My philosophy of teaching and learning can be summed up in one quote from Raph Koster, an expert in game design: “Learning is the brain having fun.” Teachers and professors often cite the “Aha moments” in the classroom as the reason they went into teaching, and I am no different. It is in those moments of insight that students recognize the “fun” in their own learning. The key to engaging education is to design learning experiences that regularly create those “Aha moments” rather than hoping to witness them.
In my 25 years as an educator, I have learned many lessons about teaching through deep dives into a variety of subjects: cognitive theory, game design, human tutoring, online learning, productive failure, competency based learning, and authentic assessment (to name a few). My philosophy of teaching is a continuous pursuit in crafting experiences that lead to engaged, efficient, and effective learning. Every deep dive into a new field has taught me about creating the optimal conditions for learning and I thought I would share a few of those lessons.
Cognitive theory taught me to use variable practice instead of massed practice in order to help students form good schemata for procedural knowledge. Game design taught me the importance of giving students the opportunity to explore learning spaces, rather than construct strict paths of learning for them. Research about human tutoring taught me to bring each student to a point of impasse in their current knowledge or understanding of a topic and then persuade them to push the boundaries of what they know – it is the just beyond the impasse point where we experience the “Aha.” To explore learning spaces and reach impasse points, students must be engaged in active learning. In classes I design active learning through activities like paired whiteboard/lapboard problems, 3-2-1-Go discussions (all students answer at the same time in remote sessions), short educational games/puzzles that I’ve designed, hands-on manipulatives, Desmos Classroom Activities, and scenarios/concept-oriented problems crafted to push the boundaries of current understanding.
Learning to teach Calculus online molded me (over many years and a lot of research) into a great instructional designer. To teach online, you carefully deconstruct a course into essential learning objectives, examine the reason for every learning and assessment practice you use in the traditional course, and then search for innovative ways to construct online experiences that accomplish (but do not necessarily mimic) the goals from your in-class practices. When I began teaching online in 2007, I found myself re-examining every teaching and assessment practice that I had been using through a new lens. Online instructors inevitably come face-to-face with the stark fact that it does not matter what path a student takes to learn; any path that leads a student to achieve the learning goals is a good one. Your job as the instructor is not actually to instruct; it is to create experiences where a student can learn, and coach all your students to be successful (regardless of whether they choose the experiences you create).
During my time at WGU, I immersed myself deeply in competency-based education and curriculum and assessment design. This experience, monitoring the learning and assessment success (or failure) of approximately 80,000 students, was profound. The typical WGU student was an adult with children and at least one job. And there were two practices that led to the success of the WGU student: 1) flexibility in the schedule, and 2) regular weekly contact with a program mentor who helped the student to set and monitor short-term and long-term goals. Repeatedly, I saw how something as simple as the postponement of deadlines by a week could make an enormous difference to the success of a student.
In traditional education, when we force students to adhere to strict deadlines and have no compassion for their circumstances, we are skewing student success towards the traditional college student of the 1950s (white, wealthy, residential, and unencumbered by a family). This is not the student population that we serve today. Real life does interfere with education. Students are often caregivers (for children, siblings, parents, or grandparents). Students most often do have to work to have their basic needs (food, shelter, and Internet) met. Students come from diverse backgrounds, and often speak English as a second (or third) language. Educators must adjust. We adjust by being compassionate about deadlines, by allowing more time on exams for any student that needs it, by allowing students to attend class remotely or recording class for a student who is ill, and by creating assessments that focus on something other than memorization, speed, and timeliness. It is not the strict adherence to a path that matters, it is the student achieving the learning goals.
When I left academia in 2012, I could no longer teach mathematics curriculum that I believed to be out-of-date. I began teaching College Algebra at Westminster College in 2017 (with very short notice) and in all honesty, I was unsure whether I would enjoy teaching a “traditional” College Algebra course. However, during my time at WC, I have found ways to both meet the curriculum needs of the discipline and the actual career and life needs of students. Working with the math department, we developed the MATH 144 Functions Modeling Change course to replace College Algebra. This course focuses more on creating mathematical models from real-world scenarios and data. Instead of focusing strictly on specific mathematical topics, we focus on course objectives – broader goals like relating graphs to equations or interpreting data. It is the creation process of this course that helped me to design the ESIL Lens for Instructional Design (now used by many institutions for curriculum redesign).
Students enjoyed discussing all the real-world data and graphs in Math 144 and in 2018 one of them asked how they were going to keep getting graphs after the course was over. From this, the project GraphsInTheWorld was born (I post about 5 graphs a week through Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter). Students, former students, and many people I’ve never met follow the accounts to learn about the world through graphs. Former students continue to engage with the graphs online, they stop me on campus to discuss recent graphs, and they send me interesting examples they’ve found to include in the project. I share this example because this showcases the grandest goal that I have in my philosophy of teaching. I want students to continue to recognize and understand mathematics in the world long after they have left my classroom.
Educators are now facilitators of learning (not instructors). I believe we should craft flexible and resilient courses to meet the needs of all of our students. But we should not expect every student to take the same paths. A resilient course is one where a student who can’t make it to campus or who falls ill has the safety net of remote attendance or a recorded class. A resilient course is one where you can turn in your assessments even if you are at a sports competition in another state. A resilient course is one in which deadlines can be made or assignments can be replaced if circumstances demand it. When the COVID-19 virus changed the modality of our courses in March 2020, I did not have to alter a single thing in my courses – the assignments did not change and were turned in exactly the same way, the students already knew how to attend and participate in a remote course, and the students already knew that deadlines had options. It turns out that designing to meet the needs of all the students also meets the needs of a crisis.
The educator is now the experience designer and the coach. We have one goal: meet the needs of all of our students and do our best to nurture every student across the finish line for the learning goals in the course.