Teaching Philosophy

    David Orr (1994), in his provocative and insightful book entitled Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect, dispels the notion that all education is good, and that more of any kind of education is better.  His words speak candidly about the past failures of liberal education to provide our youth with the kind of education that will be needed to live wisely, and with consideration for other life forms that sustain us and those who will follow.  Orr argues:

The truth is that many things upon which our future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.  It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people.  Rather, it is largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs...Towards the natural world [our educational system] emphasizes theories, not values; abstractions rather than consciousness, neat answers instead of questions; and technical efficiency over conscience…The worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival – the issues now loom so large before us in the twenty-first century.  (pp. 7-8) 

      Although I teach a variety of courses that have different goals, my teaching philosophy is largely guided by Orr’s words along with one other important tenet: Teaching is much more than disseminating knowledge; rather it requires orchestrating an environment which fosters engagement, questioning, exploration, discussion and application of ideasResearch in cognitive science (how we learn) teaches us that humans are active constructors of knowledge.  Meaning-making is a process of constructing new conceptions of the world which are informed by both present and past learning experiences, and prior conceptions/misconceptions.  Orchestrating an effective learning environment therefore requires that students continually explore, elaborate on, challenge, and assess their understanding.  Moreover, it requires an awareness of the diverse ways in which people learn and therefore the variety of teaching methods which can be used to cater to diverse learning styles.  In short, effective teaching requires a consideration for both the “what” and “how” of learning.  

    Although lectures can serve an important purpose, courses that are taught solely in this way send clear, albeit unspoken, messages about the nature of knowledge and learning.  Among the most significant of these is that learning is a passive process of disseminating knowledge akin to pouring water into a bucket, rather than an active, exploratory, and co-constructive dialog between teacher and pupil
.  To meet these challenges I use the following principles to guide learning
    Most of my courses are inquiry-based and employ Problem/Case Studies Based Learning (PBL/CSBL) methods to meet these challenges.  To find out more about our NSF funded project to connect these methods to scientific inquiry in general education biology courses visit Problem Based Learning and Scientific Inquiry in Introductory Biology.