A Personal Philosophy of Teaching: To Teach is to Learn

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When I consider the question, what is my philosophy of teaching I would say it was summed up in five words - To teach is to learn. Starting from the point of the definition of the verb to teach, as "to impart knowledge or skills" (Dictionary.com, 2010) and learning as "to acquire knowledge of or skill by study, instruction or experience" (Dictionary.com, 2010) I would argue that although we may learn by a variety of means,but to be able to teach we must all first be learners.

In my hubris, I would have liked this to have been a statement of a completely original idea, but this is not the case! "Docendo Discimus" ( by teaching we learn) is ascribed to Seneca the Younger (in Stone, 2004). I believe that becoming a good teacher requires one first to be a good learner and this is an echo of the words of Josef Joubert - to teach is to learn twice. (Answers.com, 2010)

I have arrived at this belief, because of my personal experience. To become a good teacher, I would conjecture that once we are ready to teach, we have achieved a degree of understanding by learning, which enables us to communicate this to another person. My experience has been that whenever I have taught another person, I have always been clear in my own mind that I must really understand the subject that I am teaching beforehand.

This idea is borne out and demonstrated in some of the modern methods of teaching including clinical skills, such as that described by Lake and Hamdorf (2004) when they describe an effective method of teaching clinical skills incorporating observation, reflection and feedback in addition to steps whereby knowledge or skills held by the teacher are demonstrated and hopefully transferred to a student. However, this method begins with an assumption and incorporates the construct that the teacher has already learnt a process or knowledge and is able to demonstrate their understanding to another - who can then proceed to perpetuate the knowledge to another learner if they are an able enough teacher! For the sake of argument, we could consider that it may be possible to engage in the process of teaching without knowledge. Whilst Ramsden (2003) may be able propose principles in effective teaching, albeit in a University setting, without consideration of the provision of knowledge to a student, in practice when teaching for example using a technique such as the five-step "microskills" model described by Nehar et al (1992:419-424), this process still requires the teacher to have knowledge to teach general rules and recognise and correct mistakes. Removing these aspects from the technique though and we are left with a model that has some similarities to processes within autonomous learning. This gives consideration to the idea that learning is improved by guidance by a knowledgeable teacher.

Personal Experience - Self Directed Autonomous Learning

When I was a 13 year old boy, I stopped attending mainstream schooling. This was a result of family circumstance, but also to some extent a result of my father's views of education, which included ideas about experiential and autonomous learning, shying away from the pedagogic behavioural models of learning and his belief I could learn in a different way.

I was now in a situation where teachers were no longer present instructing me, although I remember a conversation with my father, when I expressed my anxieties I would not be able to learn, that he would "find someone" who had sufficient knowledge or experience to help me, for example in studying French quite simplistically, he would ask a friend who spoke French to teach me although with the caveat I would teach them English! At the time this seemed to me to be unfair, but now in hindsight whether he knew it or not, it would appear my father ascribed to Social Development Theory as described by Vygotsky (1978), with the involvement of a "More Knowledgeable Other" to guide me through my independent learning as required, with a principle of reciprocity between teacher and student. Consequently, not only was this a different way of learning, this became my first experience of teaching, where I as an adolescent was the more knowledgable, with respect to spoken English than my adult student! However, this rarely arose and I was essentially in a position to learn what and when I wanted, having responsibility for my own studies, which could be described as self directed, which as described by Malcolm Knowles (1975: 18) is a process:

'... in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others'... 'identifying human and material resources for learning'.

Reflection - Adult Learning Principles

This experience highlighted for me that a distinction between learning as a child or an adult is somewhat arbitrary. I understand now that at this time I was successful, not because I was intelligent, clever or resourceful, but because to be able to learn at this time I held some personal attributes which are often described within adult learning principles including a readiness to learn, motivation to learn, increasing autonomy and self-direction. How I came to have these attributes is unclear to myself, but I think it would be unlikely to be the result of instructional teaching, but more likely to be a process occurring during growth and development with the acquisition of experiences. I would argue that the sum of my experiential learning to this point contributed to these attributes.

In principle therefore if these attributes were evident or could be encouraged in an individual, it could be argued that we could all be self directed learners, taking responsibility for our own learning and independently could aspire to then communicate our knowledge or skills to others i.e. teach. I would argue that through the process of learning we are able to become more aware of our own ability - as described by Kolb (1984), the cycle of learning through experience, includes reflection and I would suggest that during this stage of an individual's learning there is the potential to recognise their own competencies, including whether they could communicate their competence to another person.

