Teaching Philosophy


By Jason Leggett

One of the hardest jobs of teaching is working out the how to teach.

Without much thought it may seem simple or easy. You just get up there and uhhhhhh teach. But think of your favorite teacher. It’s okay, take your time, I’ll wait.

I want you to get a nice image in your mind. See the teacher? See their motions and their movements? Hear the way they spoke? Think of the assignments you liked. Okay, you got it now.

I want you to now think of a teacher your friend liked but you did not for whatever reason. Here lies my challenge. In any given class I have near 43 students each with a preference much like yours and many preferences unlike yours. So what is a poor professor like me to do?

Well, I could just organize and present the materials as I see fit and let each of you work at the learning part. I believe you are familiar with this. From my experience, including my time sitting right where you are, this is the standard model at this level. This however comes with a number of clearly identifiable issues:

My teaching method will be biased toward students who naturally share my learning style.   Here, you should think about how you learn. How many teachers use things that help your style of learning? Think of how you might memorize something ­ Music? Repetition? Flash cards?

Other students will not engage in active (actual) learning but will instead use their time to engage in spy­like tactics to decipher what the professor (ME) “wants.” You recognize this from questions like, “but will it be on the midterm?”

You actually a) need this information and b) likely want it and c) and I have NOT delivered it to you despite my contractual (I get paid) obligation to. Stated another way, that gets the attention of the kids in the back, you might be getting ripped off.  Now let me offer another idea. I am going to start with two assumptions as I tell you my approach to developing a teaching style (pedagogy).

You are here to learn. This means to me that you are intrinsically motivated (not just that you wish upon a star a piece of paper will get you a job) to learn when you walk in the door to the classroom on day one.  If you aren’t understanding something (learning) there is a good chance (likely) that it is something I am doing or not doing which attacks that intrinsic motivation of yours­ making it harder for you to learn.

I start with these two assumptions because no matter what other conditions are present

(your girlfriend/boyfriend, parent, job, life) you could have made the CHOICE not to be here.)

Also, no matter what other conditions are present (girlfriend/boyfriend, parent, job, life) there are 43 of you and 1 of me. Even struggling mathematicians can see I am likely the problem rather than ALL of you. Okay, so what? How can someone use these assumptions to their advantage and get as close as possible to teaching each and every student without limiting that motivation of yours? By starting with me and then with you. First I need to identify potential biases in my curriculum and teaching styles. For example, some days I feel like lecturing (talking your ear off) for 45 minutes. That’s great for the few students who like to listen and take notes. The rest of you…well you know what you are doing. On the other hand, slide show presentations may be harder for those same few students because they lose control of what notes to take but it

provides a focusing point for the students who prefer a linear context and visual aids.

Those are just two examples but you should begin to see what needs to be examined.  Then what? Well, I have to think about what you want and what you need. The hard part is to avoid stereotypes and discriminatory practices while also being mindful of cultural and lifestyle differences (This should not be done without professionals and not tried at home ;­) The way this happens is through self­examination (my own reflection) and by research (my ideas tested against my peers and vice versa.) Later we will see that this also includes you to a much larger extent.

The aforementioned is the staple (foundation) of your education: the ability to conduct useful research that shows verifiable results using generalizable data. Here’s an example that I hope helps. We know that there are “multiple intelligences” and multiple “learning styles” because of extensive research involving tests, peer­reviewed articles, biological data, case­studies, psychological profiles, and so on. These “labels” don’t mean you don’t learn at all if you are one style but that you might learn better another way. Using this knowledge, it probably seems common sense now that I should do a “mixing up” of everything I can right? Yep. (That’s the scientific answer by the way.)

Great! But what about you? How do I know what your learning style is and even more importantly how do I know if you are learning? Ready? I don’t. So what now? I ask.  It may not sound like pure genius but you would be surprised how many people presume to know what to do “to” or “for” you.  My goal is to learn “with” you.  This leads me to the model that has most influenced me­ the motivational framework by Dr’s Margery Ginsberg and Raymond Wlodkowski. The first step of four (which I think is among the most important things that can be done to change/reform education overall) is inclusion.

Inclusion refers to employing principles and practices that contribute to a learning environment in which students and teachers feel respected by and connected to one another.  So what does that mean? R­E­S­P­E­C­T…. I know you have heard it before but read it again. Whoa ­ maybe my way or the highway, my rules, and all the rest don’t work well there do they? We all need basic guidelines that we all can agree to. There is obviously a base of common norms we all agree to: no violence, no cheating, no abuse. But what do these mean?

For example, If I forcibly remove a student from a class is that violence? If I fail a student for forgetting a citation (or using Wikipedia) is that cheating? If a student uses a cell phone thereby interrupting class and gets cussed out by another student is that abuse? Let me illustrate why inclusion is so important by using the rule­making process of the greatest menace ever to threaten the classroom… the CELL PHONE. To ban the cell or to incorporate the cell? That is the question. All classes are different, which is a very important issue at this level, but here’s my take. You live in a world where your cell is almost an extension of your mind, body, and spirit. Can I reasonably expect to restrict something like that? Also, I can’t control what is in your mind ­ so if you are thinking about something on your phone ­ do I want you thinking about that for the 30 seconds it takes you to check or for the 60 minute class period?

