Philosophy of Teaching

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Deborah Dewit Marchant


Over the years, I have arrived at a series of images that comprise a  portrait of my approach to teaching. In addition, I have developed a classroom pedagogy focused on "cooperative" or "active" learning.  In turn, the pedagogical values I espouse are grounded in my long-standing commitment to the values of liberal education. These values come to expression in the way I apply tools of philo- sophical analysis to the  subjects I teach.



I can not remember a time when I did not want to be a teacher. As I recall, my early musings about "what I want to be when I grow up" focused exclusively on teaching. Socialization contributed to my strong focus. I grew up in an era when girls chose largely from two career options: nursing or teaching. The linked spheres of illness and health held no attraction for me. But I did not choose teaching as a profession by mere default. Whatever the social mores of the time, while I was playing with my friends and studying with classmates at school, I gradually discovered that I had an affinity for helping others solve problems or understand and appreciate an activity or topic which previously they had dismissed. In those early years, I imagined that I would build on these strengths while educating children. I dreamed of living in a rural area and teaching in one of the last one-room schoolhouses in America. However, in college, I discovered the discipline of philosophy. Wanting to link my own passion for learning with a formal commitment to sharing my love of philosophy and its problem-solving strategies with others, I redirected my interest from teaching children to teaching college students. I determined that I would pursue a career in higher education. I have never had any reason to second guess that decision.


Four Images of Teaching

The Stranger’s Shoes:

Whether I am informing students about the world religions, introducing you to major theories in the sociology of religion, or acquainting you with cutting-edge works in feminist theory, you regularly confront persons and ideas that are new to your own experience. Students can bypass genuine understanding if you precipitously dismiss new ideas (e.g., "Hindu views of ultimate meaning are ridiculous") or impetuously embrace them (e.g., "Hindu views of ultimate meaning are exactly like my own"). I encourage you to stand in the shoes of persons you encounter in my classes in order to see the world through their eyes. Walk awhile in those shoes before expressing judgment about them. Subsequently, you can exercise skills in critical reflection in order to forge understanding born of full communication. When students in Religions of the World tell me that they are puzzled about my own religious beliefs because I speak of each religion as if it is my own, I know that I have succeeded in modeling for students this entry-level approach to learning.


The Mozart Concerto for Bassoon:

Students in my classes read the works of noted philosophers, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists. Seldom do you read textbooks created especially for college students. Why? In high school, my bassoon teacher always assigned me pieces in the classical repertoire instead of works composed for students. But his actions were challenged by another instructor. That instructor suggested that I should have been assigned works composed exclusively for high school students because they would have been "a piece of cake." By contrast, he observed that I was really struggling with the Mozart Concerto for bassoon. My own teacher responded to this criticism with a profound comment that has shaped my own approach to teaching. He observed that his pupils always achieved more when they stretched themselves to perform serious literature than when they focused on readily mastered pieces. So also do my students learn more when you grapple with texts that continue to fascinate and provoke mature scholars than when you read textbooks written expressly for you.


The Tao of Teaching:

From a Taoist perspective, one who teaches most, teaches least. I do not aim to do something to or for students when I teach; rather, I seek to support you in doing something for yourselves. Because instructors are often most successful as facilitators of student learning when we are learning also, I view the classroom as a community of learners. As a consequence, I try to create an environment in which visitors who arrive midway through a class hour will not readily be able to identify the professor within that community. Visitors will need to sit awhile and listen to discussion in order to ascertain that, among the many students who are assisting each other in learning, I am a primary facilitator of learning in the group.


The One-Room Schoolhouse:

My dream of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse has, in some respects, been realized. Because a range of students--sophomores to graduate students—are attracted to each of my courses, my classroom may be likened to an old-fashioned schoolhouse. I work with each student to assess your initial strengths and weaknesses, establish a plan for growth, and move forward with that plan. Students do not compete against each other; instead, I ask that you seek a new level of individual accomplishment with each course unit.

I'm curious:  with which images in this portrait of teaching do you resonate?  I welcome your thoughts.  Do contact me at .


Pedagogical Values That Shape My Teaching

My commitment to cooperative or active learning builds on a set of pedagogical values that I espouse. (These values have been well summarized in Cooperative Learning, eds. Johnson, Johnson, Smith. Washington DC, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, No. 4, 1991]).


When students exchange information and resources with each other and with me in my classes, you process information more efficiently and effectively than you do when you work in isolation from each other or sit passively listening to me talk.


When question asking and answering moves in rigid channels exclusively between myself and you and never among your classmates and you, learning is impoverished. In my classes, I encourage you to challenge and question each other because exercising these skills with each other promotes your use of higher quality decision making. Employing these skills will result also in your increased insight into the course material.


