My Teaching Philosophy and Why I Refuse to Change It

I have been criticized for embracing a teaching philosophy described as “inappropriate”. That criticism feeds the misguided notion that community college students are somehow less than their four-year university counterparts. That notion is an insult. I reject that insult. 

To many, teaching is defined quite simply as imparting knowledge or understanding about a subject. The good student is seen as a sponge eager to soak up all the educator has to deliver. Educators exist to impart knowledge, assist in understanding the subject content or to demonstrate how to apply the subject-specific information. I agree that educators are commissioned by society and by a sense of responsibility to accomplish all the above, but I also believe that educators have a dual mission that subsumes the above:

• Develop the course to be sufficiently rigorous so that students must exert themselves mentally to succeed in the course.
• Design the course so that critical thinking elements are woven into the fabric of the course.

Thus, educators should present challenging material in concert with critical thinking demands. Each is the reciprocal of the other. One without the other is like a hand without an opposable thumb. Subject content are the bricks, but critical thinking is the mortar.

Failure to design and present content that challenges students constitutes an egregious dereliction of duty. To teach a student within her limits results in a linear advancement. To challenge the student’s limits results in an exponential advancement. As educators we owe it to our students to manage the subject-matter content in a way that demands students reach for what is just beyond their grasp. Determining where and what that is, can be as much a challenge for the educator as it would be for the student.

Teaching content without teaching critical thinking is to create students who are veritable biological tape recorders that play back thought for thought the ideas of the educator or a textbook. Such an educator creates mindless parrots and awards them grades that correlate with their facility to regurgitate on demand. Too often, critical thinking, if considered at all, is treated as ancillary or possibly as a separate process altogether, as opposed to something that should be etched and dyed into the fibers of the course. To play on the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.: in education, the subject or course is the ‘tool’ (and there are many) but critical thinking is “the handle which fits them all”. http://(

Challenging The Students

Regarding the first point, I cite the belief espoused by John Stuart Mill who stated, “A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.”http://( His point reminds me of my own experience when I signed up to run track in high school. I never realized I could run a mile until the coach told me to run two.

I believe that deep learning occurs when the mind is squeezed, pushed, pulled, stretched and otherwise subjected to the paces so that the student learns and understands the subject as best she can. This is not to say that a course should be taught in such a way that it is impossible to learn it sufficiently, but it is to say that it is a disservice to students when they are not required to exert themselves beyond their mental set points. (Of course, there are statistical outliers, namely, those for whom what is challenging for the majority is either impossible for a few to attain or comfortably and easily for a different few to attain.)

Many students have set points or limits to their abilities that are either self-imposed or internalized as a result of embracing limits others have imposed on them. Education should be, in part, about bursting through those limits and reaching just beyond what was presumed to be the students’ maximum reach. No matter the course or class students take, the educator should morph appropriately from being a life jacket to a life-guard. In short, students, in concert with the educator, should create new limits that, (it is hoped), they will surpass later.

One thing is more certain than not – a partially inflated balloon never soars as high as one that is fully inflated. The educator must inflate the minds of her students with higher order thinking and a passion to excel so that they soar.

Critical Thinking

W.G. Sumner wrote: “Critical thinking is… the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators.”(Emphasis mine). (Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals – 1940)

To define critical thinking less eloquently, critical thinking requires that one confront a claim or assertion, punch it, kick it, stomp on it and if it stands back up, then it is worthy of qualified acceptance – until it no longer is. Stated otherwise, is my own credo I follow in life: There is no idea or belief I so dearly cherish so as to shield it from rigorous scrutiny or thoughtful challenge. There is no idea or belief I esteem so highly that I will not alter it or abandon it – sacrifice it in favor of standing even closer to the truth.

Learning to think critically is the superior of learning content because nearly all subject matter content is a product of critical thinking. Even if the content turns out to be incorrect, the correction would be a function of critical thinking. As a business professor, I often tell my students, ten years from now, some of them may not remember how to amortize the premium associated with a corporate bond but learning to think critically is beyond measure. Being taught the subject without being taught to think critically produces an educated fool at worse or a mediocre student at best.

Looking at the relationship between the educator and the pupil from a different angle, there may be times when the educator can learn from the student. Napoleon Bonaparte stated, “I am never angered when contradicted; I seek to be enlightened.”http://( If an educator is going to weave critical thinking throughout the course there may be times when she is respectfully challenged. To that end, it is better to be “enlightened” than to be “right”. Afterall, should we not, as educators, be willing to demand of ourselves what we should demand of our students?

All things said, I have many emails from my students who have thanked me for challenging them and helping them to think critically. In any event, as long as I choose to teach, I will not compromise. I will push, pull, poke and pry my students’ minds with the single goal of producing not just informed human beings but thinking ones.

Published in: on July 22, 2020 at 4:26 PM  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I have been appreciative of your methodology since I took your stage & screen class at OCC. Your appreciation of what the class wrote was exactly what I thought criticism should be.
    I also appreciate your question as to why the heroine didn’t finish off the bad guy when she could have. I think you also liked my answer, which was “She doesn’t do that sort of thing.”
    To my mind, your protocols work. Don’t change, and you just do you.
    Al Bouchard


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