Education: Learning and Teaching

If you decide to study computer science at Westmont, you will be taking almost half of your courses with me. Thus, you would be wise to consider my philosophy of education and determine if you can subscribe to the principles I attempt to employ in assisting you in your education. Likewise, you should attempt to discern the compatibility of your learning goals and style with the philosophies of other professors you will encounter in our program.

A comprehensive philosophy of education will articulate, among other things, the purpose or goal that an education provides as well as a strategy for reaching that goal. Given that life is short, this statement of my philosophy of education is necessarily incomplete. My intent is to provide sufficient information so that prospective students can decide if their educational objectives will be well served by me and the approach I take to learning and teaching.

Purpose of education

I view the value of an education as independent of the discipline that one studies. That is, Computer Science has nothing to do with it (although it is well worth your while to study Computer Science). John Dewey said, “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” However, life and education are not one and the same; many people live their lives without an education and graduating from college does not mean you have acquired an education. Education should have three transforming effects on the student: in what she believes or understands about the world, in what she desires or values in life, and in her character or how she acts in the world.

Throughout our lives, our beliefs should be gradually refined so that they correspond with ever-increasing fidelity with the way things actually are. During the college years, students have the opportunity to make huge leaps forward in this refinement process. Here I must point out the difference between a student's ability to recite ‘facts’ and the beliefs that she actually holds. It may be important for students to learn that certain beliefs are held by certain people (e.g., the fact that a certain philosopher took a certain position about a particular question, whether or not the student agrees with that claim) but it is critical that they recognize their own beliefs as their own. Too many people live their lives professing beliefs that they do not actually believe.

An education should shape our values and affections. As a consequence of becoming educated, we learn to desire certain things more than others; we discover the true value of various physical objects, activities, and relationships in life. Based on a deeper, truer sense of value, the student is in a position to live life to its fullest!

Living life amounts to making choices; living life fully flows out of acting authentically with respect to one's beliefs and values. Thus, the previous two goals of education in some sense support the ultimate purpose of life. They do this by giving substance and meaning to the lives that we live.

So with the preceding sketch of an education's purpose, how might one go about acquiring one? After a moment's reflection, it should be obvious that learning is essential while teaching is merely helpful. Thus, my philosophy of education focuses on learning rather than teaching.

The student's responsibility

The primary responsibility for education rests upon the student -- the learner. We could imagine the ideal environment consisting of physical facilities, teachers, and information resources, but unless the student wills to learn an education will not occur. The will to learn depends on several factors that must be present or cultivated within the student to enable learning.

Before one can will to learn, she must, in humility, admit that she has something to learn. In a deep sense this constitutes the admission into the educational enterprise. But recognizing this need is not enough; one must also desire to learn what needs to be learned. Add to these, the courage to fail and we have most of the prerequisites for an education.

Unfortunately, having these prerequisites only enables a student to get started. In order for education to actually take place the learner needs to commit to the process. Unless the student dedicates herself to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and perhaps in the face of actual failures, no real education can occur. This is the grit we hear so much about these days. Gifted students who lack experience overcoming obstacles -- particularly challenging obstacles that require sustained effort or diverse problem solving approaches -- are unlikely to have developed the character trait of perseverance that is so indispensable to learning.

Even with all of the above, several other qualities prove to be instrumental to a real education. Listening can greatly accelerate the learning process. I was amazed at how much I started learning when I decided to deliberately listen to everyone and everything around me. The student's response to feedback -- whether implicit in the environment or explicit from a teacher -- will either launch or cripple her learning. This relates to the prerequisites of humility and courage mentioned above. Finally, related to the quality of perseverance, when students trust that they can learn and expend the effort to do so, all these pieces come together.

The teacher's responsibility

Having explained that the ultimate responsibility of learning belongs to the student, I also acknowledge the importance of the teacher's role. That is, although not strictly necessary, good teaching can transform a seemingly impenetrable problem into one on which the student can make steady progress. The teacher is not the adversary, nor is the teacher the cheerleader. Rather, the teacher should coach students so that they can become the people they desire to be but cannot become on their own. As a teacher, I recognize that I am a fellow learner. Although I am older than most of my students and therefore have more experience and knowledge in many areas, we are all learners. I find that I often learn as much from my students as they learn from me. In fact, note that the ‘teacher as coach’ model does not even require that the teacher already know what the student is learning. For example, in independent study or research, the teacher guides the student through a learning or discovery process. So in this section I describe the three primary ways that I, as a coach, attempt to support a student's education.

Assessing student strengths and weaknesses. Students benefit from the knowledgeable assessment provided by a teacher. Although we hope to become self-aware of our strengths and limitations, the teacher has the knowledge and experience to identify a student's current strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the situation, this can be a complex, interactive and iterative task. For example, failure to solve a multi-step problem may result from a misunderstanding of a single step, or some combination of steps. The coach helps the learner identify flaws in the student's performance.

Setting appropriate goals and challenges. One of the most important contributions to a student's education that a teacher can make consists of the presentation of appropriately scaled challenges. The initial challenges, which will provide the basis for the assessment described above, are based on the teacher's general experience with students at a given level of learning. However after discerning the ability of the student, the teacher can then personalize the difficulty of challenges so that they fit the student's current level. This allows the student to spend her effort acquiring experience that extends and integrates her current knowledge base, rather than repeating tasks that are already mastered or spinning wheels on tasks beyond her ability.

Providing feedback and advice. Finally, teachers must tell students what they need to hear (not what they want to hear). Sometimes, this consists of encouragement and praise; at other times, it requires a metaphorical kick in the pants. Discerning which is which is possibly the most difficult part of teaching. A lesson here for students to remember is that teachers are fellow learners and that one of the keys to being a learner is exercising the courage to fail. In other words, teachers will certainly get this wrong from time to time. However, when the student possesses the qualities of perseverance and humility, they will learn even from the errors of the teacher.

The attentive reader will note that none of these three responsibilities include the presentation of information. If it ever was, it certainly is no longer the case that the primary value of teachers is found in the information or content that they can relay to students. Rather, the value of teachers resides in their ability to model question-asking and discovery -- learning.