Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Teaching Philosophy

Shewmaker with students

As a teacher, I view my job as that of a guide and mentor. When choosing textbooks, developing syllabi, creating learning activities or leading class discussions, it is always my goal to provide students with the best opportunities for learning. I do this by making difficult concepts applicable to knowledge or skills already mastered and aiding students in applying theories or concepts to real life experiences or issues that are important to them and to the field. I try not to always provide students with answers to their questions, but instead, guide them through the different theories or concepts that we have been discussing in class to help them decide where they stand on significant and controversial issues in the field.

The learning theory that I tend to use most often is Dee Fink’s (2003) model of learning taxonomy for creating significant learning. I also use the text How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching to guide me in my course design. Fink’s model goes beyond the cognitive taxonomy of learning provided by Bloom and allows the consideration of important aspects of learning such as helping students learn how to learn and develop life skills that impact communication, interpersonal relationships, and the ability to adapt to change. As I develop my courses and assignments, I keep each of these types of learning in mind.

In order to fully realize the impact of the time that I spend with my students, I strive to develop activities that are carefully crafted to use the strengths of

active learning to promote significant change in their knowledge, skills, and understanding. My goal in the implementation of learning activities and assignments is to encourage students to communicate and collaborate with one another and with me in their learning experiences. This approach is rooted in my belief that deep engagement with one another and with the content best fosters learning and engagement.

This philosophy manifests in my classroom through a developmental process in which I consider three things. First, I think about learning outcomes, asking myself, “What do I want my students to learn?” Next, I think about measurement, asking, “How will I know if students have met the outcome goal?” Lastly, I think about the developmental trajectory, asking, “How will I help students move toward that outcome?” I have found that when I keep this developmental progression in mind, I am able to aid my students in successfully achieving learning goals.

I believe that learning is a creative endeavor, and as such, it’s important for me as a teacher to use my understanding of the creative process to help my students find the adventure of learning. But how do we help our students find that call to adventure? It seems to me that the key lies in finding the hook for the student’s interest. The student needs to be able to really understand the journey of learning she is on, where it is taking her, and why this particular skill, knowledge, or course is important in helping her get there. In other words, the adventure of the journey is in preparing to become a lawyer or doctor, nurse or engineer.

As we call our students to the adventure of learning, it’s important to acknowledge the challenge of this journey. Have any of us ever learned anything without difficulty? I remember watching my children learn how to walk, how to ride a bike, how to drive. Building each skill was hard, even painful at times. And I’ve felt the pain of learning myself when I wrestle with a new concept. I may spend a year thinking about one idea and its applications in my field before I get to the place where I can actually start to write or talk about it professionally. To really learn, to build understanding, is no easy task.

In her book Rising Strong(2), Brene Brown shares a conversation with a group at Pixar about the three Acts of storytelling. This goes along with our idea of the Hero’s Journey. In Act 1, there is the call to adventure or action. In Act 2, the hero has to go through a struggle or challenge of some kind to learn what it takes to solve the problem in the call to action. In Act 3, the hero acts and enlightenment occurs. As Brown talked with the Pixar folks about storytelling, they revealed the challenge of Act 2, of what they called “the messy middle.” (3) This is the hardest part of the journey of learning, because you’ve taken up the challenge, you’ve accepted the call to adventure, and you’ve started out onto the path. But, you don’t know what lies ahead. Remember Frodo in The Fellowship of the Rings? He starts out on his journey to Rivendell full of excitement. He’ll just take the ring of power there and be back to the Shire! And then the black riders appear. Gandalf is nowhere to be found. This is Act 2, this is where, if we’re not thoughtful, we lose our students, and they run back to the hobbit holes of their previous understanding, perspective, and thought. That’s where they felt secure, and continuing on the road of learning takes courage.

In order to help my students find that courage, I believe teachers need to think developmentally not just about what the students are learning, but about how they are going to learn. The same developmental process I mentioned above occurs as I plan the work that my students will be doing through in and out of class assignments. I aim to help my students acquire skills in developing their own well- supported perspective on a topic and being able to share that information in a professional manner. Each assignment or activity that I give my students is built around this idea, with earlier assignments focusing on helping them learn how to build and critique arguments, then build their own and critique it, and then have the opportunity to share professionally with their peers. Activities that I typically use include in class debates, group case studies, individual case studies, quizzes, concept map development, and position papers, all with formative assessment throughout the semester. Any culminating class project will always build upon these earlier efforts and be developed through formative feedback, so that the summative feedback can reflect the student’s development and learning throughout the semester. This type of developmental perspective on teaching allows our students to more easily progress along the path on the journey of learning.

In all that I do, my teaching is developmentally focused on providing my students with the opportunity to grown in their knowledge and understanding of themselves, others, and the world around them.

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