Through my experiences as a student, teaching assistant, course director and informal instructor in the disciplines of environmental education, outdoor education and environmental studies, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my approaches to teaching and learning. Here, I share what I believe to be the underlying theoretical and philosophic approaches I bring to and apply in the classroom as part of a teaching team.
I believe that there is more than one way to learn. I act on this belief by focusing my classes around Kolb’s experiential learning cycle and through paying attention to students’ different learning styles. The courses I teach are focused on providing authentic, concrete experiences. Taking a course-long perspective to experiential learning, I see assignments in relation to each other; each developing skills that are further reinforced by the next task. In having field experiences that focus on first-hand experiences, I take the abstract concepts, such as species identification, and turn them into active, concrete experiences. Having students reflect on work that they just submitted or a learning experience, I include reflective observation into the course design. I also strive to get students involved with “real world” problems to solve or tasks to complete. For example, when students write an field guide, not only do they engage with a real place and create a real document, they engage with abstract conceptualization of what a field guide should be and actively experiment with its content and creation.
Life does not begin and end with the university experience. As such, I believe that the learning and supporting activities that I design should be applicable to more than the course. Having worked as an Outdoor Centre Director, I am keenly aware how important interpersonal skills are to an employee’s success as a staff member. As such, in the undergraduate courses I have designed, I include group work in my lectures and labs. I see developing student’s ability to work with others (including the good and bad aspects of this work) as an important task to master and applicable to a student’s life beyond university.
While I enjoy the students for whom achievement seems to come with little effort, I continue to work to be open and inclusive of students who have obstacles in achieving their full potential. There are the important, yet basic, actions that should be taken in the classroom: signalling, for example, your flexibility to work with students identified with learning disabilities. Another basic action that I undertake is identifying and working to address the barriers that race, gender, sexuality, different levels of ability and aspects of otherness can create. There are more subtle actions that I take, as well. For example, in ensuring that my lectures have an oral, written and visual component, I attempt to allow those learners with learning preferences to engage with the content of the course.
I believe that it is important to understand the other responsibilities that students have outside the classroom walls and show compassion and understanding for situation that unfold from these responsibilities. One day after class, I had a student gingerly approach me and asked for an extension for a paper. While granting an extension would not be a problem, I could tell that something else was up, so I probed a bit more. This student then disclosed to me that after recently disclosing her sexual orientation, her parents had cut off their financial support to her. Consequently, she was having problems coming up with next month’s rent and, because she had fallen behind in all her courses, did not know if she would be able to finish the semester. I listened, empathized and then moved into action: I gave her contacts so that she could, if she wished seek professional support; I checked-in about the money situation and helped her contact the appropriate supports within the faculty so that she did not lose her year. I understand that, frankly, at times university commitments become secondary to other concerns. It is important to me that I am able to appropriately support students that feel comfortable enough to share these difficult moments with me.
I am not afraid of trying new ways of doing things inside the classroom. One of my particular strengths, I believe, is the thoughtful deployment of technology to support students’ learning experience. I have noticed in the past five years that students’ relationship to technology has changed such that they are no longer content to have their learning framed by a traditional lecture format. Through recognizing a shift influenced by the Internet toward an always-connected, information-based society, I have worked to address this change in my approaches to instruction. Specifically, during the fall of 2009, I first integrated the micro-blogging service Twitter in the classroom. One positive outcome of this integration was the demonstration of skills introduced in the classroom, outside the classroom. Late in October I received this tweet from a student: “Are the pine trees by the Ross bldg Tamarack, because the needles are changing colour and are falling off?” The short answer was yes, they were. More significant was the spontaneous identification of the tree, as it was the illustration of this student achieving two of the course’s four larger learning objectives. As Twitter facilitated this outside-the-class conversation, I was able to support the student’s learning by replying back that the identification was successful. Underlying my implementation is the belief that these technologies should be used as a way to augment the ways and places students learn and not as deployment for the technologies’ sake.
I work to create a sense of community in the learning environments that I co-create with students. I am interested in striking a balance between the learning objectives of my students and my own learning objectives for the course. Thus, I always allow for open lectures and labs so that students can define some of the content of the course, my flexibility increasing as students mature and move through levels of intellectual development. I always seek and incorporate in-course student feedback. I find that this openness to student feedback and needs changes the tone of the classroom and helps draw students into the learning environment. I also strive to develop appropriate relationships with the students in my classes. I find that creating the space to hear their opinions and demonstrating that these have value and worth means that they become engaged and, in turn, get more out of the learning experience. Having students “get more” out of a course than they expected is a great reward for the effort we both invest.