Why is teaching learning?

To describe the stages of teaching with an individual, I would say this includes appraising what they already know, model by example and demonstrate what they should know or be able to do, explore what they have begun to learn and begun to question, guide to support them acquiring more knowledge or demonstrate understanding of what they already know and challenging them to test that knowledge has not only been learnt but can be applied.

Within the process of teaching there is not only an opportunity to demonstrate competence in our knowledge and understanding of a subject, but also to continue to learn.

The characteristics of adult learning describes processes by which we may learn through experience and reflection. In relation to teaching another person, we have an opportunity to engage in a cycle of learning through the experience with the potential for reflection which enables the teacher to become a learner also. To demonstrate understanding and that learning has been achieved, I believe the process of teaching can play an important role in demonstrating an individual's competence.

Returning to the theme earlier in the introduction regarding the teaching of clinical skills, there is a focus within these teaching methods that for the acquisition of skills, the role of the teacher is to facilitate movement through stages or a cycle of learning from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. (Lake and Hamford 2004). This clearly follows on from the work of George Miller (1990) who proposed assessment frameworks for assessing competence within a clinical setting. It should be noted that within some teaching methods there is the incorporation of reflection and feedback which enables an opportunity for a dialogue between the teacher and the pupil and would form the basis of a learning experience for both parties.

Feedback and reflection are clearly distinct constructs. I see reflection as a process of internal dialogue with oneself, which occurs for everyone following any interaction within our environment. With Kolb's model of experiential learning, reflective observation is an essential component, enabling processing and integration of ideas.

Feedback is the receipt of social interaction from another, which enables us to appraise ourselves, in terms of our performance, roles and effectiveness and supports and enables internal reflection. I think feedback has an important role in contributing to us individually being able to assess our personal development and provides us with an indication as to our level of competence.

The ideas within the model of four stages of learning from incompetence to competence appear inexplicably enmeshed with principles from adult learning and experiential learning, including concepts of self-awareness, motivation and that without reflection there can be no progression through the stages.

For a student, I feel that the process within feedback facilitates individuals to move from a position of unconscious incompetence to conscious competence. Ultimately, the ability to consciously focus on our own practice enables us to learn and adapt to new situations and challenges within our environment.

When this is extrapolated to the role of teacher, to be in a position to teach another person would have begun with a journey from unconscious incompetence, and through learning and reflection have become consciously competent. I would suggest though that as a teacher, due to the reciprocal nature of the interaction with someone learning and as a consequence of reflective observation of the outcomes of teaching, transition between the competency stages would occur, as the teacher learnt further skills in communication with their students and would result in unconscious competence.

Hence, the process of teaching itself can facilitate continued learning for an individual who is engaged in teaching. An individual to whom this process applies would become competent over time. This poses a question though that once an individual has learnt something and also can demonstrate or communicate this to another person (teach), has the acquisition of this state of understanding resulted in the cessation of experiential learning? Would there be any further motivation for an individual who was unconsciously competent to continue to learn skills or knowledge? Whereas the model of four stages of learning includes a step of loss of competence, it does not address the continued potential experiential learning of an individual who is unconsciously competent. Logically, we can never be fully aware and knowledgeable about everything and therefore we will always be unconsciously incompetent to some degree, so there will always exist the opportunity to learn more. An awareness of our own limitations, through a process of reflection, could be thought of as a further stage in the stages of learning - reflective incompetence, whereby we can identify deficits in our understanding or abilities which require us to return to a state of conscious incompetence. I would suggest that this is a process which ultimately drives our continued learning, that realisation drive us, fuel us to continue to learn.

Summary

I have described that my philosophy of teaching is that to teach is to learn. I have described how individual learning may be self directed, but also benefits from guidance from others and that the process of attempting to teach is rooted in firstly learning. I have described that principles of experiential learning may be experienced by a teacher and impact upon their own learning, with processes of reflection and feedback. I have described how these mechanisms may enable the development of increasing competency.

In conclusion, I would describe a good teacher as an individual who has learnt, synthesised and integrated knowledge and skill into understanding, which they may convey to another, whilst being aware they themselves have deficits within their knowledge base, a state of reflective incompetence, which does not inhibit them from exploring further their own learning. We can only teach when we have learnt and we can only teach what we have learnt.

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