Teaching Philosophy: Low-stakes experience-driven learning

This section presents how I view the learning process and my values as a teacher. The statement below reflects on how I apply my philosophy of teaching in the classroom situations and with students. This is based on my experiences so far – just as I expect students will grow, I anticipate that my teaching philosophy practice will develop over time.

A geographer's teaching philosophy

As a teacher, I secretly hope every student will leave my class a geographer. But I don’t want to scare them away with my enthusiasm for my discipline, so I sell them the idea that their future knowledge of geographic methods and approaches will give them a unique perspective in every situation they encounter in their life. Since geographers situate their studies in time and space, I situate my classroom in the broader world and within students’ biographies. Spatially, this means actively bringing the real world into the classroom by creating opportunities for experiential learning. Temporally, this means bringing students’ outside interests and history to the present, and situating learning objectives ideas, and skills within students’ present and future. I facilitate the development of a community of learners and encourage students to identify relevance and applications of material outside of the classroom and in their own past, present, and future lives. I challenge students to consider their own perspectives of the world and enable them to critically engage with their assumptions.

A community of learners

My favorite professors and teachers were the ones I chatted with after class and whose office hours I visited. Even large classes felt small, since it was easy to talk to classmates and class leaders. In my classroom, I prioritize opportunities for one-on-one interactions with students. In GIS lab sections, I circulate through the lab checking in with individual students and groups as they work. I gently interrupt with “would you like to tell me about what you’re doing?” to give everyone an opportunity for low-stakes formative evaluation and the option to focus if they need to. One-on-one interactions also allow me to challenge students to explore the tasks and processes further, for example, by trying the same process using different parameters. I foster communication within the classroom by referring students with questions to students who have already successfully completed a task. This community of learning approach depends on the idea that everyone who comes to class can learn, an idea I firmly uphold. By modeling regular interactions with students and recommending interactions between students, by the end of a semester, students ask each other for help, use resources like online tech support, and help each other troubleshoot. Students grow from direction-followers to independent participators in their own knowledge creation.

Encouragement to advance

Students come to geography from a number of backgrounds and with different technical skills, and I work to meet them where they are. I am a proponent of the philosophy of, “just try it.” In a classroom setting, a catastrophic failure is correctable; in the real world, it is harder. I encourage students to try out their ideas by defining key terms out loud by suggesting that if their answer is not correct, they will get more knowledge than it is. I coach students who struggle with technology to slow down, to think procedurally, and to be mindful of what they are doing and what they expect to happen. By building relationships inside of the classroom and fostering a low-stakes environment, I make it possible for advanced students to cement their knowledge through becoming teachers, and for beginner students to try new things without negative repercussions. I use assessments and encourage reflection to enable students to progress along their own paths to achieving learning objectives. I use formative assessments to challenge students to pay attention to their process in labs, to consider why they are making decisions, and to reflect on whether their analyses are the only way to interpret materials. I lead students to engage critically by prompting to consider how the maps we look at shape the way we see the world, asking students to verify that results of an analysis make sense, and challenging students to consider why golf courses are the lushest green spaces in a satellite image. These approaches encourage students to consider what unobservable forces may be shaping how they perceive and present information.

An engaged classroom

At face value, encountering this information in computer lab, facing a computer screen in an online course, or sitting in a lecture hall allow only poor representations of the real-world experiences geographers face outside of the classroom. I seek to create real-world-like learning experiences with immersive course materials and with reflective course practices. I introduce GIS skill tutorials with scene-setting presentations. Whether it is starting an analysis of fire risk areas with a 360 video of the view from a fire watchtower or laughing at a picture of an unfortunate pedestrian getting splashed by a car due to poor drainage before learning to edit a municipal drainage map, I put students into the role of the practitioner leading the tutorial. In my online class, I gave students bi-weekly check-in forms asking about their group work, giving an opportunity to rate it as “Disaster! Please intervene!” and soliciting one suggestion for how the group could work better in the upcoming two weeks. I sent these suggestions back to the whole group, anonymizing the suggestions, and was pleased to see groups use their own advice and improve their processes. By focusing students’ reflection on professional skills and situations, I try to bring their classroom experiences closer to the experiences they will have outside of the classroom.

Something for everyone

Finally, I believe that every student who wants to learn should have the opportunity to learn – even if they are late to the game, encounter personal challenges during the semester, or struggle to keep up with the material. I emphasize that there are many different ways to complete a task and provide scaffolding to support students in tentatively making their own judgments about process and priority. Within a community of learning, I give low-stakes opportunities to discuss material in pairs, rather than in a whole-class discussion, where the most confident may benefit but the shyest may not.

Working towards mastery

By creating a low-stakes classroom environment for students to try things as they work towards mastery, I am bringing their futures into the present and the world into the safety of the classroom. By providing different ways of engaging with the material, peers, and myself, I give students different paths to become closer to the class, the course materials, and to being practicing geographers…or practicing geography in their own work. And as a teacher, I reflect and refine course materials and approaches. While the specific learning process may be different for each class and cohort, I ultimately see my role as guiding students to moments of discovery then letting them make the discoveries for themselves.