My teaching philosophy

Cartoon on the banking concept of education

( I have asked my course participants to write theirs in 500 words, so I’m doing one in solidarity)

I started to teach straight out of my doctorate (in 2004), and was fortunate enough to be given a choice of topic. I naturally chose the topic of my thesis, as it was obviously what I knew best. My module was organised around 3-hour lectures, and my lectures were basically written based on my thesis. I quickly realised that my students were anxious to write down everything I said. The exam, a 3-hour affair at the end of term, confirmed my worst suspicions: the students just replicated, from memory (and memorising their notes) things I had said in my thesis. Some did it so badly-because after all learning isn’t just memorising-that I started to doubt whether I made mistakes in my own lecture: such was the level of fidelity between the lecture and the end product.

This experience made me realise that there is, there should be, more to learning than this. I wanted to enjoy teaching more. I wanted my students to learn something from it that was different to what I told them. Or perhaps do something with that. I also wanted to learn from the experience myself.

Years later, I found that the philosophy which appeals to me is the one put forward by Paulo Freire: critical pedagogy-especially the dimension which talks about teachers and learners being fellow travellers of the same, shared path towards learning. Part of Freire’s ideas cast the teacher not as a static source of a fixed truth, but as someone who is also learning, and is subject to change themselves. The reason Freire’s work appeals to me is that I see my role as a teacher not as one who is there to communicate a dominant narrative, an ‘orthodoxy’ of what’s what, but as one who is interested in critically discussing the topic at hand with students, learners, participants, offering his views and knowledge, while being able to consider, debate and (god forbid) accept those of others.

Quite frankly, it’s about acknowledging that the teacher’s knowledge has its limitations, and that it can be increased and refined through teaching, through conversations with students. The relationship for me can never be that of someone who delivers to someone who receives passively. There is more mutuality. If what we teach is irrelevant to the students’ knowledge (and being), it will fail to connect in a deep and meaningful manner. Students might be able to repeat it back to you, but we should aspire for more.

Years later I found that what I had accidentally done to my first students all those years ago, was what Freire called the banking concept of education. I had simply deposited something in my students’ brains, only to retrieve it further down the line as proof of learning. Had learning taken place? Encyclopaedically perhaps. But is that what higher education is about?

So this is why I ‘teach’ the way I do. I think.