When you respond to each other in class, discussing ideas with each other in small groups or with all members of the class, your learning is enhanced because you do not need rely only on me to assess your work. In addition to my responses to your classroom contributions, written tests, or homework assignments, you are able to assess your learning progress in relation to each other. When other students understand or misunderstand you, communicate effectively with you or miscommunicate, appreciate or challenge your insights, they assist you in assessing whether you are engaged in effective learning.


When problem-solving is central to class experience, learning is enhanced. In my classes, I often ask students how many recall learning to ride a bicycle. Generally, all hands are raised. By contrast, when I ask you to tell me what you ate for lunch on Tuesday of the previous week, few of you can recall. Why are you more able to recall learning to ride a bicycle than last week’s lunch? Your recollection is vivid because, for you, learning to ride a bike posed a problem to be solved. How, you asked yourself, can I keep this bike upright? Unless you were stranded on a desert island last Tuesday, your lunch probably did not present itself as a problem to be solved. I suggest that we approach course topics similarly. The topics of study in my classes are not food to be digested (and forgotten) but problems to be resolved.

Research studies show that the problem-solving approach to learning enhances the retention of information. Apparently, our brains reserve space in long-term memory for problems we have solved whereas it consigns things like luncheon menus to short-term memory (here today and gone tomorrow). If you want to remember material in this class for more than a day or two, I recommend that you take seriously the problem-solving approach to learning emphasized in my classes. Such an approach will make it less likely that your memories of today’s learning efforts will be gone tomorrow.


When a classroom is characterized by ethnic, class, or religious diversity, a classroom climate shaped by cooperative learning is of particular value. Because cooperative learning methods enable all students to speak in class, share ideas, and challenge each other, the unique contributions of students are brought to the fore. When students from different countries, with distinct socio-economic backgrounds, sexual, and gender identities describe their experiences with families, schools, religious and societal institutions, the pool of ideas, concepts, and images out of which we draw our material for discussion with each other is varied and enriched. In turn, our learning is enhanced. In particular, because students learn in a classroom characterized by diversity to view situations and problems from perspectives other than their own, they acquire a critical competency for cognitive and social development. In a global marketplace, which has a diverse labor pool, this critical competency is of increasing value to employers.


When we regularly discuss in class our methods and strategies for learning, learning is enhanced. Thinking metacognitively in class about how you learn encourages the independent development of our metacognitive skills. In turn, these skills support your increased participation, accountability, and individual initiative in learning. Because most of you are pursuing career options in which you will actively assert leadership, individual accountability, and personal initiative, these metacognitive skills will be of value to you long after you leave UNI.

Indeed, all the skills of learning I have described here are skills that prepare you for future employment. After all, most office structures are more reminiscent of team-oriented cooperative learning classes than they are of lecture halls in which all eyes are focused on a "sage on the stage."

Of course, the pedagogical values described here are not exclusive to cooperative learning in discussion oriented classes. Faculty can structure a lecture class to achieve these active learning outcomes. Some of my colleagues at UNI do so very effectively. However, in my own experience, I find that I more easily promote the values described here in a class oriented toward discussion, often in small groups, than in a class organized around lectures. To be sure, that I ask you to engage in discussion in my classes does not of itself maximize your learning. Learning doesn’t "just happen" when students cluster in discussion groups. Instead, I work carefully to plan and structure active learning opportunities for group work in my classes. When I succeed in implementing these plans, your learning is enhanced. For further details about active learning strategies in my classrooms, please see my guide to In Class Discussion.

I've shared my classroom philosophy with you.  What about you?   What has characterized your most memorable classroom experiences?  In what kinds of classes do you do your best learning?  What doesn't work for you?  I welcome your observations.  Do contact me with your insights at .


The Values of Liberal Education

My pedagogical commitments are grounded in my long-standing support for the values of liberal education. Whereas a vocational or technical education prepares you for a job, a liberal education prepares you for life. Living a life generally includes pursuing a vocation; however, it also entails other objectives. Attention to these other objectives for education first emerged in the modern world during the European Enlightenment among thinkers such as Kant. Kant’s own goals for learning including preparing individuals to be "better, braver, and more active" in their daily life and interactions with others.

What does it mean to be "better, braver and more active?" The word "liberal" gives us a clue: it contains connotations of "liberation." Liberal learning invites you to approach knowledge in ways that liberate: as you expand your perspectives on the world and develop powers of critical reflection and judgment, you make more informed decisions (a better approach to life). You also are able to take more informed risks (a braver approach to life). Finally, because you are able to exercise judgment from a position of informed reflection, you can assume a greater leadership role (a more active approach to life) among your family and friends and within your chosen profession. How do I support these values of liberal education in my teaching?

