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my philosophy of teaching & learning

A lot has changed in the twenty-five years since I began teaching, but as much as I have learned, the fundamental challenges remain the same. Below I offer the current state of my approach to teaching. My philosophy can be summarized by five principles: teaching IS learning; diversity is important; course design is essential; students must be engaged in a unique ways; and learning, not just the subject area, should be taught. I conclude with a section on the unique process of teaching public policy and planning.

Teaching IS Learning

The first thing I consider when approaching a teaching assignment is the view of the student, by considering how a student might view the course, his or her goals and objectives for it, and their motivations for taking it. I realize that these vary from student to student and from course to course. As a lifelong learner myself, I always try to consider the students’ learning experience, not just my teaching experience.

The Importance of Diversity

As a first-generation college graduate myself, I especially enjoy teaching in diverse, urban settings, where students of different backgrounds can interact. I have been fortunate that most of my teaching experience has been at large urban institutions, and have always appreciated the opportunity to work with a diverse cross-section of students. I believe that students benefit from this diversity, especially in issues dealing with public policy and planning.

Designing the Course

The expectations game: the syllabus as contract

One thing I have learned—as both student and teacher—is the importance of clearly expressing my expectations for the students. I view the syllabus as my contract with the students, giving them the information needed to succeed in the course. This means not just the obvious things like including the grading rubric and schedule of assignments, but also matching well-considered learning objectives with the material to be taught. Maybe I am unique, but until recently, I never gave much thought to this question, since the objectives, and usually the main content of the course, was predetermined for me. I no longer simply “copy and paste” the course objectives without giving them much thought. It is also important that the students both understand and buy in to these objectives, because otherwise both teacher and student will be disappointed.

No syllabus should be set in stone, and changes can and should be made throughout the course, but it is important that any changes should both be necessary and respectful of students’ expectations. Changes should be clearly communicated as quickly and in as many ways as possible. I like to use class announcements, email, and announcements from online learning management systems.

Assess early and often

I have also learned to spread out graded assignments over the length of the course, and to offer low-stakes assessments early in the semester. Students seem to like knowing where they stand as throughout the semester, so I have moved away from back-weighted assessments like having half the grade or more coming from final papers and exams, rather having quizzes, assignments and exams earlier in the semester.

Engaging the Students

One of the biggest challenges we all face as instructors is keeping students engaged in the classroom. That challenge has only increased with the proliferation of handheld digital devices and portable computers that can serve to distract even the best of students. Some creativity is required to overcome this challenge, and I have tried several things to address it, including mixing up the lecture format with discussion and visual information, and even a few ways to “flip the classroom.”

Mixing it up: adjust to the diversity of learning styles

I have always sought to use a variety of teaching and evaluation methods in my courses, but my recent diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) has helped to make me even more acutely aware of the importance of addressing the needs of students with different learning styles and challenges. I try to present materials in ways that both are comfortable to different kinds of students, but also challenge students to think about things in different ways.

Debate with decorum: the classroom environment

I have always sought to encourage lively in-class discussions, especially in my political science courses. However, it is important that such discussions take place in an environment that is welcoming to students of all viewpoints and personality styles. I use my role as moderator to step in to address different levels of participation, making sure that a few do not dominate the conversation while encouraging the less vocal to speak up. And of course I also find myself having to impose civility if the discussion gets a bit too animated. One way to achieve these goals was to do formal debates in the classroom on controversial subjects, forcing students to take sides (not necessarily their own) and to debate in a respectful way. I do this not only because I believe it is important to pedagogy, but also to develop good citizens in a democratic society.

Rethinking the lecture: ways to “flip the classroom”

Given the number of screens screaming for students’ attention, and the increasingly compelling content emitting from them, it may not be surprising that the traditional lecture is losing out in the battle for hearts and minds. One way to address this is to take advantage of that technology to present materials outside the classroom, and use the time together to do more active work. By using the classroom as a time and place for collaboration, discussion, and inquiry, students are both more likely to prepare for class and to engage when they get there. Using Web-based audio or video lectures, combined with traditional and new media reading materials outside the class gives students both the flexibility to learn at their own pace, and to then address questions or problems in the time they have with the instructor and their fellow students.

Checking in: soliciting feedback throughout the course

It is not enough to wait until the final teaching evaluations at the end of the semester. I begin the course by encouraging feedback along the way, both actively and by promoting openness to students when they do speak up. On the first day of class I give a brief history of my approaches to teaching the course, indicating how student feedback in the past has encouraged positive changes. Then I check back in a few weeks to make sure everyone is happy with the way the course is preceding. Finally, I discuss the good and bad aspects of assignments and exams after each has been graded, and in some cases, even earlier.

Building Learning Skills

Learning the subject being taught is important, but learning how to learn may be even more important. I try to use research assignments to teach the process of research and analysis, combined with writing assignments that require critical thinking and synthesis of the materials covered. For teaching research skills, I use a series of readings, lectures, and short assignments to get students comfortable with the process well before they have to use these skills in their final research papers or projects. I also try to use debates in the literature to help teach critical thinking skills. For instance, in economic development policy, there has been an ongoing debate about people-based and place-based development policies, and this gives students the opportunity to consider the views of each and develop their own views on the subject.

Teaching Public Policy and Planning

I love teaching public policy and planning, because they combine an interdisciplinary academic foundation with both theoretical and practical outcomes. And while this makes teaching the subject so engaging to me, it offers challenges to students not always exposed to the diversity of approaches involved. I think that the key to teaching public policy lay in three components: a foundation of theory, an understanding of the policy process as being value-driven, and the methodological skills required to do policy analysis. Some courses may focus on only one or two of these components, but others require all three. Here are my thoughts on how best to address the challenge of policy learning.

Building a foundation in theory

Teaching theory is often challenging, but maybe especially so for students interested in the more pragmatic concerns of public policy. Nevertheless, it is important that students be grounded in the theory behind policy analysis before they can fully engage in that endeavor. I have found the key is to teach it early, and to tie it directly to other aspects of policy studies as quickly as possible. For a theory geek like myself, my temptation is to get bogged down in the debates and intrigues of the theoretical literature, and while a few students may appreciate this as well, it is likely at the cost of the attention of their classmates.

Teaching policy as a normative process

As someone who comes from a political science and sociology background, it is important to me to instill the understanding of policy studies as a normative process. Which is not to say that the analysis is itself normative, but the values of policymakers and their constituents do dictate the parameters of the policies being studied. Therefore it is critical that students understand that policymaking often involves difficult choices grounded in differing ideologies and values.

Teaching methods that serve the policy

Understanding the normative nature of the policy process then requires us to make a clear distinction between the values that determine our policy choices and the objective analytical tools used to evaluate them. It is in fact in this juxtaposition that we can teach the importance of unbiased analysis—or at least as unbiased as possible—as it is applied to the inherently value-laden activity of policymaking. Nevertheless, we cannot lose site of the fact that the methods and analysis should be put to the service of policymaking, not other way around. Policy analysis should support good policy, but policy shouldn’t be based only on what can be analyzed.

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