A principled approach

Posted by: Jon Hurford, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

A three level model of teaching practice

A three level model of teaching practice © Dr John Reece, RMIT

It’s hard to imagine a great lecturer or teacher who doesn’t work from a set of principles. My goal in this post is not to have you sign up to a particular set, but rather to encourage you to devise a set of your own. Principles (as I’m using the term) can be seen as a sort of checklist that converts your educational philosophy (be it lofty or pragmatic) into a series of more concrete subroutines.

While we’re often called on to reel off our teaching philosophy, a recent presentation by Dr John Reece at the RMIT Learning and Teaching Expo highlighted to me that it’s the set of principles – a kind of exploded view drawing of that philosophy – that lets other people in on what you really think is important. John shared his own principles with the audience and is happy for me to share them here:

1. Recognise, appreciate and foster knowledge and understanding of “deep” learning.
2. Make learning enjoyable without being trivial or flippant.
3. Enthusiasm and passion on the part of an educator positively influences student learning.
4. Educational approaches should be evidence-based and reflective.
5. Teach because you have a genuine love of helping students to learn.
6. Actively involve adult students in the learning process; empower their learning.
7. Win the “battle of hearts and minds” when teaching challenging material.
8. Foster an appreciation of the real-world relevance of learning.
9. Be reflective and self-critical of your own practice; always strive for improvement.
10. Have respect for students, regardless of how challenging they may be. Listen
and learn from students. Seek and value their input.
11. Incorporate educational technologies that will effectively enhance learning.
12. Self-knowledge: know what you’re teaching and why you’re teaching it.

An explicit set of principles, preferably self-derived, is key to reflective practice. Each of your principles can serve as compass, rudder and yardstick- before, during and after a teaching activity. Listening to John it was clear that this document lives for him at all of these stages and that it interacts with his model of student learning and the requirements of his own discipline of psychology. Along with other materials from the Expo, you can see the full presentation ‘Grounding teaching practice within a functional model of teaching and learning excellence’ here.

Drawing primarily on his experiences teaching statistics to psychology students – the alternate title of John’s presentation was: ‘What to do when you have to teach terrified students something they hate?’– the principles remind him of what to focus on in preparing a course; they guide him through stretches of educational ‘heavy weather’ and they describe his own criteria for his performance after an educational engagement.

Do you have something similar? Have you written something recently in a PD activity, a strategy document, a teaching course assignment or a promotion application? Do you feel a strong agreement or disagreement with items on the list? John would be the last person to try and push this as something definitive or even transferable; the principles represent his conception and are the working parts of his teaching ‘mechanism’.

You will have to devise your own!

Checklist being marked off

(cc) from MorgueFile.com

But that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow or adapt from John’s or revisit an instance when you have done this thinking. I’ll be sharing my own set in an upcoming post.

The point is that a framework should not simply stay as a document in your mind, or something you dust-off to leap an institutional hurdle. There’s too much evidence from writers, poets and philosophers who have said they only found what they knew through the act of writing it down. Added to this is a new wave of thinkers and theorists espousing the benefits of checklists and statements of purpose as tools to really clarify behaviour and to make change and improvements in individual lives, in professions and in workplaces. See Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow or Atul Gawande’s 2007 article in The New Yorker: ‘The Checklist’ for examples.

Another source for RMIT staff looking to reflect on their practice is the DSC’s 12 Guiding Principles. This project identified that leading tertiary educators:

1. Encourage and develop contact, cooperation and reciprocity between students,
staff and industry.
2. Foster disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways of knowing, thinking and doing.
3. Encourage critical reflection and recognise how values influence learning.
4. Foster imagination, innovation and creativity.
5. Promote ethical and sustainable practice.
6. Encourage active, self directed learning.
7. Plan and assess for deep learning.
8. Communicate high expectations.
9. Respect diverse knowledge(s), talents and ways of learning.
10. Give timely feedback.
11. Encourage appropriate use of learning environments and technologies.
12. Recognise the time it takes to learn.

The two sets of principles can be seen as broadly sympathetic but I’m sure you can see the individual streak that runs through John’s document; it is his and it serves him after all. The list above is the exploded view diagram of what we can say about great teaching across the College of Design and Social Context. You can find out more about each of the principles and what they look like on the ground (including case-studies in the context of RMIT) here.

What both sets of principles do is provide a background and rationale for the choices we make as teachers and lecturers. It’s the right time of year to review your own performance and set routines in motion for the next. Principles can be our checklist for how we’re doing and they don’t have to refer to an institutionally imposed model. They can help us choose between two competing goods or decide on the types of activities we want to pursue while acknowledging the opportunity costs of doing so. A new learning technology may satisfy one or two of your principles. But if it goes against another principle or takes your time away from one that you know you need to concentrate on, how can you integrate it into your practice and still keep that integrity with your principles?

If done well, designing a set of principles is an example of doing the thinking beforehand so that you’re more capable in the moment.

Share your thoughts about principles and frameworks in the comments below!

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