Teaching Philosophy

I have to say that posting this is a choice inspired by three scholars — Leigh Graves Wolf, Andrea Zellner and most recently, Alec Couros — all of whom embrace openness and model an open academic mindset and culture that has changed the way that I think about my responsibilities as a teacher and scholar in the digital age.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

For my fifth birthday, my parents bought me a chalkboard. It was green. The alphabet and numbers from 0 to 9 were painted on the top. It was mounted on a wooden easel and, I loved it.

Over the years, I have thought about this gift and its impact on my development as a person, a student, and a teacher. More than anything, that one childhood gift stands in my memory as the toy that helped me to make sense of my world and my place in it. Because of that toy and the play that it inspired, I believe that I have always thought of myself as a teacher. Because of that toy, and the play that it inspired, I have always thought of teaching as a form, itself, of play.

I take genuine delight in the orchestration of learning experiences for others. I enthusiastically embrace the inherent complexities of the learning ecology. The puzzle of it all inspires me and has always given my professional life a sense of purpose.  Helping others to learn is what I’ve always wanted to do.

And so, my philosophy of teaching is, at its base, a philosophy of play.

If I can infect students with my enthusiasm, and engage them in experiences that help them to also delight, as I do, in the learning, then I finish each teaching day happily.

Importantly, though, there is nothing fanciful about my notions of play and the work that it does for us as learners. My philosophy of teaching is also grounded in the very serious research of developmental psychologists like Roberta Golinkoff , Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Dorothy Singer (e.g., 2004; 2009) and Adele Diamond (e.g., 2011), who have shown us that the most powerful learning experiences for children (and adults) happen when they can construct meaning from their world in safe environments that encourage open, creative, but also mindful play with tools, objects and ideas. And because play, and the meaning that we construct from it, are embedded in social and cultural contexts, the ideas of Vygotsky (1978), Collins, Brown and Duguid (1989), Lave and Wenger (1991) help me to understand the ways that I, as teacher, can scaffold play (i.e., learning) so that ultimately, it supports the development of more expert-level thinking strategies and understanding. In sum, for me, teaching is the daily art of designing a learning community that enables playful engagement with ideas, and provides the social and cognitive supports that lift learners beyond their current limits of comprehension.

More concretely, what does this look like in my classroom? Given the complexities of every teaching context, the answer is always, “it depends,” but the strategic design of my face-to-face and online lessons always includes an examination of what students know, and opportunities for them to build, playfully, onto their foundations of knowledge. Sometimes, playful engagement means discussion, role play or a quick-fire activity (Wolf, 2009) that asks students to create something with a new tech tool or by following a new theoretical concept. Sometimes, it means giving students the opportunity to write and receive thoughtful feedback from me and from peers. Sometimes, it means thinking aloud as I model my own construction of meaning. Usually, students are working actively. Even during lectures, I ask for active involvement – questions, are the obvious method – but PollEverywhere and #backchannels via Twitter or Hootcourse can encourage students to speak up and think metacognitively. To the extent that it is possible, I always look for ways to ground assignments in students’ interests because, motivation to read or to learn is so inextricably connected to the learning that we do (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2008; Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997 ).

For a teacher who has spent nearly 20 years in classrooms, and who has spent the last five years studying the science of teaching and learning as a doctoral student in the College of Education at Michigan State University, this statement of teaching philosophy is perhaps the element I care about most deeply as a job applicant. For me, “teaching” isn’t a job description. It is so much more.

Teaching is, has been, and will continue to be the focus of my research because, to me, there are no more important questions than those that might help us to help more people learn. Teaching is the focus of my daily thoughts, and it is the skill that I have worked the hardest to master. Teaching is also the activity that returns me to the playful wonderment of childhood and takes me toward my future goals as a scholar.


Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182-185. doi: 10.1037/a0012801

Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4 to 12 Years Old. Science, 333(6045), 959–964. doi:10.1126/science.1204529

Golinkoff, R.M. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2004). Einstein never used flashcards: How our children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Singer, D., Golinkoff, R.M. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2009). Play = learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wigfield, A. &  Guthrie, J.T. (1997). Relations of children’s motivation for reading to the amount and breadth or their reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 420-432. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.89.3.420

Wolf, L.G. (2009). Quickfires explained. Retrieved from http://www.leighgraveswolf.com/2009/08/19/quickfires-explained/

5 thoughts on “Teaching Philosophy

  1. I love the way you balance your scholarly evidence with an engaging and even artistic writing style. Your theme of “play” works well, and you take a playful approach to writing this essay (in contrast to my teaching philosophy which I think reads like a research paper). The end result is something very cohesive and aesthetically pleasing as well as informative about who you are.

    • Hi Penny! Thanks so much for this really kind review of my teaching philosophy. Your words mean so much to me! I’d love to know about your own thoughts on teaching…whether your work is inspired by different scholars…and how you see that “playing” out in the instructional choices you ultimately make in your classroom. I struggled to narrow my focus, actually — as a teacher who studies teaching and learning, I mean…it’s like having to choose a best friend from among all of the people you love! Anyway, Penny — thanks for taking a moment to read this and to respond this morning. Hope you’re having an awesome day!

    • Penny — I just went to your blog and read your teaching philosophy. Dweck — why didn’t I cite, Dweck?! In contrast to mine, I feel that yours focuses on specific groups of students in ways that I did not. I love that you have identified how your teaching philosophy drives the conversations you have and the instructional choices you make for different groups of students. This is brilliant. Re: style — I think it’s incredibly powerful — characteristically organized, focused, succinct and beautifully reflective of all that you bring to your students and to your work. Thank you!!!

      • Thanks for the compliments! Thanks also for prompting me to re-read my own statement again. I’m thinking I haven’t been following my own words very well with the online undergrad class I’m teaching (first time for me teaching *undergrads* in an online format) so I’ll have to see if I can fix that…

  2. Pingback: » Teaching Philosophy - Jessica Nickel

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