“I think, therefore I am”Descartes and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
“I feel, therefore I learn”
For me, my passion for teaching grew from a love of learning. A love of sharing what I have learnt with others. In 2015 I started a Geology education website (Weekend Geology), writing articles and creating engaging content for anyone – from your grandpa to your youngest nephew – who had an interest in rocks. This captures the most important elements of my teaching philosophy: the most real and meaningful learning occurs when we are immersed deeply in experiencing the world around us.
This means a pedagogy rooted in place and community – in local parks, museums, community organisations and businesses (White 2011, pp. 84). I have always sought to become deeply connected in the communities in which I have lived, volunteering at local community houses, organisations and gardens. Place-based education is an antidote to apathy and disconnection from community (Liebtag 2020, p. 10). This approach also naturally incorporates a curriculum utilising project- and inquiry-based methods of teaching underpinned by the theory of social constructivism (team Vygotsky!). It has the added advantage of developing problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate with others as well as the promotion of autonomy, increasing motivation and a self-driven love of learning.
“It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about”Mary Helen Immordinio-Yang (Lahey 2016)
These goals of teaching are fairly lofty, yes. I am not blind to the pre-conditions of a safe, nurturing and caring environment for all students before any of these ambitions can be realistically sought. I know from lived-experience growing up in a low-socioeconomic environment that if you do not feel safe, if you are in survival mode, you are not in the best position to learn – you’ve got bigger fish to fry than the Pythagoras’ Theorem.
The work of scientists Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler show the important link between neuroscience and learning. The quality of one’s environment, resources and relationships have been shown through extensive research to correlate with the functioning of neural networks which support intelligence, mental health, and emotional regulation (Immordino-Yang et. al. 2018, p. 11). In order for learning to take place, they argue, the psychological pre-conditions of adequate sleep, nutrition, physical activity and access to green spaces, emotional well-being, and cultural well-being (Immordino-Yang et. al. 2018, pp. 11-12) must be met. Students also have to perceive themselves as capable of learning and succeeding – our ‘nature is organised by nurture’ (Immordino-Yang and Gotlieb 2017, p.352, Figure 1) – and this is arguably the most important role of a teacher!
A growth mindset is a powerful thing. There are many different ways that people respond to mistakes. Some will see it as an opportunity to improve – those with a healthy belief that improvements result from effort (Dweck 2006). Many, though, will see it as confirmation that they don’t belong, that they are unworthy or that they are just ‘bad’ at something (Moser et. al. 2011) – or any number of variations of these things. My belief is that as a teacher it is my job to know students really well, that I know the exact shape and extents of their ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vygotsky). It is then my job to give them a challenge and place them in ‘The Learning Pit’ – to squirm and learn (The Learning Challenge: How to Guide Your Students Through the Learning Pit 2017). I have seen first-hand that it is in this zone that students can learn problem solving skills, challenge their self-limiting beliefs about their ability and really engage in deep learning.
I can see the direct impact of teachers who had these pedagogical approaches on the trajectory of my own life. It was Year Nine Geography. We had been given an assignment where we were asked to put on our ‘scientist’ caps, select an area in the local environment and take an in-depth and hands-on look at the ecosystem. I chose a mangrove (we lived next to the beach) and on my weekends completed a scientific ‘investigation’ where I observed the wildlife, wrote notes and took photos. What was the impact of that single project? Huge. When it came to the selection of a University course, I chose to study Science.
“The kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”Socrates
As someone who reads widely – especially science articles and journals – it is important to me that I teach students to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens. To learn that an opinion is not a result. A result is a result, and you find it in the results section of a scientific journal article. And to learn that methods matter, and they differ, and the ability of humans to identify how these differences impact results is not infallible. And that dogma absolutely exists in science. There are many famous examples of huge shifts in the scientific understanding of something, usually at the hand of an individual – an individual with a critical mind.
Finally, I strongly believe that ‘kids do well if they can’ – it is simply human nature. But they need good teachers, teachers who not only can articulate what ‘well’ is and why it is important to a student, but a teacher ‘who can identify those lagging skills and unsolved problems and know how to solve those problems (collaboratively) so that the solutions are durable, the skills are taught, and the likelihood of challenging behaviour is significantly reduced’ (‘Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioural Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them’, Dr. Ross Greene, p.35)
Boaler, J 2013, ‘Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education’, Forum, vol. 55, no. 1.
Dweck, C 2006, ‘Mindset: the new psychology of success’, Ballantine Books.
Education Council 2008, ‘Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians’, Department of Education, Skills & Training, Online Access, Retrieved 14 April 2020, <https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED534449>
Immordino-Yang, M, Darling-Hammond, L and Krone, C 2018, ‘The brain basis for integrated social, emotional and academic achievement’, The Aspen Institute, Accessed: 29/5/2020, <https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/2018/09/Aspen_research_FINAL_web.pdf>
Immordino-Yang, M and Gotlieb, R 2017, ‘Embodied brains, social minds, cultural meaning: Integrating neuroscientific and educational research on social-affective development’, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 54, no. 15, accessed: 30/5/2020, <https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy-f.deakin.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.3102/0002831216669780>
Liebtag, E, McClennen, N, and Vander, A 2020, ‘The Power of Place : Authentic Learning Through Place-Based Education’, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, eBook, Accessed: 1/6/2020.
Maslow, A 1943, ‘A theory of human motivation’, Psychological Review, vol. 50, pp. 370-396.
Moser, J, Schroder, H, Heeter, C, Moran, T and Lee, Y 2011, ‘Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mindset to adaptive posterror adjustments’, Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 12.
White, J 2011, ‘Outdoor Provision in the Early Years’, SAGE Publications.
Vygotsky, L 1978, ‘Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes’, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.