Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A real teaching learning moment

I would say that at least half of the content in the courses I'm taking have or will cover very practical issues like lesson, unit, and curriculum planning, discipline, special needs, marking. All of these practical learnings can be translated into teacher tips or classroom tactics and the like. There is a substantial portion of what has been covered to date that is forcing me and my fellow students to consider and eventually formulate a philosophy of teaching.

What is the purpose of a social science education? Is it the creation of informed and engaged citizens? Do I want to send out people who can formulate their ideas in a coherent and convincing way? Is it most important that the young people who have taken my courses end up becoming agents for social change? Social justice? In addition to these questions there are also questions of what values will feature most prominently in my classrooms. Whether academic achievement will trump critical analysis or curriculum takes precedence over conceptual understandings will depend almost entirely upon me. Will scathing honesty or obedience be more highly regarded? Will my students be aware of my beliefs or will I be an apolitical mystery—the consummate devil's advocate? I know the answers to very few of these questions but I want to relate one experience that has given me some excellent perspective on the surprises that come in an educational experience designed to make me an educator.

I have a Philosophy of Education course taught by the same professor who is teaching my Social Science Methodology course. He is very political, very opinionated, and very knowledgeable on the social sciences side. He made it clear in the first week of school that he has strong opinions and that he believes they should be shared in the classroom. Though it is unfair to label, I don't think he would argue with the characterization of his beliefs in terms of education as anti-corporate with a strong belief in the importance of social justice and inclusion in the classroom. Fair enough. I must admit, however, that I have felt concern about his teaching style as his opinions permeate all of our class discussions. This was of greatest concern for me in the Philosophy of Education course which is simply a survey of influential schools of thought—idealism, rationalism, pragmatism, Marxism, post-modernism, etc.

This week in the Phil of Ed course (on Monday to be exact) we began covering content where most philosophy courses begin: Plato. However, his coverage of platonic idealism seemed to focus entirely on The Republic with a special focus on the admittedly totalitarian aspects of Plato's vision of a society built on the teachings and learnings of Philosophers (in his mind, these are people who spend their lives attempting to slip our mortal coil and apprehend the great ideals and perfections to be found in World of the Forms and if you're really curious, I've found a decent outline of Plato's Ideas). The point is that, yes, Plato can definitely be painted as an elitist who excludes minority voices. However, there is a great deal that comes out of platonic idealism which can give aspiring teachers hope and guidance in the hows and whys of the education process. By the end of the 3 hour class I was at the end of my rope. There was such a complete denunciation of Plato's ideas and condemnation of the man himself that it was clear to me that he would have been condemned to the same fate as his teacher if we had been the jury. I spoke out, and maybe too passionately (aggressively?), in defence. However, in my haste and passion I made very little sense—long pauses, stammering, and the like. Of course, immediately afterward I began thinking about what I would have said differently. Throughout the next morning my classmates took friendly jabs at me, acknowledging that there had been a moment in class.

Now, here is where it all comes together. As I said above, the programme has been geared toward encouraging critical reflection on teaching styles, tenor in the classroom, and personal beliefs on education. In addition to thinking about what had transpired in the class at the end of Monday, I also thought a great deal about what kind of class this guy was running. I will admit that I began to judge him harshly (which I suppose is typical of a preservice teacher in his third week of school). At the beginning of the class that my fellow social science students have with him on Tuesday afternoon, the professor paused, considered, and then opened the floor to a discussion on what we had spoken about in the Philosophy of Education class the day before. He gave me the opportunity to go over what I had been trying to say in the class when things were far more charged. It was an incredibly generous act.

It was the act of a teacher. And so I was put to shame for my harsh attitude. This is a man with opinions who is prepared to take criticism, challenges, and opposing points of view in an effort to teach. He might not be the way I want to be, but he's doing what I hope to do very soon.