheingold, Mizuko Ito, and Henry Jenkins. What I especially like about this approach is the underlying recognition that students must be able to find and follow their own paths—and those paths are never simple, smooth, or direct. There will be wrong turns, dead ends, and misdirection. I do not want students to think they have failed when they reach those disappointments on their paths. Instead, I want them to take the parts of their journey that work, rethink their strategies, and try again.

This approach to teaching only works, however, when it’s paired with a course design that allows for risk-taking and experimentation. Inspired by the Institute of Play’s Katie Salen, I believe in building opportunities that encourage students to take chances, just as games do. Take Angry Birds as an example. When I try a new level in Angry Birds, I play through the first time with no intention of winning, just to see what the different birds do and how the various obstacles work. I expect to fail. Once I have an idea how the level works, I try varying tensions on the slingshot, and I aim the bird at different targets. I experiment until I find the best combination.

The programmers who designed Angry Birds expect this kind of trial and error, and I am not punished as a game player for failing. Sure, I cannot move on to a new level, but I do not lose the levels I have already conquered or any of the special bonuses I have collected. Salen’s game-like approach to learning relies on similar strategies. In the writing classroom, this philosophy means that students can try as many approaches as they like without negative repercussions for experimenting.

To show students how this kind of learning works, I use sample drafts to demonstrate how I test options like cutting out sections or reordering paragraphs. I write in front of students and use a think-aloud strategy to let them know what I am thinking as I try out different options. I emphasize how saving backups of the different versions of my text allows me to return to a previous version when something I try doesn’t work. Further, I ask students to help me with the text as I compose. If I can’t think of the word I want, I ask for suggestions. When I realize I need to look something up, I ask volunteers to pull out their laptops or phones and tell me what they find. I focus on models and examples in early discussion with the whole class and in small groups. When students turn to their own work later, I encourage them to try out the same strategies by relying on one another for support and feedback and taking chances until they find the right path.

In addition to the collaborative writing I have described, I rely on social networking to encourage students to build connections with one another. Having focused on computers in writing instruction for twenty years, I value the ways that the distributed nature of online discussion, with everyone commenting as ideas come, leads to more student-centered conversations. Students can share drafts of their work in discussion forums, asking readers to give them advice on how to improve. When composing collaborative texts in small groups, they can post their working drafts in Google docs and use Google+ hangouts to discuss their changes. Twitter chats facilitate back channel conversations in class and during special events. Google hangouts and Twitter chats also provide a simple but effective way to set up virtual office hours and to have student conferences that allow students to replay our conversation later. When such online course tools combine with writing projects that focus on an authentic audience and purpose and the freedom to make mistakes and try again, students are certain to grow as writers, thinkers, and learners. If I can help make that happen, I know I’m doing my job as a teacher.

 

Written July 30, 2013.