I believe that the role of education is to help students learn to think critically and draw original insights, with the goal that they become self-directed learners. It should challenge students intellectually, while respecting the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences.
My goal as a teacher is to convey an appreciation for the subject matter while helping students learn to think critically and draw original insights. I want students to come out of the class better equipped to extract useful knowledge from the flood of information that is constantly at their fingertips. When you care about what you’re teaching, it shows and students take notice. As an ecologist, the field is my favorite setting for teaching. Outside the classroom, student interactions are no longer constrained by seating patterns, and they are less distracted by technology. This shift from their accustomed environment can transform students from passive consumers to active participants, who readily pose questions and propose hypotheses.
Engaging students in critical thinking is harder than teaching content. In order to achieve this in my introductory botany class, students interact directly with the material being covered. When posed with difficult or open-ended questions, students readily turn to their group members and work their way through them. Faced with a difficult concept, students tend to turn to their group members for an explanation first; often I will be called upon by the student doing the explaining to validate his or her attempt at an explanation. Other topics can be dealt with as discussions involving the entire class in an iterative process of observations and questions and allows students to synthesize information and extract generalities.
Another way I try to engage students to think critically is through the use of group projects. In my environmental science class, students design an ‘ideal city’. Students must assess ideas, synthesize information, propose solutions or design elements to the group, and defend their proposals. They must also critique their group members’ ideas, and negotiate compromises when two people come up with viable (but conflicting) plans. Even students who rarely speak up in class will often advance their ideas assertively in a small group. As an assessment tool, this group project has the advantage of requiring students to synthesize rather than memorize as they would for an examination.
Creating a supportive and inclusive environment is important to me because it facilitates discussion and collaborative learning. I believe that my multi-cultural upbringing and education enables me to connect with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, especially those who feel more outside the mainstream.
The process of becoming a more effective teacher is an ongoing one. I continue to seek new strategies to engage students, and to fit those strategies to specific cases. What works in a small, lab-based class may not translate into a large lecture hall, but something else probably will. I see improving my teaching as an important aspect of my professional life.