Historical Influence on Pedagogy

This paper from Educ 570 details my “personal professional theory” and is based not only on five years of teaching experience but on nearly 20 years experience as a student. It takes the lessons I learned from the most influential teachers of my childhood and demonstrates how they influence my teaching today. It details my origins as an Essentialist, concerned primarily with the content I taught, and shows how that began to change into a genuine concern for my students and their place in the classroom.

I use the metaphor of a fish swimming upstream to describe the feeling of a teacher trying to overcome the force of government mandate and expectation to educate the next generation. When I first started teaching I felt like a conduit of “previously selected curriculum as opposed to one who was given the responsibility to develop and make professional decisions regarding curriculum based on the needs of his community and learners.” (Chant, 2009, p. 182) The current of pacing guides and state standards was too much for me, and I went with the flow.

But research and reflection reconnected me with powerful role models for teaching. Putting my past as a student in relation to my present teaching style was an important wake up call, and it drew into sharp focus how far I had strayed from the teaching style of those three most influential teachers in my past. Although my students were progressing through their studies, they didn’t seem to be learning the important lessons that I wanted to teach. Even when they succeeded, either in passing the class or overcoming the exit exam, I still felt like a failure. Worse, those students didn’t know what they had missed, and maybe never would. Even now that thought chills me.

So I set my eyes on a teaching goal, to focus on three aspects of pedagogy: critical thinking, differentiated instruction, and social meaning making. Maxine Greene is an Art teacher, yet shares many of my views on Critical Thinking, or what she calls Interpretation, “the realization that ‘reality’ – if it means anything – means interpreted experience.” (Greene, 1992) Something as basic and fundamental as “reality” is not a fixed concept; that is an idea that students must work their way into. It may take their entire high school career, and they still may not fully understand it. Yet there are areas where critical thinking can be made more concrete, such as through the analysis of media.

These exercises are necessary for students to survive and thrive in today’s world, a world so different from near-monoculture of the early industrial era. Back then students were all taught the same way. It was an era of a virtual national curriculum, where Noah Webster’s common readers kept the dominant American culture strong in the face of a wave of immigrants. (Spring, 2008) Such a curriculum would be impossible in today’s multicultural classroom, though standardized tests have their roots in this concept. The key then is to use Differentiated Instruction methods to customize the proscribed curriculum for a specific classroom. Robert Peterson describes numerous methods that adapt Freire’s theories into practical classroom applications. In addition to relying on a standardized text, “Children’s learning should be centered in their own experience, language, and culture.” (Peterson, 1991) A far cry from the basil readers of the past.

But to allow students to learn from self-generated themes is only the first step. To truly differentiate a class a teacher must allow students to learn the way they do outside of class. And more often than not that means to work and study in peer groups. Students work together to find and construct their own meaning to the things they see and hear. Mizuko Ito and her research fellows at MIT found that students today work in “Friendship-driven” groups, which rely “on peer-based learning dynamics, which have a different structure from formal instruction or parental guidance.” (Ito, 2009) In order to ensure students learn, it is incumbent on teachers to understand how students learn, and to reshape their classrooms to match those learning styles.

That is now my goal, which is very different from when I started teaching. Back then I believed that there were certain key books I wanted to teach, such as the works of Shakespeare. I consider the Bard to be essential for students understanding of the human condition. During this early period my teaching philosophy would have been what Van Scotter identifies as “Essentialism”, the belief in “Conserving the best of traditions or a particular society and civilization and in promoting intellectual growth of the individual.” (Van Scotter, 1991) At that time the text was most important to me. But as I thought more about the teachers that molded me I began to look at the affect I would have on my students. I began to see that the only way to transmit my love of stories to my students was to reach them on a personal level. Eventually what became important to me was connecting with my students, regardless of the content I was teaching, and my teaching became more progressive.

Yet after all this, I worry that the current may be too strong to fight. If the school does not support my search for different ways to reach students, will I be able to survive as a lone fish? When I think of this I draw comfort from the words of Maxine Greene, who said that being an artist means “Being moved to reach beyond towards what continually seems to withdraw.” (Green, 1992) One could say that of a teacher as well. We push and reach to do what we must for our students, to get them to the source at the head of the river, so that they can become our next generation.

Pedagogy.Personal Profesional Theory

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