Destiny D. Aman
NOTE: I developed this Teaching Philosophy while I was working as an Instructor and Instructional Consultant at Penn State University. Although I am not currently teaching at the university level, I’m leaving it on my webpage because I think it speaks to the orientation I bring to my current design/communication work. Also, I know that folks at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence refer to it occasionally (along with this online portfolio).
Before I began teaching at the university level, I was an instructor for a weekend motorcycle safety course designed for people who wanted to become licensed motorcyclists. Over the two summers I worked as an instructor, I saw many different types of people in the classes, and surprisingly, I have found the experience to be not unlike teaching a typical college course. The classes included people of all different learning styles and backgrounds with varying interest levels in the course material and a variety of reasons for wanting to take the class, but all the students possessed the same ultimate goal – to be able to do something they weren’t previously able to do. While the material may be radically different, in both classroom situations my responsibility as an instructor is to try to get as much of that material to “stick” with the student as possible, in a way that encourages students to become invested in their own learning experience and thus carry on the learning process beyond the classroom.
The initial part of fulfilling this goal lies in the active creation of a brave place to learn. In the motorcycle course, the average class possessed a wide range of experience – from never having been on a motorcycle to having ridden regularly for decades. In addition, the general anxiety around operating a 300-pound piece of machinery coupled with social stress and fear of failure made for a challenging teaching environment in which student safety and enjoyment were key. I have found that in general, people tend to learn best when they enjoy the learning experience in addition to being challenged by the class material. Creating a an environment for learning that supports courageous engagement with material involves presenting clear and consistent expectations as well as engaging with students’ various learning styles, skills and backgrounds. Today’s technology allows for many different types of media to be included in lectures and other class material, all of which can aid in reaching and staying connected with students. As an instructor, I utilize these resources regularly. For example, I have incorporated the free-form, dynamic presentation platform Prezi into lectures and class discussions. I have also successfully implemented a course blog to continue conversations outside of the classroom. A kinetic learner myself (I learn best by doing), I am a particular proponent of active and experiential learning. Field trips, interactive laboratory and homework assignments, and classroom discussion are included in my courses as a complement to more traditional reading and essay assignments.
While I find it important to create an enjoyable learning experience for my students, I believe the power of this type of classroom is lost if students are not sufficiently challenged. Expectations for students in my courses are high, as they are for me. I frequently monitor and update my classroom materials to be as applicable to today’s world as possible, and push my students to think and write critically about what they learn. The discipline of geography yields much in the way of interesting and relevant current material, and since many students have limited experience with geography as a field, I relish introducing them to a discipline that will help them to view the world in a new and holistic way. In today’s information age, educators are no longer students’ primary access points for information about the world. Indeed, content is everywhere. Students instead need help organizing, understanding, and operationalizing this information. For this reason, I use a process-based approach to content and assessment in my classes. In a physical geography context, for example, this means my students don’t just learn the names of all the different plate boundaries for their own sake, but rather how and why the boundaries exist, what kinds of landforms they create, and where students can see evidence of these processes in their everyday lives. For exams, students inspect soil samples dug from field trip stops in order to pinpoint their origins. They interpret landscape processes occurring in areas they’ve never studied, based on what they’ve learned about their own backyards. This process- and systems-based thinking enables students to move past merely retaining information and toward seeing the world with different eyes:
“…all semester I have been thinking of emailing you and telling you how much I miss your class. It was so challenging for me, because I usually do way better in English/social studies than science/math, but because you guys pushed us to think like geographers, your class turned out to be really rewarding.”
-Former Intro to Physical Geography student
Education is both undeniably political, and absolutely vital to a truly democratic society. I know that I am privileged to take part in the educational process of my students. Of course, knowing that I am privileged is not enough – I see it as my responsibility to help my students to be empowered by the learning process, and therefore to be inspired and changed by it. This is, in fact, what led me to the discipline of geography, and eventually, what led me to teach in a university setting. At consecutive points in my educational path, people taught me why I should be curious about the world, how to ask difficult questions, how to answer those questions, and how to communicate those answers in a clear and thoughtful way. The sense of accomplishment that awaits students who work hard to learn challenging material is a reward that benefits not only the students themselves, but society as a whole. Students should understand that education is not about learning what to think, it’s about learning how to think, how to vigorously challenge themselves and the world around them. Fortunately for me, learning is not a one-way process, and I too relish the personal growth, exploration, and challenge that comes from the teaching experience.
While facilitating classroom liberation through a college geography course may seem a far cry from teaching people how to stay alive on a motorcycle, I have found much of the classroom culture to be similar. In both cases, by establishing an engaging and challenging learning environment, I teach students how to view their world from a perspective that allows them to continually learn and improve their skills as students of life.