Making a difference

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One of the things that I'm constantly working on is my teaching philosophy -- not just the document that reflects my philosophy -- but the philosophy itself.

According to Google, a philosophy is "A theory or attitude held by a person or organization that acts as a guiding principle for behavior."  For me, my guiding principle for teaching is being student-centered and based on interaction.  I think that the best learning happens when students are invited to think on their own terms and to make discoveries on their own.  There are pros and cons to this approach to learning.  On the pro side we have the ability to create an atmosphere that is conducive to sharing and learning, the ability to meet students where they are in their learning process, and the ability to engage students in the material that goes beyond lecturing.    On the other hand, this teaching philosophy has the potential to blow up in my face when students are unwilling to engage me or the material or to step outside our information-consumer habits and learn to be information-producers.  


I use a lot of in-class activities and discussions to challenge my students to engage the material, but also lecture quite a bit so as to keep them within their comfort zone.  It's a pretty tough balancing act though because some activities that require getting up and moving around takes students out of their comfort zone.  One activity that I have been doing for the last few semesters with some success is having my students create and share skits that relate to concepts we are learning in class.  After the obligatory groans, many of my students seem to enjoy this form of hands on learning.  I use skits for higher level concepts that need to be grappled with in order to make sense of them.  For example, in my introduction to criminal justice classes I have students create skits that illustrate an index crime and a particular step in the typical processing of a case (arrest, bail, etc...).  I encourage the students to be creative, but to also keep their skits "work-place appropriate."  After each group presents their skits, I have the class identify several important elements including actus reus, mens rea, the crime itself, and the outcome.  One of the main goals is to get the students to understand that we cannot have a crime unless both the act and guilty mind are present, a concept known as concurrence.  This activity also reinforces the importance of knowing the index crimes and the various steps in the process.


Another way that I try to engage my students is by posing questions at the end of class for them to think about and creating an on-line space for them to discuss these issues.  I emphasis that this is their opportunity to share their opinions and learn from their classmates.  I'm still working on getting students to willingly participate in these activities since I don't usually grade them for points.  Asking questions is one way that I take my teaching from the classroom to real life as well.  When I'm having discussions with friends, I'll ask their views and opinions and challenge them.  Sometimes this results in really neat conversations and sometimes it results in really heated discussions.  Either way, I try to plant the seeds for future learning.  And in the end, isn't that what a teacher is meant to do?

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