The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Philosophy of Education Part I

I did not teach today, and I have been putting this off for a long time. I need to figure out what my philosophy of education really is. While I was at the University of Illinois, I was required to write a philosophy of education that was based on the framework used to guide the teacher training program through the College of Education. This is the final draft that I had submitted. I don’t think it fully embraces my philosophy, but I do believe every word that I wrote.

The UIUC Conceptual Framework operates on the idea that there are two pillars of education, Community and Inquiry, and that they are dependent upon a foundation of Service and Technology. There are many ways to define a community. It can be a neighbourhood or a city or town. It can also be a state or even a nation. In many ways, our modern society has made it possible for us to live in a global community. A community may also be defined by ideological, rather than geological, boundaries. Thus, we have teaching communities, business communities, medical communities, art communities, and scientific communities.

As an educator, one of the most important communities with which I associate is the classroom community. The classroom community is, by its very nature, extremely diverse. Each student is a unique individual with a unique way of learning, and expressing what he or she has learned. I, as the teacher, am uniquely different from any other teacher the students have had. This community must first develop within the walls of the classroom. It then expands outward to the school, and then into the political and geological boundaries within which our society has been developed.

The classroom is the most important place to help students grow. The UIUC Conceptual Framework, Teaching and Learning In A Diverse Community, has been developed to guide teachers in fostering this growth. The framework shows that learning is not possible with only one pillar and half of the foundation. Community, Inquiry, Service, and Technology are all critical, inter-related facets of the most effective education practices. I believe that those teachers who help their students learn in a way that creates life-long learners will also create in their students the potential to go far above and beyond the level of the teacher himself.

The teacher’s role of establishing community begins with the students in the classroom. As they learn to rely upon one another as a community with a common goal, they will be able to take the education process to a higher level of self-discovery. When the teacher ceases to be the definitive source of information, and becomes another member of the community, searching to attain greater wisdom, everyone in the classroom benefits. It is true that the teacher must continue in the role of setting goals for the class and guiding the learning experience. But this role does not mean that the teacher is not learning alongside his students. Each teacher must decide what his or her role will be: the guide, the coach, the manager, the dictator, the conductor, the custodian, or the leader. Each role has a legitimate place within the teaching community, but each teacher must decide for him- or herself which role he or she is best suited to adopt.

As the classroom community develops throughout the 180 days given in the school year, it should be continually expanding outward. It should also expand onward, as students move on to higher education and take the ideas they learned in the P-12 classroom and share them with their peers. The ultimate effect will be that of a snowball rolling down a hill, growing larger and larger as more and more people are influenced by the ideas that these students first encountered in the early years of their formal education.

Since 1996, I have been actively involved with Operation Snowball, Inc., an international program started in Illinois as a Community Action Plan. The purpose of this program is to create a “community of caring” in which teens are empowered to take charge of their lives by utilising the information and leadership skills needed to promote positive life-choices among their peers. First as a participant in the program and then as a volunteer staff member, I have seen first-hand the effects of creating a community and then watching that community grow. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned through my work with Operation Snowball is the tremendous power that the youth of our nation have in creating change in their communities. In observing this, I have been able to learn ways of facilitating change and growth not by telling students what they should do, but by asking them what they think should be done, and then guiding them in the process of making it happen. This is an essential element of teaching that can and should be used in every classroom.

The best teaching methods I have ever observed are those in which the teachers ask many questions, but give few answers. Inquiry-based education is hard, for both the teacher and the student, but it has a much more lasting effect than any other method I have observed. A high school teacher once told me that the most important question she can ask of her students is simply, “Why?” When a student answered a question, she would always ask him to justify his response. If she did not feel that the student had given enough thought in his response, or if she felt that he was trying to give the answer that would “fit” her ideas, then she would continue to ask for further justification. In doing this, the students in our class rapidly understood that she did not want us to regurgitate what was found in the book or in the lecture notes. She wanted us to think about what we had learned, and be able to explain it in a way that made sense to us. If it did not make sense, then we were given the task of exploring and researching until we discovered the meaning. Inquiry-based education relies on the students’ desire to learn not just what, where, and when, but also how and why.

With today’s technological advances, this research process has become much more advanced. Students can turn to the Internet and do a search for just about any topic conceivable. Unfortunately, not all of the information available online is accurate, and it has become the responsibility of the teacher to help students filter out the junk and find the reliable information. Integrating technology in the classroom by encouraging students to use the Internet in their research will help them not only become familiar and comfortable with modern technology, but it will also help students understand how they can continue to learn about and understand the world around them long after they have left the formal classroom.

Illinois-born philosopher and educator Elbert Hubbard has been quoted as saying that “the object of teaching a child is to enable him to get by along without his teacher.” While the idea may appear contradictory at first, it is actually a very accurate description of what the goal of educators should be. As students learn, they should be developing the skills that allow them to continue on learning throughout their lives. Eventually, the well-taught student will become his or her own teacher. As British musician Phil Collins wrote in a song for the Disney movie Tarzan, “in teaching we do learn, and in learning we do teach.” These two quotes, penned by two very different men in very different times, seem to summarize a core element of my personal philosophy of education, which is that my role as a teacher is to guide my students in a journey of self-discovery; a journey that I, myself, am also undertaking. If I were to summarize my philosophy of the educational process, it would be that we should all be continually learning and improving. Teachers and students have much to learn from one another, and much to teach one another. This transactional relationship is key to true education.

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