Informed decisions, risks, and reflection are a product of acquired intellectual skills and capacities. When you learn to exercise sophisticated skills in oral and written communication, emphasizing critical reflection and argumentation, you are able to employ skills in reasoning that are a prerequisite for making informed decisions, taking informed risks, and functioning in a leadership capacity.

I act on my own commitment to this value of liberal education when I set high performance goals for you in my classes. Over the course of a semester, each student in my classes is offered regular opportunities to enhance your skills in oral and written communication, with an emphasis on critical reflection.

Informed decisions, risks, and reflection draw also on knowledge attained when you understand multiple modes of inquiry and approaches to knowledge. For this reason, liberal education always is linked in higher education with a spectrum of courses required of undergraduates. At UNI, "general education" refers to the courses you take that introduce you to varied modes of thinking and approaches to knowledge. A person cannot make informed decisions, take reasonable risks, or engage in astute reflection if she or he draws only on one set of cognitive tools (quantitative reasoning, for example). Through general education, students gain experience in exercising multiple modes of inquiry. These range from quantitative reasoning associated with mathematics, empirical research associated with the natural sciences, narrative interpretation associated with the arts and literature, and ethical reflection associated with the discipline of philosophy.

I exercise a commitment to this value of liberal education through my regular offering of "Religions of the World," a general education course. Because liberal education gets its life blood from a core set of courses through which students are introduced to multiple modes of inquiry, I consider Religions of the World, which over two thousand UNI students have taken with me, to be the most important course I teach.

Informed decisions, risks, and reflection are more likely if our acquired knowledge is broad. If we draw only on our own life experience in making decisions, we are likely to make uninformed choices. For that reason, liberally educated persons turn to the past. We learn from reflecting on what our predecessors have done. Liberally educated persons turn also to a global culture: we learn from reflecting on what persons do in societies other than the one in which we have grown up. We turn also to our neighbors, whose religion, ethnic heritage, gender, race, and sexual orientation may be different from our own. In listening to the stories of our neighbors, our own horizons expand, broadening the base from which we make decisions and take risks.

I exercise a commitment to this value of liberal education in courses such as Religions of the World, which is oriented toward a global culture. In Studies in Religion: Judaism I support this value of liberal education by focusing, in particular, on the contemporary experience of Jews. Using electronic ethnography on the World Wide Web, students in this class use a specific set of tools (the tools of participant/observation employed by social scientists) to listen to the stories of persons who exemplify the diversity of Jewish experience today. In women’s studies courses that I teach special attention is given to the diversity of human experience, especially ways in which gender, race, and class are linked in each human story.

Informed decisions, risks, and reflection are more likely if our acquired knowledge is deep. Liberal education supports informed decision making not only because it broadens the base of information from which we make decisions, but also because it enables us to probe multiple levels of that base. The undergraduate major plays a key role in liberal education when it supports the development of such a base.

For example, in the courses in the study of religion major that I teach, I introduce students to key aspects of what Martha Nussbaum describes as the "narrative imagination ("Cultivating Humanity," in Liberal Education 84/2, 1998, 38-45). We exercise such an imagination when we "think what it might be like to be in the shoes of someone different form oneself; to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story; and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have, including the many ways in which social circumstances shape emotions and wishes and desires." I give attention to the narrative imagination in my classes because the values of liberal education which I espouse cannot be exercised in the absence of an awareness of that imagination. We cannot make informed judgments about other persons if we cannot see the meaning of an action as they intend it or understand their views within the context of their history and social roles.

Therefore, in courses such as Religion and Society, we employ a variety of tools of the social sciences and humanities to probe the narrative imagination. When we study ritual, for example, we come to an enhanced understanding of the human story. After all, when humans attempt to speak to the most central concerns of a people and a community, their efforts often find expression in ritual. Whether we are exploring the immersion in water of Orthodox Jewish women (mikvah) or the family devotional rites of Hindu mothers, we learn that understanding others entails reflecting on the diverse ways that humans bring to expression and visibility the ultimate meanings and concerns of their lives.

Another example comes from the courses in philosophy that I teach: Existentialism and Gender: Poststructuralist, Psychoanalytic, and Feminist Perspectives. In philosophy classes, students are able to explore the deep base of knowledge by using tools of inquiry developed over the centuries by philosophers. The big questions in life are put under the lens of philosophical analysis, contributing to reasoned reflection that is a prerequisite for informed decisions, risk, and reflection.

