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"I believe every person in the world has the ability to learn." My special education philosophy centers on the relationship between teacher and student, for this is where the real process of structured education begins. I believe this connection can convey shared respect and lends an excellent opportunity for role modeling. I believe that teachers demonstrate many different roles, most importantly the role as a facilitator. As a teacher/facilitator information is shared and reassigned to students to help students learn to be responsible for their own learning. I believe that children with special needs, in fact, every child can take some responsibility in their own learning. However, this is not a simple task. Students need teachers and structure. They need guidance by qualified highly trained professional teachers.
I believe the main rationale of education is for both the student and teacher to use knowledge to help them develop as individuals. Knowledge is an external body of information that can be gained through experience and development by internal cognitive learning processes. Knowledge is not being taught the right answer; rather, it is the ability to reflect critically, recognize patterns, and retrieve information. Knowledge is used to help the individual successfully find the way through life. Because life is always changing, knowledge is also in a state of transformation.
It is this state of change that makes learning a stagnated set of useless facts. Instead of focusing on facts, I believe it is the role of the teacher to help students learn how to learn, not what to learn, how to think and not what to think. This is in agreement with Rita Smilkstein's Natural Human Learning Process theory (2003). This theory is based on the premise that all humans are born with the ability of how to learn, humans can learn to love, and are intrinsically motivated to learn. Knowledge is achieved through experiences that expose individuals to new learning. Teachers cannot magically infuse this learning into students. Students must "grow their own" learning. This involves the formation from learning experiences and physical growth of neurons in the brain. There are stumbling blocks that may shape this natural process of learning, such as negative emotional experiences, lack of active experience, being unaware of learning preferences, and an imbalanced student teacher relationship. It is the role of the teacher to facilitate learning by making every effort to remove these barriers or at least improve conditions.
Jon Wergin (2007) laid emphasis on the idea that teachers also need to be leaders in the classroom. One way to do this is by creating a "space for learning" where it is safe to make mistakes and experiment with learning. Bernice McCarthy (2000) suggested a learning cycle that upholds all learning styles and provides opportunities for personal growth, for exploring what experts know, for experimenting with information, and for constructing new forms of learned knowledge. It is important for teachers and students to trust each others as Hoy and Tschannen-Moran (1999) indicated in their research. Without mutual trust and respect, optimal learning cannot occur. It is also part of the teacher's role to establish this positive rapport with students. Just as I believe that knowledge is neither static nor black and white, I also believe that morals are neither fixed nor black and white. Situations and conditions will affect what may be considered right and wrong. I believe that values and morals need not be based on universal or particular religious beliefs, but instead on the goal of living together on this planet as humans. What does it take to live together successfully? The answer to this question is what may be taught in schools. While not everyone will agree, I believe that if we teach students to be respectful, reasonable, and responsible, we are fulfilling the values that students need to be successful in life. Exactly how these three terms are defined may change in time and place. Because life is always changing, we need to learn how to adapt to the changes that are taking place and accommodate them. The things we learn help us to adapt to changes successfully. I believe that humans are essentially good, but each person has areas of weakness that may be improved. Our purpose in life is to learn about ourselves, and ultimately, because life is always changing, knowledge is also in a state of transformation. I
believe that if we teach students to be respectful, reasonable, and responsible, we are teaching the values that students need to have to be successful in life. Exactly how these three terms are defined may change in time and place. Because life is ever changing always in motion, we need to learn more about how to adapt to the changes that are taking place and accommodate them. The things we learn help us to adapt to the changes successfully. I believe that humans are essentially good, but each person has areas of weakness that may be improved. So, special education is just a special way of learning, but it's still learning. Our purpose in life is to learn about ourselves, and ultimately, it is our job to grow and improve the lives of all people including people with special needs as well as improving ourselves. This is why I believe education itself is a special privilege and every single one of us is special in our own way and deserves to be educated.
When investigating formal philosophical approaches, I find parts of my philosophy of special education in several different philosophies. The Thomist description of a student is one that I can support. Thomists believe that a student is a person of dignity and worth who possesses both a mind and soul. A student has a purpose for existing, a purpose in life, and a purpose for being in school. Thomists also emphasize that the actual process of learning can only take place within a student. Every student has the potential to learn as part of their human nature, but they also have the freedom of will to choose to learn or not to learn (Gutek, 2004, p. 62). While this description of a student fits my philosophy well, I do not blindly accept their vision of universal truths and values that are centered in religious beliefs and guidelines.
