I see education as a highly participatory process that connects previous experience, social context, and physical space1. My goal as an educator is to provide information in a way that engages the experiences of students and encourages discussion. To accomplish this, a balance of techniques including lectures, free exploration, hands-on learning, group discussions, and elements of critical pedagogy are appropriate--depending on subject and context.
I have worked as an educator since 1992 with adults and children, professionals and casual learners, university students, and groups with special needs. I have taught in subjects including anthropology, botany, human anatomy, microbiology, soil science, ecology, and horticulture. I have developed professional curricula and online educational activities, and worked collaboratively with other educators in formal and non-formal settings. I have also trained youth and adults as environmental educators and served on the Education Committee of the American Association of Museums and as a steering committee member for the New York City Museum Educators Roundtable. My teaching philosophy grows from these experiences.
Education requires an openness to the background experiences of the students, a clear set of learning objectives, and an understanding of multiple learning styles. It requires active engagement on the parts of both the teacher and the students. Teaching is more than a straightforward presentation of information: it is fundamentally an integrative exercise, and it is the role of the instructor to facilitate opportunities for students to draw connections between what is being taught and what the students already know or believe.
This type of education is particularly difficult, and crucial, in formal situations. In many cases, instructors have a great deal of information to impart in a short amount of time, with little advance knowledge of the student audience. In others, the size of the class may make group discussion difficult. In these situations, reflexive exercises can be used to open space for dialogue within the classroom. For example, in a lecture class on the medicinal uses of plants students may be asked to work in clusters to brainstorm a list of their own medicinal plant use, with each cluster reporting back to the class. These exercises can suppliment required readings and lecture material, provide an introduction, and encourage students to continue the discussion outside the bounds of the classroom.
It is also particularly important for the class to have an agreed-upon set of guidelines for learning and assessment. In non-formal situations, these guidelines may be negotiated. In more formal situations, such as a college classroom, they may be dictated in large part by the instructor and the policies of the university. The expectations of the instructor should be clearly stated and reviewed with all students, particularly in situations where there is increased subjectivity in grading. For example, in a class with a writing emphasis it is quite appropriate to share the grading rubric for an essay with the class beforehand, rather than simply stating that an essay is due.
Lastly, a note on physical space and education. Traditional lecture halls are often set up in an auditorium style. The term "auditorium" is related to the word "audience" and the word "audible." The physical layout of an auditorium, then, both privileges auditory learning over other learning styles and reinforces the position of the instructor as actor for a passive audience of students. Given that space is often a limiting factor in education, and that the auditorium layout is so common, I try to use group exercises, field trips, and discussion where possible to engage other learning styles and to crack the "fourth wall" between instructor and class.
1For a discussion of social, physical, and experiential contexts in learning, see Falk, J. H., and L. D. Dierking. 2002. Lessons without limit: how free-choice learning is transforming education. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.