[Note: This is the philosophy statement I submitted in 1996 to the Columbia College Hiring Committee for the position I currently hold (Earth Science/GIS/GPS Instructor).]

Philosophy Statement
by Jeffrey W. Tolhurst

Teaching is about making a difference in the world. In order for me to help make the world a better place I have had to develop a vision and supporting rationale that gives it coherence. My personal vision of teaching has evolved into a set of principles that are supported by certain values, beliefs, and convictions that have taken shape during my career. I will describe these principles below and explain how each supports the primary goal of my teaching: to promote critical thinking and cooperation. I believe achieving this goal will help students to reach their potentials and improve the quality of their lives.

Principles Underlying My Teaching Philosophy

1. Active Learning

I believe learning is an active and communal process. Active learning includes talking, listening, writing, reading, and reflecting about what is being taught. Students must relate material to past experiences and apply it to their lives for it to be most meaningful. It must be a visceral experience. Critical thinking is fostered as students build their own mental constructs of how the natural world works by experiencing that world as active, not passive participants.

2. Cooperation

Since I believe learning is a communal process more than an individual process, cooperation is very important. Students that work together, taking responsibility for their learning and healthy interaction, will become important contributors to a healthy, literate, democratic society. Cooperative projects teach students to work together and to be accountable for individual work that contributes to a common goal, which is what they'll likely be judged on in the private sector. Cooperative learning also de-emphasizes competition within the classroom, which can stifle learning - especially among students of other cultures. These types of projects promote constructivism, whereby students communicate with one another to construct meaning and learn to think critically.

3. Assessment

Effective teaching includes assessing the knowledge students possess as they begin, progress through, and finish a learning activity. Learning doesn't occur unless students know what they are doing correctly and incorrectly. Prompt feedback on their learning is essential and stimulates critical thinking by allowing students to discard antiquated or ineffective models of reality. Assessment should guide instruction during all phases of the teaching process.

A scientifically literate public would ideally be able to assess the assertions of advertisers, public figures, organizations, and the entertainment and news media, as well as their own claims. Therefore students should be taught to assess their own learning as well as that of their peers and instructors in order to prepare them for lifelong learning in a democratic society.

4. Standards

Teachers should hold high standards for all of their students. These standards should be measurable objectives that all students can, and should be expected to learn. In my experience, when expectations are held high, students will perform. I believe that all students can learn - they do so at different rates. Therefore the pace and rhythm of instruction should match student abilities and appropriate assessment techniques should be used.

5. Diversity

I value multiculturalism and promote that value in my classes. Learning is a social process, influenced by culture. The study of multiculturalism has led to this perspective, which has implications for science teaching. Scientific values can be internalized in a classroom where students are socialized into thinking and working in a scientific manner and acquiring the habits of mind of a scientifically literate person. The same principles can be used to teach other values in the science classroom such as tolerance, democracy, cooperation, etc.

There are also many different ways of learning and knowing about the world. Different students bring different backgrounds and experiences into the classroom. Some are abstract thinkers, others think more concretely. Celebration of our differences can allow us to use the diverse talents we possess in order to solve problems creatively. By understanding more about ourselves and others, we can challenge ourselves to grow in areas where learning may not come so easily.

6. Connection

Contact with students on a frequent basis in and out of class helps to keep them motivated to learn. If students feel connected with their instructor and with one another, they are more likely to invest intellectual and emotional energy into learning difficult material and developing challenging thinking processes. A sense of community can be created, which supports its members and can help to prevent some of them from dropping out. Treating my students respectfully and showing a genuine concern for their well-being by listening to them helps them during difficult times, which we all experience. We all need to feel a sense of belonging. In any community, "all of us are smarter than any of us".

In his book Work of Nations, Robert Reich contends that the worker of today and the future can be classified into three general types: 1) routine producers (manufacturing jobs); 2) in-person servers (service jobs); and 3) symbolic analysts (information processors). The first type is on the decline in terms of numbers; the second type is on the decline in terms of income and benefits; and the third type is on the rise in terms of numbers, income, and benefits. There is a demand for symbolic analysts that can conceptualize a problem, devise a solution, and plan its execution while working cooperatively with others. Skills listed by Fortune 500 companies as being desirable include: 1) problem solving; 2) team work; 3) oral communication; 4) creative thinking; 5) writing; 6) organizational effectiveness; 7) computation; and 8) reading. What these companies are saying is that they want the educational system to produce people that are able to work together and critically think. The primary function of the community college should be to teach these skills. Though the role of community colleges has become one of performing multiple functions including general education, transfer, guidance, vocational education, community service, and developmental education all in the context of equal student access, I believe teaching critical thinking and cooperative skills should be the underlying, unifying principle, giving vision and purpose to college programs.

The traditional geoscience curricula is in the midst of change. Our industry is becoming increasingly investment capital - rather than venture capital - oriented. This means that research is no longer predominantly curiosity-based (looking at or for stuff), it is being used to solve or prevent problems. Geologists are having to develop and promote an ethic of stewardship of the earth. Undergraduates should be prepared for this changing field. They should be involved with a curriculum that reflects these changes. Topics such as mineralogy, petrology, stratigraphy, paleontology, and structure change their emphases to focus more on hazards, pollution, engineering properties, geomorphology, and climate change as well as integrating biological, chemical, physical, and political concepts. Technological advances allow for more sophisticated means of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data and reporting conclusions. Students interested in a career in the earth sciences should be taught to use the skills and tools needed to become symbolic analysts.

My educational philosophy is based upon the assumption that all students can learn earth science. Each student must take responsibility to work cooperatively with colleagues to construct their own conceptual framework of earth science principles in a problem solving setting. It becomes my task to create an environment within which the diverse mix of students I come to know are actively engaged in thinking critically. The ideal earth science learning environment promotes: 1) discussion of ideas within the class; 2) further exploration of those ideas outside of class; and 3) analysis of findings/peer review back in class. Students must learn to use the latest tools to gather, process, and communicate information to their peers. Whether students are enrolled in my classes for transfer credit, vocational purposes, or personal enrichment, I expect to prepare them for a lifetime of growth and continued learning in a changing multicultural society. By continuing to construct a knowledge base of the principles of earth science and geoscience education, I am able to exemplify in my own life what it means to be a learner and a contributor to knowledge in a professional community. Above all, I think learning should engage all of us in a manner than is fun, challenging, cooperative, and accepting of others.

 

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