Ideas About Teaching/Learning/Research

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:44 am

I thought maybe I’d posted this before, but if I did it got lost in the crash, so I thought I’d give it another run. It’s the ‘Philosophy of Teaching’ that was a required part of my application for tenure and promotion last year. I got it out again as part of a conversation with Max van Manen, and thought it might be interesting to… someone. It’s probably a bit more technical than most of the stuff I post here, but hopefully still clear enough to be accessible.

Teaching is an activity for grownups. In order to be able to work with children and young people in pedagogical ways, it is necessary to be sufficiently mature and secure to put the students’ needs and interests first. Personal maturity (considered as a self-regulating ideal towards which one is always growing but never reaching) removes the teacher’s ego from centre stage. Rather than being concerned with how s/he is perceived by the students, or how the teaching performance is ‘going’ from a technical perspective, the mature teacher has the interests of the students, individually and collectively, as his/her focus of attention.

From a perspective that recognises the reflexivity of living in human relationships (Steier, 1995), I regard teaching as part of the emergent activity of teaching/learning/research. In the community of the classroom, learning is co-constructed by all participants. Teachers learn from their colleagues and students, and conduct research (both formal and informal) as they aspire to improve their practice. Students teach their teachers and fellow students, and conduct experiments in learning and social interaction. Separating this rich blend of activities into teaching, learning and research may be useful to help us talk about them, but I experience being with students as teaching/learning/research.

Enactivist (Davis, 1995) epistemological perspectives suggest that our actions arise out of the totality of our being, in engagement with our environments. I experience teaching in this way – I bring all of myself to the classroom (as well as to my research and writing), and act and react out of who I am. The process is only partially rational and intentional, and draws on experience, subconscious processing and relationship reflexes. I bring to the classroom the love of my family and my conversations with Sue over many years. I bring the thousands of novels and other books I’ve read, and all the lives I’ve vicariously lived through fiction. I bring my experience of playing computer games and conversing with people all over the world in online forums. I bring my religious faith, as well as the questions and conflicts engendered by my struggles to believe and accept. I bring my political views and commitments, and my connections with pop culture through movies and music.

But teaching is also thoughtful, intentional, reflective. Reflection is a more active process of weaving my teaching experiences and commitments into the fabric of who I am. Reflection on past classroom actions and their consequences informs my understanding, and future actions grow out of that understanding. Max Van Manen says it better than I can:

…pedagogy requires a reflective orientation to life… By thoughtfully reflecting on what I should have done, I decide in effect how I want to be. In other words, I infuse my being and my readiness to act with a certain thoughtfulness. And yet, how I am now as a teacher will not be clear until I have had further opportunities to act in more appropriate ways. How I am as a teacher depends on what I do, on my possibilities for acting thoughtfully. But my possible actions do not magically arise, they depend on the thoughtfulness that I have been able to acquire in recollective reflection. (Van Manen, 1991, p. 116)

Reflection-in-action while teaching, and reflection-on-action after teaching (Gore & Zeichner, 1991; Griffiths & Tann, 1992), are carried on at three levels, derived from the work of Jurgen Habermas (1971). The technical level addresses the techniques of teaching – ‘did I do it right?’ The practical addresses relationships and communication – ‘did I connect with these students in human ways and build communicative relationships?’ The emancipatory addresses reified assumptions and habits that block the development of communicative relationships – ‘what features of my character and beliefs, and of the culture of schooling, are causing me to fail to serve these students’ needs?’ The emancipatory interest (sometimes also called the ‘critical’) also challenges me to ask the question ‘whose interests are served?’

I believe that relationships are at the centre of the activity of teaching. My aspiration is to always show the utmost respect for the beliefs, knowledge, skills and person of each of my students. Student evaluations of my teaching suggest I am succeeding in this aspiration, with scores related to mutual respect and the emotional safety of the classroom environment consistently being the highest on my evaluations. If anything, perhaps I err too far in the direction of listening to students and trying to meet their perceived needs. Most criticisms that are made of my teaching arise out of a perception that I ask students to share their own knowledge and experience with one another too often, and don’t spend enough time just telling them!

I recognise, in my graduate and undergraduate teaching, and my local and international professional development work, that there is a balance to be struck between meeting teachers’ perceived needs – the things they know they need to know – and drawing on my own knowledge and experience to teach them things that they don’t yet know they need to know. Once again, Max says it best:

To write about pedagogical thoughtfulness and tact courts the dangerous presumption that one claims to know how to behave with moral superiority. By definition pedagogy is always concerned with the ability to distinguish between what is good and what is not good for children. Many educational thinkers are uncomfortable with this assumption, they try to pursue educational problems and questions in a value neutral or relativistic manner. It is wrong, however, to confuse pedagogical discourse with moral diatribe or preaching. Preaching is an act of moral exhortation on the basis of some unquestioned dogma. But pedagogy does not aim to deliver diatribe. Pedagogy is a practical discipline. On the one hand, educators need to show that in order to stand up for the welfare of children, one must be prepared to stand out and be criticised. On the other hand, pedagogy is a self-reflective activity that always must be willing to question critically what it does and what it stands for. (Van Manen, 1991, p. 10)

This is a balance that I am continuing to focus on in my reflection, and attempting to improve. Certainly one important part of the solution is learning how to sensitively make teachers aware of their ‘unperceived’ needs.

I continue to find Lee Shulman’s (1986) construct ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ compelling: what is it that science teachers need to know that (a) other teachers don’t and (b) scientists don’t? At another level, what do I need to know in order to teach science teachers that (a) science teachers don’t and (b) my colleagues in other disciplines within this department don’t? If knowledge is defined in enactivist terms, as a disposition toward certain (emergent) ways of acting in certain contexts, then how will my actions (including mental representations) be different when teaching compared to those of others? In what ways do my teaching/learning/research, inside and outside classrooms, inform and enrich my Being, in order that I can enrich others?

Teaching is an activity for grownups, and while I think I’m sufficiently grown up to be a very good teacher, maturity is a self-regulating ideal, and there’s always more growing up to do. The central task is to keep an open mind and an open heart.


  1. I chose not to use the more familiar ‘Philosophy of Teaching’ title. My philosophy professor at the University of Melbourne, Keith Fleming, convinced me that ‘philosophy’ is a process, not a product – something one does, rather than has. My reason for using a term broader than ‘teaching’ is explained in the text.
  2. I have chosen to use quite lengthy quotes from my colleague, Max Van Manen, simply because his writing on these points so lucidly encapsulates my own beliefs and attitudes.


Davis, B. (1995). Why teach mathematics? Mathematics education and enactivist theory. For the Learning of Mathematics, 15(2): 2-9.

Gore, J.M. & Zeichner, K.M. (1991). Action research and reflective teaching in preservice teacher education: A case study from the United States. Teaching and Teacher Education, 7(2): 119-136.

Griffiths, M. & Tann, S. (1992). Using reflective practice to link personal and public theories. Journal of Education for Teaching, 18(1): 69-84.

Habermas, J. (1971). Knowledge and human interests. Translated by J.J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kelly, K. (1995). Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World. Boulder, CO: Perseus.

Shulman, L.S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2): 4-14.

Steier, F. (1995). From universing to conversing: An ecological constructivist approach to learning and multiple description. In L.P. Steffe and J. Gale (Eds.), Constructivism in education, (pp. 67-84). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Van Manen, M. (1991). The tact of teaching: The meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

One response to “Ideas About Teaching/Learning/Research”

  1. Karen says:

    Very thought provoking! Have passed on to people…

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