At first glance it might be surprising that an academic librarian would author a teaching philosophy. However, in the academic environment I interact with students in a variety of ways that set the stage for teaching and learning. These interactions vary from short visits at the library’s research help desk to intensive one-on-one research tutoring to guest lectures and hands-on workshops.
I believe teaching is a craft that grows and develops with experience and knowledge. There is much to be learned about how to improve teaching so that learning is also improved. In the last 20 years we have seen the rise of design thinking in education (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998). The idea that if attention is focused on the learning outcomes, or enduring understandings, both teaching and learning will improve. Additionally, even more recently, education theorists have posited that the most important concepts are troublesome in that they ought to cause irreversible changes in the way we see the world (Meyer and Land, 2003). This is what Meyer and Land have called threshold concepts. A concept that once learned allows a learner to cross the threshold into an entirely new understanding of their discipline.
The idea of teaching as a craft is not meant to take away from the more evidenced based approaches to learning. The rise of cognitive and neuroscience has taught us much about knowledge and skill acquisition in the brain. However, it remains easy to be amazed by the diversity of great teachers, their varied approaches, and the reasons students learn. This is a signal to me that the science of teaching can only take you so far before you must also commit to finding your authentic voice and style.
In my own teaching I attempt to incorporate what I have learned from education theory. I start each lesson plan with the learning objectives I would like students to achieve during my class. I also seek to make the content of my classes as applicable as possible to upcoming research assignments. This way students can apply what I teach them and experience the utility of the knowledge. Seeing students move through the process of learning is the great joy of teaching.
I believe that learning is one of the most deeply important human characteristics. Of course many animals learn, but human beings take great joy in learning, and even accept learnings that go in the face of what our intuitions tell us. Learning is best done when the student is highly motivated, but the miracle of learning is that it can even take place against all odds. One of the funniest things about learning is that it often takes place right after you could have used it. The most incredible thing about learning is that it takes place within a larger structure that involves peers, society, and even the design of the room itself. This holistic understanding of learning allows me to situate my learners in time and space and makes it easier for both them and me to connect new information to their existing life experience.
When I am working with students in a class I attempt to synthesize my beliefs about teaching and learning. I do this by drawing deeply on my previous experiences and by noting the places I have stumbled in the past. I am careful to communicate as effectively as possible. This does not only mean being clear and accessible in my language, but also by delivering my ideas in a variety of formats such as a handout, slide show, or through tone and body language. I also try to connect students to what I believe are the important motivators or “so what?” of the material I teach. I suspect that once students understand the reasons behind my teaching they can connect it to the internal and external motivations in their own lives. I also strive to be mindful of transitions. It was in my past as an education student working with primary school children that I observed the difficulties students experience when a transition is taking place within the classroom. Examples of this include starting the class, moving from lecture to questions, and switching from a lecture focused class to a workshop based class. In each case I do what I can to advise students of the upcoming transition, to give them signposts so they know if they are where they need to be, physically and mentally. I also pause at the end of the transition to reiterate what our new orientation will be before moving on.
It is of the utmost importance to recognize the diversity of life experience that walks through the door into a classroom or into the library. If there is one thing that librarians know well, it is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. To extend the metaphor, I am always fascinated by the stories people carry within their pages. Accessing these stories as a teacher allows me to build bridges to the students in which we can recognize common challenges and aspirations, it also allows me to acknowledge my privilege and power in the role of teacher.
I still have a long journey ahead of me as a teacher, but the joy of the craft is the journey, as each step takes me into new territory where I can enjoy learning as my students do. Good examples of this on my own journey are that I seek to develop techniques such as measuring what has been learned by students, even after just one workshop with me. Another area I would love to improve is to better understand both the Indigenous and International student perspective on attending school in Canada. The roots of our schooling system are colonial and I imagine they must evoke mindsets and emotions that would be unfamiliar to me as a 3rd generation Canadian. How can I better engage with students such that we acknowledge the problematic nature and structure of school while celebrating the experience of learning? Finally, I would also like to understand better how the coming artificial intelligence revolution will influence my teaching. Will the machine learning that powers our Google searches, Facebook feeds, and Netflix recommendations go on to teach us how to read, how to think critically, or how to enjoy a good book? As a teacher and learner, how can I prepare the students of today to thrive in a world that may be transformed over the next 10 years? These are the questions that guide my craft, and I as I grapple with these I look forward to generating new questions. Most of all I look forward to the society that my students will build.
Caleb Domsy, June 2017
Meyer, J. & Land, R. (2003). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing within the Disciplines. Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh
Wiggins, G.P., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.