The real issue is what you do with your phone. I think it would be equally distracting if you were to play catch with your iphone with your friend across the room as it would be to sing love songs over the phone (or love texts). So that’s the heart of it ­ the distraction. Is it equally distracting if you are texting as if you were drawing? Is the sheer presence of a plastic object so daunting or the continuous movement of fingers so overwhelming? If yes, what about pens? The thing is I really want you actively engaged and therefore seek to eliminate any distractions that limit that engagement. Okay, fair. But I assume you want to learn and I assume that is my job. So here is my attempt to respect you and have you respect me and each other: “There is no phone.” (That’s a Matrix reference btw.)

The norm is that there is no particular rule for cell phones but a general norm that

distractions of any kind hurt the kind of learning experience we are all trying to create because it defeats the assumption that you are here to learn and I here to teach. Therefore I respect the fact that you have a life, love, plans, and so on and will quickly deal with those and come back to us, otherwise you would just go outside or stay at home. *Now there are a few, very few, of you who aren’t here to learn but you are the easiest. The bar is set so low for you that if you only learn one thing all semester, I have done my job haven’t I?  We should then be able to work on additional norms that will create an inclusive environment while meeting all of our basic obligations at the university level. You should also see that it meets the civility in the classroom mantra (available on the syllabus, syllabus SS, and on the KCC website.) 

The next step is attitude. Attitude refers to employing principles and practices that contribute to, through personal and cultural relevance and through choice, a favorable disposition toward learning. This is one of the hardest things to do at the personal level but one of the easiest things to do at the practical level in the classroom. Here’s an example: “Taco Tuesdays.”

Does that bother you? Should it? What if I now add that everyone who is Latina needs to bring in tacos on Tuesday to represent your culture? Cringing yet? Sometimes we mean to have an open attitude or mind towards diversity and multiculturalism and what we get is the opposite. This example (ridiculous but one I personally encountered) is intended to have you reflect now on this question ­ what is the relevance of bringing tacos on Tuesday to you, your college goals, your career goals, and your future? If you have an answer I challenge you to think it over and really apply the question to (insert your name here and say it aloud) you. I’ll wait while you read over the example again.

I really have killed your intrinsic motivation if there is no real relevance haven’t I? So what do I do? If the goal is active engagement and developing a positive attitude I might suggest a topic and then have you each relate that topic to your own unique experience instead of assuming a topic applies to you individually. Can you see why you would be motivated to learn on your own & yet still be connected to me and the rest of the class? It mostly comes down to giving you a choice. Doing this is hard for teachers, loosening control and challenging biases, but it is simple in application and goes a long way.

The third step is enhancing meaning. This refers to bringing about challenging and engaging learning. It expands and strengthens learning in ways that matter to students and have social merit. I personally enjoy this the best. I feel this is sometimes easier in our classes than others. For example, in almost any debate, the largest city in the country is mentioned and it just happens to be the one we all live in. It would be hard for you not to see how that matters and affects you. But what about challenging you?  Here I like the idea of role­playing. Whether it’s taking the side of a member of the criminal justice system, coming up with oral arguments, or presenting your findings to the class, you get to “be” the material and enhance your understanding of an issue you see everyday.

The final step is engendering competence. This means employing principles and practices that help students authentically identify that they are effectively learning something they value. Now let the debate begin. We must first introduce the elephant in the room. Class, I would like you to meet Lord Standardized Testing.

The three components of the criminal justice system are:

  1. courts, cops, corrections.
  2. trials, officers, sanctions.
  3. actus reus, mens rea, beyond a reasonable doubt.
  4. hatter, alice, and white rabbit.

Wrong! We (academics) are soon adding a fourth component and even if you were right, who cares? Have we engendered competence… or just practiced memorization? I need to see that you get it. Otherwise, why am I getting paid? I don’t need you all to get it the same way ­ that doesn’t go well with the first three principles we discussed. So how do I do this?

I feel and know this works best by giving you multiple opportunities to show me your progress, including a portfolio that allows you to determine how best to evidence your understanding.  Also I eliminate the competitive nature of grading assumptions I was subjected to. Let me pull back the curtain so you can pay attention in detail.  One way I could grade (but don’t) is that I get a stack of 40 odd papers and read through them all at once. 3 of them strike me as A or near quality papers. I set those aside. I then organize the papers in stacks ­ possible B,C,D, and try agains. I then go back and grade my A papers first and assign A+, then A, then A­. I repeat through each stack, B+, B, B­ and you get the picture. See the problem yet?

I then change that grade into a % to use in your larger % (other assignments) to calculate your final grade. My personal problem with this method (don’t tell my former professors) is this:

I have no idea if you learned anything of relevance; and

I surely biased your grades on what I subjectively like and then compared your’s down. Can you imagine scoring 3 pointers in a basketball game using how the shot looked instead of whether it went in? (See Sam Perkins for an example).

The reason I don’t do this comes down to this: Did you effectively answer the question or do the assignment as instructed? There seem to only be 3 possibilities:

  1. yes
  2. kinda
  3. nope

If I take those 3 numbers and multiply them by the questions or assignments you complete, I should have a pretty good idea of whether you are getting it combined with what I saw in class and your feedback. Make sense? This is my foundation for the journey past your old friend standardization (because we have to show you are smart) and into the realm of engendering competence that matters to you and me. My goal is to develop a more intimate competence experience using verbal and collaborative exams, online tools, the motivational framework, as well as a more personally relevant end product ­ either a thing you can show to others ­ including employers, transfer schools, investors, or a tool for your long­term toolbox you can use when you need it.

With our powers combined I hope we can create a learning community conducive (helpful) to all learners. I hope you see this as an active experience on your part where I learn, you learn, and we all come up with solutions together. I think maybe the best common analogy is to see me more as a coach than the holder of all sacred knowledge.