I also found a connection in the philosophy of Realism. Realists believe knowledge to be external and see the purpose of education as a developing reasoning as a way to learn to make intelligent, rational choices (p.41). Realists also emphasize the importance of a variety of instructional methods in teaching. However, Realism views the teacher as an ultimate authority on the subject matter being taught. The teacher has the responsibility to design and structure the curriculum before students encounter it. I find this to be too restrictive and indicative of a "one size will fit all" educational system that is not adequately responsive to learning preferences and changing situations.
Ultimately, I find my philosophy to be most in line with Pragmatism. Pragmatists also believe that the universe is in constant change and because of this, answers and solutions to the problems we as humans face need to be revised to meet changing situations (Gutek, 2004, p. 72). John Dewey's Complete Act of Thought is an excellent example of the type of thinking processes that I believe should be a primary focus of education (p. 74). Pragmatists also emphasize the purpose of education to be personal growth and the goal of living one's life successfully (p.76). While no one particular formal educational philosophy fits my beliefs exactly, it is most important that I recognize and understand my own beliefs in or exactly, it is most important that I recognize and understand my own beliefs in order that they may guide my pedagogical decisions and help me to continuing growing as an educator throughout my life. I am willing to change for the better of self and community. I welcome the challenge by findings ways to improve my practice.
Improving my practice as a teacher is an on-going responsibility that I have to myself as a professional and to my students as learners. Change can be difficult for many reasons. Steven Leinwand (1992) highlighted some of the reasons that change is such a challenge for teachers. He discussed the isolated nature of teaching, lack of confidence, fear of failure, lack of support, and insufficient time as major obstacles to instructional reform (p. 466-467). I believe that when I become a certificated educator, I will agree to acknowledge these obstacles, and then overcome them so that my teaching will not become static and automatic experience. I believe in instructional reform, and I understand that is will be lifelong.
I believe Pragmatist philosophy supports my attitude toward instructional reform. The Pragmatists believe that the purpose of education is growth, the idea of life-long learning (Gutek, 2004, p. 76). This concept is not applicable only to students, but also to those who are teaching. It is my goal as an educator to evaluate my practice for ways to improve. I need to be objective enough to assess what is working well and what is not. My process for improving closely mirrors Dewey's Complete Act of Thought (p. 74). When I encounter an area of my practice that is not working well, I reflect on the situation and try to define the problem. This situation may come to me from my own evaluation, or I may hear about a technique from a conference or colleague that I recognize as a problem-spot in my own practice. Once I have defined the problem, I research and investigate possible solutions. When I find a solution or combination of solutions that I feel will help, I apply it in my classroom. If that solution worked, then I will make it a routine in my teaching. If it did not work, then I search out another solution and try again. I repeat this process until I feel the problematic situation has improved. My past experiences of using this process for improvement have proved fruitful. While I may not have found the best solution initially, further choices for change have been successful. I have found that my own personal commitment to growth is really the only impetus that I have for change.
I believe that all individuals have preferences in the ways in which they learn especially in the area of special education. These preferences may be in the sensory arena, in the way in which they process information, in their approach to learning tasks, in their level of social interaction, or in the ways they exhibit their learning. Learning preferences are not hard-wired within us; rather they may be developed or strengthened and may change over time. I do not believe that students may only learn when their particular learning preference is present. Instead, students may be challenged to grow in styles with which they may not be at first comfortable. I value these inherent differences in students and hope to honor the differences in the methodology and strategies I use in a classroom.
Realism, as an educational philosophy, provides for these differences in learning. While they believe that curriculum and learning should be "designed and structured prior to the students' encounter with it", they also believe that actual instruction may take a variety of forms (Gutek, 2004, p. 43). Realists see a duality in learning of "content (subject-matter knowledge) and method (the process of instruction)" (p. 43). Realists focus on the idea that while a lesson may be fun or entertaining, it is "insufficient if there is not a body of knowledge, a subject, being taught" (p.43). I agree with this statement wholeheartedly, and I maintain the awareness as an instructor that every strategy I choose must be focused not only on a particular learning style, but more importantly on the educational objective of the lesson.