On Teaching Philosophies: Preserving the stepping stone to reflective practice.

I find the advice columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education informative for candidates of academic and administrative positions and personnel in institutions of Higher Education. An intriguing recent post by Professor Leonard Cassuto titled “It’s time to overhaul a foolish job application requirement” challenged the usefulness and rationality of requesting candidates or applicants for academic jobs to submit a teaching philosophy. Cassuto’s argument was twofold as he argued that (1) teaching philosophies are tiresome for search committees to read because of their bad quality and lack of authenticity have adequate teaching experience to draft a personalized and effective statement and (2) applicants suffer through the task because the generic prompt is a bad prompt for writing.

Educational developers and instructional consultants have devoted great resources to organize programs, consult with faculty and graduate students, and research about teaching philosophy statements (TPS). I felt the need to respond to Cassuto’s urge to ban the teaching philosophy requirement because I strongly believe that TPS represent a stepping stone to reflective practice for every instructor.  My argument is that a TPS is an essential piece of academic writing for both the search committees and the applicants as search committees get an overview of the teaching experiences along with reflections on them from a candidate and novice instructors articulate, analyze and critically examine their beliefs, values and practices and explain their plan for further professional development.

Teaching Philosophy Statements

A teaching philosophy statement (TPS) is typically a narrative (although people have experimented with other forms such as poems, performances, and digital story telling) and it provides a conceptualization of effective teaching and meaningful learning within a specific discipline. In a teaching philosophy statement an instructor explains one’s beliefs about how students learn and what his/her role is in facilitating learning (Chism, 1998; Kaplan et al., 2008). In a TPS several instructors choose to highlight their goals when they teach students taking into consideration the characteristics of their learners. The focal point in any teaching philosophy is how the instructor helps students attain the goals specifically the teaching methods, the instructional technology and the assessment strategies they implement. A reflective and self-evaluative TPS often concludes with a plan for further pedagogical development (Chism, 1998; O’ Neal, Meizlish, & Kaplan, 2007; Schönwetter, SoKal, Friesen, & Taylor, 2002).

Personal statements of teaching philosophy are regularly requested for evaluation purposes such as academic job searches, tenure and promotion dossiers, nominations for teaching awards, teaching grant applications, and as a course requirement in Preparing Future Faculty programs (PFF) and college teaching certifications (Kaplan, Meizlish, O’ Neal, & Wright, 2008; Schönwetter et al., 2002).

When Meizlish and Kaplan (2008) surveyed search committees on the utility of teaching philosophies for assessing teaching for academic hiring the researchers found that 90% of those requesting teaching philosophies did it for two reasons: (1) to communicate a commitment to teaching excellence and find a candidate who would fit well in such an environment and (2) to learn about the candidate’s perspective on teaching and determine the extent to which the candidate has reflected on their experiences. Even for those search committees that did not explicitly request a TPS, soliciting one was viewed positively as an indication of valuing and commitment to teaching. Thus, effective TPS can serve as one piece of evidence via which the candidate can communicate ideas about effective teaching and meaningful learning in a discipline grounding them in their experiences as a teacher and/or student, and connecting them with learning and pedagogical theories.

Effective Teaching Philosophy Statements

Cassuto and others in the past dismissed TPS (Montell, 2003; Pratt, 2005) by arguing that the majority of them are of poor quality, they are generic and superficial (“Most of the teaching philosophies I’ve read have ranged from forgettable to terrible”). According to Cassuto it is primarily because applicants “are faced with a bad confusing prompt that puts them in an unfamiliar terrain and despite the fact that they are trying to embrace the task their attempts seem mechanical and clumsy”. I will agree that the prompt found in most academic position ads “write your teaching philosophy” is a generic one. However, the challenge does not lie in the prompt.

The writing task is a creative ill-structured task for which the outcome, its format or the procedure for writing and even the vocabulary is often unfamiliar to the candidates. This is because the expectation is that each candidate will develop a creative personal philosophy statement that emerges from his/her own experiences with the realization that these may greatly vary. Depending on their experiences, individuals write about how they taught classes as the instructor of record, how they tutored students and prepared supplemental instructional materials as teaching assistants, how they mentored undergraduate researchers in labs, and how they guided undergraduate and high school students in field studies. This task actually reflects the nature of most of the tasks in graduate school.  It is not a simple straightforward exercise or an additional hoop for the candidate to jump so that search committees can discern the best from the best. It is a creative ill-structured task for which the candidate has to search for resources, acquire basic pedagogical knowledge and vocabulary, seek advice, create different drafts, and have the draft reviewed by peers until the outcome reflects an evolving identity of a beginning teacher.

Successful Teaching Philosophy Statements

characteristics The characteristics of successful TPS have been documented by educational developers at the University’s of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (Kaplan et al., 2008). When analyzing 356 responses from search committee chairs to the question “What makes a statement of philosophy successful?” they uncovered five themes. Committee chairs perceived successful TPS to have the characteristics summarized above.

Scaffolding and Evaluating TPS

Besides referring to the extant literature to identify characteristics of successful teaching philosophies, an instrumental experience would be to have graduate students and junior faculty to discuss with faculty members who have served on search committees and promotion and tenure committees about the TPS and their role in faculty recruitment and evaluation. As Schussler and her collaborators found (2011), Biology graduate students in a biology education course mentioned that having a faculty panel discussion on the TPS and academic job searches in addition to modules on science education helped them to meaningfully revise their TPS drafts to personalize the statements and ground them in their teaching practice. The involvement of more experienced faculty from different types of institutions when possible does not only help students to personalize their statements but also situate the within a disciplinary and institutional context making them responsive to the audience.

Rubrics for evaluating TPS

Faculty developers and graduate student consultants have created numerous resources to prepare students to draft their first teaching philosophy including guidelines posted on teaching centers’ websites, lists of questions and writing exercises, and research based rubrics to facilitate the process of consulting about, writing and evaluating a TPS. I will not elaborate on the printed and web resources available for writing a teaching philosophy but I want to direct the reader to three examples of rubrics for evaluating TPS:

  1. A research-based rubric for developing statements of teaching philosophy
  2. Teaching philosophies reconsidered: A conceptual model for the development and evaluation of teaching philosophies
  3. An assessment rubric for Teaching/Learning Philosophy, by Lauren Kooistra (adapted from R. Neil Johnson) Penn State University, The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence

I strongly advice consultants and academic advisors to direct their students to these rubrics, because the categories of a rubric can help demystify the genre, and scaffold students to create a conceptual framework of the genre of a teaching philosophy and its components. Moreover, Kaplan and colleagues found (2008) that providing a rubric (in addition to readings, case studies, exercises for getting started, peer review feedback) improved the quality of the teaching statements especially with regards to providing specific and elaborated evidence of practice within a discipline. When the rubric was solicited in advance it also reduced the anxiety and frustration for writing the statements and facilitated better self-evaluation (Kaplan et al., 2008).

In conclusion, teaching philosophy statements have become a regular application requirement and a typical component of the promotion and tenure dossier. This reflective statement is used in conjunction with other materials such as cover letters, sample syllabi, and student evaluations of teaching to evaluate pedagogical competence. It is the foundation of written and electronic teaching portfolios that graduate students and faculty so devotedly develop and progressively revise as they acquire more expertise and move from novice to experienced teachers. A statement of teaching philosophy is the stepping stone to reflective practice and the most personalized and creative component of application packages, dossiers and portfolios. It is part of the identity of any instructor and it cannot be removed or replaced by other documents such as a sample syllabus.

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