There are a number of things that have become important to me as a teacher during my career. First and foremost is my growing realization that to be a good teacher I need to anchor my practices in a robust understanding of learning. For the most part, I find that the predominant theory of learning, which characterizes learning as a process through which knowledge is transferred into the mind of a learner, fails to account for many of the more important elements of how we learn. It mistakenly depicts the learner as passive instead of appreciating her as active and engaged in her world. It says little about learning as a deeply embodied and emotional process. It posits a decontextualized and depoliticized view of knowledge. And finally, and perhaps most importantly in my view, it fails to acknowledge the extent to which human learning is a deeply social and cultural process.
As I often say to my students, thinking more fully about learning means adopting a very different metaphor for describing it. Rather than understanding learning as a process by which external knowledge is deposited in the mind of the learner, it is better to understand it as a process by which a learner enters into and gradually connects up with an ongoing flow of practices. Based on a long and intensive study of increasingly influential practice-based theories of learning, I have the sense of it as a process of drifting into and being caught up in a life current. Most of the time, we experience this form of learning as a process of attaining membership in a community within which social practices, including ways of doing, making, and talking about things, are already in process. Learning conceived this way is not simply a cognitive process. Rather, learning as attaining membership in a community of practice is a process that reproduces and transforms practices, shapes identities, generates bonds of solidarity, and extends meaning.
As you can well appreciate, adopting this much more social and practice-based view of learning has had dramatic repercussions for my teaching philosophy. Rather than viewing my students as vessels to be filled or objects to be shaped (like I might sharpen a knife), I view them as people with long histories of dwelling in this world seeking connection to new practices (in my classes, practices of scholarship and teaching). My goal, then, is to generate a context that facilitates their linking up to or falling into harmony with these practices.
There are a few things that I keep in mind. First, I try to remember that people are already engaged in the practices of life and have a history that can both enable and constrain their connecting up (physically, emotionally, socially, cognitively, culturally) with new practices. I try as much as I can to offer connection points that can help them link what they know, they ways they are, and the things they can do to the practices they are not yet fully part of. I try to start my courses with explorations of everyday practices that are related to what we will be learning in the class. I get them to learn to tie knots, or to juggle; I get them to read popular fiction as a basis for thinking about learning in new ways; I get them to pretend they are education advisors to the UN; or I might stage a fake telephone call to a theorist we are studying to find out what they might think of a question we are pondering in the class. Then, throughout the course, I try to offer a range of activities that draw deeply on what they already know as a basis for learning something new.
Second, I am mindful of how emotionally difficult learning can be and try to create as warm and supportive learning context as I can. I remember reading somewhere that, by necessity, education interferes. Asking someone to learn something new, especially something significant or meaningful, necessarily disrupts the way she previously dwelled in the world, actually, to give up who she was and to become someone different (even if in a small way). I handle the emotional difficulties of learning in a number of ways. I acknowledge the emotional difficulty of learning and allow students to feel troubled by new practices. Students are not expected to be perfect in my class. I insist that it is alright, for instance, not really to understand a reading or to feel lost during a discussion. This, I maintain, is part of the process of linking up with a new practice. As well, I try to be as honest as I can with feedback on their performances. Students are acutely aware of mollycoddling. Honest feedback and evaluation (evaluation for the sake of the student, and not for the sake of me or the institution) goes very far towards providing a student with a real sense of their learning accomplishments and opens them even further to risking new efforts to learn. Finally, I try to support the emergence and development of a strong learning community in the class so that students can share the challenges of learning new things with others.
Third, I always try to remember the political nature of learning. In my classes, I join with my students in an exploration of how power shapes our social interactions, how interpersonal relations connect to and are influenced by broader historical and cultural power relations (gender, race, sexual orientation, class, etc.), and how even these are affected by larger global social phenomena (geo-political conflict, capitalism, environmental degradation). My classes (and the GSLL program more generally) are never simple because, at the same time as I ask people to acquire new capacities for practice, I also ask them to understand the full implications of these practices and how they are both influenced by and shape social and cultural structures. A key part of my philosophy of teaching is that my students expand their sense of citizenship.
Fourth, and finally, while I recognize the importance of learning in formal contexts, I remain deeply aware of the pervasiveness of lifelong learning processes. Teaching and learning are part of our social interactions in all of our communities of practice. One of the key attributes of a rich university community is the extent to which it recognizes and supports the many teaching/learning relations that transpire in and around it. Contemporary technologies, for instance, stand as an important means to vastly expand and extend our capacities to engage people in rich processes of learning. My view of teaching leads me to attend to learning in all my interactions. MSVU, it turns out, has been an especially rich context for me to practice my vocation as an adult educator.
I am, at heart, a teacher. It truly constitutes who I am, not just in my job, but in my whole life. My ever-growing understanding of the power of the teaching/learning relation to transform ourselves and our world affects my practices in all of my personal and professional communities.