Sunday, January 21, 2007

Teaching Philosophy

I was recently asked by the University of Mary Washington to write a statement of teaching philosophy. Here it is:

“The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”
-- Winston Churchill

We have the great fortune of living at a time when our field of Computer Science is influencing our society, and the world at large, in an unprecedented way. The Internet has drastically increased communication between disparate parts of the world and enabled new ways of doing business, conducting research and simply having fun. It has brought computers and computer-based communications into mainstream use. Our students have passed their adolescence with a presumption of “always on” services, from laptops to cell phones to iPods. These portable computers are remaking our civilization. Naturally, the Internet presents us with challenges, too, such as spam, pornography and identity theft. The amplification of human communication has amplified our human foibles as well.

I suggest that the Internet has also presented us with a particular didactic problem. Enrollment in Computer Science courses is down in all English-speaking countries at the same time Internet usage is skyrocketing. The way people learn, and their desire to learn subjects requiring dedicated concentration seems to be changing. Perhaps this is related to the trend of “multitasking” and the shortened attention spans due to it. Can one expect students to learn Computer Science in a series of short sittings?

We have new advantages, though. I recall as a child asking my father questions. He would answer if he knew and, if not, on Saturday we would go to our local library. That experience contrasts strongly with the experience of my children; if I do not know the answer to a question, my wife may since she has multiple degrees and a wealth of experience, unlike my mother. If neither of us know the answer we can turn to Google. We can immediately augment our answer with images, movies, graphs and charts. We can allow time for following questions. The process of learning does not have to stop when our personal limits are discovered.

How are we to effectively integrate the ever-changing Internet into our classrooms? How will it change our approaches to testing? How will our teaching styles evolve to reach students who simply think differently than we do? I don't have the answers, but I think the questions should be on our minds as we build the universities of the future.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
-- Albert Einstein

I was lucky to stumble into the United States Navy. Of all the things I learned in the service one stands out. The Navy has a culture, embedded in centuries of tradition, of continuous learning. The first thing I did in the Navy was go back to school for seven months. Upon reaching my first ship I was handed a large stack of books and training materials. As soon as I qualified, I was given a new goal then another, and another. The Navy broke my Midwestern, Rust Belt expectation of preparing for a job that one would do the remainder of one's life. The concept of continuous learning is a gift I try to pass onto every student.

Developing critical thinking in students is another important goal. Many students just want answers, and yet they as adults will be faced with a world full of questions. How do we address global warming? Overpopulation? War? Can we solve poverty in Africa by bringing the Green Revolution there? Is industrialized food production a good idea? Do we need biodiversity to survive? What will happen when the oil runs out? It is their generation, not just ours, who will have to answer those questions. They will not be able to do so without the ability to ask questions, probe for answers and come up with them on their own. The days of rote learning should be left behind us.

I enjoy my consulting role as a professional problem solver. There is a joy to fixing something broken. There is a joy in creating something new. I hope that my enthusiasm for my chosen profession comes across to my students and encourages them.

I like to teach by analogy. I like to walk around, to see what students are doing. I like to tell students what to do and like to observe how they do it. I like to keep my eyes open so that I can assist those who may need extra help so they don't lose interest. I think that tests should allow students who listen to pass, who read to do well and who think to get an “A”.

“Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.”
-- Maria Montessori

Our species replaces each generation to establish our future. We have the obligation to teach our young to ensure their success. It is only a convenience that they sometimes appreciate it. I teach in order to contribute.

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