Edited to correct some grammatical mistakes.
The new school year is about to start, and it’s customary to take a moment and philosophize. But I’m really busy, so I’m going to dust off something else and let that stand in. Back in 2010 December, I was nominated for a prize offered by Princeton University Teacher Prep. Part of the process was to submit a statement of my “philosophy of education”. I’d never actually put down on paper my educational philosophy, so I had to write it fresh.
I didn’t win the prize but I did get to spend some time thinking about why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s worthwhile. And since I was once instructed by a very wise professor that anything worth writing is worth using at least three times, I figured I’d recycle my statement here. Enjoy.
I entered the profession of teaching without any clear educational philosophy. Having done well in school myself, I more or less assumed that the key to being a good teacher would lie in offering an environment like the one I had experienced. And even though I had taken many advanced education courses in pursuit of my degree, what I encountered in them lay fallow in my mind — the seeds of good ideas that had not, yet, found fertile ground. It did not take long in the classroom to convince me that my recollections and preconceptions would be wholly inadequate to the daunting task of teaching. My thinking perforce had to evolve. What has emerged as my philosophy of education is therefore somewhat ad hoc and eclectic, but I believe it serves me well. This is what I have learned about the arts of teaching and learning.
The foremost truth I have learned is: Students will perform to our expectations of them. Oh, of course it is possible to set the bar too high and be disappointed; or to underestimate your students and be surprised. But by and large, students perform to our expectations. Tell your students that you believe the material is beyond them, and their learning will suffer. Show them that you believe that, and you make it irrefutably true. On the other hand, set high expectations and consistently hold the students to them — show them by your own persistence that you believe they should master the material, can master it, and will master it — and they will move heaven and earth to prove you right. They will not even know they are doing the amazing. In my second year of teaching, one student complained, “Mr. Gilroy, you act like we’re so much smarter than we are”, to which another opined, “But that’s better than if you treated us like we’re dumb”. I have encountered students who do not know how to learn and too many who do not care to — but I have yet to encounter one who cannot learn.
This was brought home to me by my experience teaching our course on Space Science and Astrophysics. Due to the vagaries of our scheduling process, it turned out that most of the students in SSA were not “science kids” (most of whom opted for Advanced Placement courses in biology or physics). Indeed, most SSA students had not even taken introductory physics — which I expected would make the astrophysics part of the course extremely limited. But I was mistaken. Despite little formal training, these students dove into the topics and wrestled successfully with some of the more abstruse topics in modern science: the evolution of black holes, the origin of the Universe, the possibility of life elsewhere. Moreover, they learned to teach each other and to share what they found — so much so that fellow members of the faculty actively sought to sit on the panel of experts judging their final projects.
My second precept is, time is too precious to waste — mine and theirs. There is little point in spending a year rushing through a litany of disconnected facts that make no impression on their lives. My courses are organized, as is my discipline (physics), around problem solving: The retention of definitions and figures has value only in that it speeds the solution of problems. My students learn to dread four infamous letters — HDYK? — which festoon their papers, because I am relentless in forcing them to answer “How do you know?” It is not the answer but the process that matters — even more so in this century, when the answers we take for granted are liable to change beyond recognition. Many of my students enter my courses with only a rudimentary problem-solving ability, and so we linger on topics more than other teachers might. I cover less, but I like to think that collectively, we uncover more.
Because time is so precious, very few of the lab experiments we run center on cookbook verification of accepted fact. Instead, the experiments usually ask the students to predict the outcome of some procedure. Along the way, they must measure the content-relevant parameters. For example, my introductory physics class just recently completed a “race” wherein each group measured the acceleration of two carts and predicted where they would cross. We then videotaped the actual race so that they could use video analysis software to precisely measure how far from their predicted location the actual crossing occurred. In many classes, measuring the accelerations would have been the explicit point of the experiment; for us, it was just a waypoint. Having a specific goal helped focus the students and allowed them to see some application of the material. (Of course, the element of competition also helped motivate them!)
The ultimate goal of education, in my opinion, is to build in students the confidence, habits, and skills to allow them to ask intelligent questions and set about intelligently finding answers. The world into which they will enter is so different from the world I encountered at their age, as to be entirely uncharted. I cannot tell them what they need to know, because I can’t possibly foresee that — what they need to know very likely hasn’t been imagined yet. My best hope is to train their minds to be supple so that they can flex and adapt. This finds its best expression in a yearly project of the Advanced Placement Physics course. The XLP (extended lab project) challenges the students to formulate their own goals and questions, to design an experiment, and to commit to it for nearly half a year. From conception to completion, the students drive the experiment, allocating their time and maintaining a budget. Though I of course remain present to facilitate their work and to help them past roadblocks, within a few weeks of starting, they inevitably surpass my own knowledge of their particular question. They shift from student to expert and must adapt their style accordingly. The XLP is both daunting and exciting for them. Despite requiring considerable hard work toward the end of their senior year, the students rarely complain and never seem to suffer senioritis. Indeed, they often ask (only half-jokingly) if they can skip other classes to get more time in lab.
A third truth I’ve come to is that learning is an emergent behavior. It only happens in its purest form by collaboration. This has posed a difficulty for me, as my discipline is traditionally evaluated primarily through individual performance on isolated exams. It has taken persistent effort for me to craft assessments that accurately measure the interplay of learners — a goal that I readily admit continues to task me. Wherever possible I have made the experimental portions of my courses acts of collaboration not only in the data-collecting but in its analysis and reporting. This complements another strong opinion of mine, which is that science education should be viewed as a public art. The output students create should be intended not for my eyes but for the larger world. Thus, in SSA, each quarter ended with a research project conducted in groups and presented to a panel of reviewers drawn from the larger school community. In AP Physics, for every experiment, every group must prepare a report that passes review by at least three other students; since we run every experiment twice, this means the second report must also respond intelligently to the feedback of the reviewers. The XLP concludes with a traditional lab report but also with a public presentation to the school community. All of these help underline the central point: Science is a human endeavor whose results are meant to be shared, not hidden away in a file somewhere.
I don’t have a grand theory on which to hang these precepts or sophisticated jargon for what they mean. My philosophy of education is an unfinished product. Every once in a while, though, I do have the satisfaction of speaking with a former student who regales me with a tale of a time when they encountered some phenomenon and said to themselves, “That’s the sort of thing we might have run into in Mr. Gilroy’s class. I can understand that.” For me, all the rest is window dressing.