Personal Teaching and Learning Philosophy
By Kevin Johnstun
It may be difficult to discuss my personal philosophical theories apart from the experiences that inform my assent to belief in those theories. Thus, to express my personal teaching philosophy, I will intermix my teaching philosophies with the experiences that inform those beliefs.
In the last few years, I have become hyper-focused on issues in educational inequity. After completing my undergrad in Philosophy at Brigham Young University, I left BYU with some knowledge of the state of education in the United States. I had read “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough and “Savage Inequalities” by Jonothan Kozol. I had, however, a limited sense of the deeply complicated issues surrounding education in the United States. In large part, I did not comprehend the toxic environment that is created when hyper-segregation is combined with low educational funding, historical disenfranchisement, and teachers who do not understand student communication. Working in a low-income school lead me to recognize the ways that I was working to change that environment for my students, but I also recognized the ways that I was/am complicit in systems of oppression. Oppression is multifaceted, and I have not found ways to be counter hegemonic in all that I should. Thus, my philosophy and core group of practices must remain flexible and pragmatic in order to foster growth.
Working in a low-income, segregated environment my students often had to work on developing a positive images of themselves and their specific cultural identities. They often had to advocate for the teachers to respect their identities. To gain the schema necessary for this advocacy, they read authors who shared similar backgrounds, talked to teachers after class to let them know that they have used offensive language, and admitted that they have acted incorrectly to defuse a situation.
My students also were working through layers of consciousness about the ways that the larger school system treats their lives outside of school as largely invisible. My personal philosophy is that rather than treat student’s lives outside of school as irrelevant, educators ought to incorporate the larger community and family life into the classroom. This is crucial to success. If I was/am doing my job right, students often discuss the way that my instruction or trainings help them feel at “home.” My efforts in this area are about more than just helping students be comfortable. It’s about helping students see the things that they inherited as what helps make success inherent in them. Working in this fashion draws upon one of the greatest strengths of sociocultural theory namely, “Sociocultural theory emphasizes the broader social, cultural, and historical context of any human activity. It does not view individuals as isolated entities, rather it provides a richer perspective focusing on the fluid boundary between self and others” (Allman Strengths and Limitations…para. 1 ). This style of schooling serves as a catalyst for educating to care for the “whole student.”
All of this had lead me to placing a lot of value in the sociocultural theories of education that consider student’s cultural repertoires of practice. Nasir, Roseberry, Warren and Lee (2015) describe an example where a teacher uses hip-hop lyrics to teach symbolism. Examples like this can lead to powerful results. “By drawing on models of competence students already have, the talk that surrounds these “cultural data sets” privileges reflection making the practices of the domain public and the trajectories for competence within it visible” (697). This approach stands in contrast to the traditional approach in urban education which has been geared around giving students the skills they need to compete in the corporate/academic world. This process is usually known as “code switching.” However, if code switching instruction ignores repertoires of practice it is rarely effective. Indeed, where there is no love for urbanocity or disenfranchised heritage, code switching bears a striking resemblance to forced assimilation.
When it comes to the classical theoretical orientations, behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, a kind of pragmatism seems to allow each of the theories to work to inform the teaching a different kinds of skills. This is similar to the conclusions of Etmer and Newby (1993): “For this reason, we have consciously chosen not to advocate one theory over the others, but to stress instead the usefulness of being well versed in each” (69). This approach is very palatable.
There are, however, two important notes that I feel play pivotal roles in my own teaching and learning philosophy. There are those amongst scholars who have taken sociocultural theories very seriously and in so doing rejected cognitivism and its general principles for instruction. This position does not seem to me to be tenable. It would appear to me that both general principles of instruction and culturally responsive principles of instruction are necessary for high quality instruction. Additionally, neither of them is sufficient for high quality instruction in and of itself. For example, imagine a lesson or intervention that draws heavily on local tropes and sources of motivation, but is also structured in such a way that the text is extremely difficult to read and the objectives of the course are largely unclear. We might think that this intervention would be more successful if it continued to be culturally responsive and improved on those principles of general instruction.
Second, we must also remember that each of these theories has had a significant impact on the way that we educate especially related to social class. This trend is especially true in application of behaviorist techniques in low income schools. Jean Anyon’s “Social Class and School Knowledge” is a foundational piece on the ways in which we have based instructional practice around these theories. In this paper, Anyon analyzed the ways that students and teachers spoke about knowledge in a variety of school settings. Because schools tend to segregate based on economic lines, Anyon was able to interview students from a variety of economic backgrounds. She found that: 1) “Working class schools emphasiz[ed] in curriculum and in classrooms mechanical behaviors, as opposed to sustained conception” (32).
2) “Moreover, in contrast to the teacher’s explanations in the working-class schools, when this teacher explained how to do math or what to do next, there was usually a recognition that a cognitive process of some sort was involved” (13).
3) “It seems to be the case that knowledge in the affluent professional school is not only conceptual but is open to discovery,construction, and meaning making” (23).
Roughly the lower class school relied on behaviorist type instruction to educate their students, the middle class schools primarily relied on cognitivism to inform their instruction, and finally affluent schools placed students in a constructivist setting to work on building their own knowledge. This is problematic because it is the skill that is being taught that should determine the theoretical framework for instruction, not the social class of the students. This over reliance on behavioristic styles of instruction is likely to be a key component in low quality school that has curbed generations of student’s chances of escaping cycles of poverty.
My personal teaching and learning philosophy could probably be summarized as “We ought to focus on sociocultural aspects of teaching not because these principles are sufficient for quality instruction, but because they are the principals that we have struggled to enact in the history of the U.S. Additionally, we ought to do it in a way that is philosophically pragmatic.”
Allman, B. (n.d.). Sociocultural Learning. In R. West (Ed.), Foundations of Learning and
Instructional Design Technology. Retrieved from:
Anyon, J.(1981). Social Class and School Knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry, 11(1), 4-42.
Etmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. ( Dec 1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism:
Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance
Improvement Quarterly, 6 (4), 50-72. doi:10.1111/j.1937-8327.1993.tb00605.x
Nasir, N. S., Roseberry, A.S., Warren, B. & Lee, C. D. (Jan 2015). Learning as a Cultural
Process: Achieving Equity through Diversity. In R. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences (686-706). New York: Cambridge University Press.