For example, in Existentialism, we explore ways in which human existence is a question to itself. In various ways, the Existentialist philosophers explore the temporality of human existence (humans are unfolding events), the contradictions of human existence (humans are split, alienated, thrown, and empty), and the potential of human existence (humans create themselves in their choices and actions). For existentialist philosophers, the existence of the other also is a problem to be resolved. From this area of reflection, we see emerge the ethical writings of the existentialists. We see also their profound contributions to social philosophy: How do I get outside myself to be with others? Will others always be alien to me, alternately mystery and threat? Am I capable of really knowing and understanding others? Influenced by Marx, Freud, and Lacan, the existentialist philosophers substantively engage the most pressing of questions about others in their time (and for the most part in ours): In the face of widespread anti-Semitism, what of the Jew who is other to the Christian? In the face of French colonialism on the African continent, what of blacks who are the others of whites? What of women who are others of men? What of homosexuals who are others of heterosexuals?

In the philosophy course on Gender we ask, what is the relation between the mind and the body? Are minds and bodies sexed? And what is a "woman" and what is a "man?" How do cultural ideas come to be lived by bodies? For example, how is the cultural ideal of thinness lived by the anorexic body? What is the relation between minds, bodies, perception, and ideologies that enables someone to look in the mirror and still literally see a fat person when everyone else sees someone in the last stages of starvation? While sociologists and psychologists also work to understand the varied experiences of humans (such as the phenomenon of anorexia) philosophers are distinguished from them by the range of their questioning. Philosophers stand back to ask the foundational questions of meaning? What, after all, is a body? What is a mind? How can we talk reasonably about bodies and minds? Philosophers perceive that varied answers to these questions may be given. Moreover, they contend that answers that contribute most to reasoned reflection are not always the most recent answers. Philosophers find as many insights about the mind/body problem in thinkers who wrote thousands of years ago (e.g., Plato and Aristotle) as they do in contemporary thinkers such as Foucault or Beauvoir.

Finally, informed decisions, risks, and reflection are based on judgments and valuations. The "better person" of whom Kant wrote is a person who lives an ethical life. I do not believe that I make students ethical as a consequence of my teaching. That is one major differences between teaching students and making widgets. If I made widgets, I would guarantee their production. I would guarantee that when I poured plastic into a die, I would produce a widget (and a very good one at that!). But in the liberal learning environment, I do not set a die that produces ethical persons. Instead, I work to assist students in acquiring three skills that contribute to their exercise of ethical decision making, should they choose to engage in it.

bulletWhen you think for yourself, bringing to bear on your decisions reasoned argumentation and reflection, I am more confident in your exercise of judgment than I would be were you to defer solely to authority (e.g., a teacher, a coach, a governmental leader) in making your decisions. Authorities may be right. Indeed, as a scholar of religion, I am especially aware of the enduring appeal of religious authority and tradition. But the study of religion has taught me also that religions do not endure because persons assent to creeds unreflectively. They endure because persons, for thousands of years, have reflected on, argued with, mused over, and pondered the proffered wisdom of religious traditions. Only after careful reflection have they determined to uphold and maintain these traditions.


bulletWhen you take responsibility for your views, expressing them in an articulate manner and defending them from attack, I am more confident that you will be capable of exercising ethical judgment than I would be were you regularly to say, "Everyone has a right to her/his views. I don’t have to defend mine and I won’t expect you to defend yours."


bulletWhen you demonstrate an ability to exchange ideas and thoughts with others, express respect for the other, and make an effort to communicate with a goal of mutual understanding, I am more confident that you will be able to engage in ethical decision making than I would be were you to short circuit an exchange of views by shouting another person down, turning away from another in disgust, or simply shrugging your shoulders while saying, "there isn’t any reason to discuss this. After all, who are we to judge?"

In sum, as a teacher, I contribute to the production of better persons, of whom Kant wrote, and to students’ capacity for ethical decision-making when I consistently and formally offer you regular opportunities in my classes to think for yourselves, take responsibility for your views, and understand with sympathy the thoughts and views of others around you. These three activities, as Martha Nussbaum so wisely notes, are hallmarks of liberal education in a democracy. They also are central to "the cultivation of humanity," in the absence of which we as a human people are imperiled.

Significantly, these three commitments are as much a part of my life as a teacher as I hope they will be of your lives as students. I too make an effort constantly to enhance my skills in thinking responsibly, critically interrogating tradition and authority, and understanding others. On the best of days, I would like to think I make progress. But teachers have bad days. We say foolish things, unthinkingly assent to ideas that rightly should arouse our deepest suspicions, and present ourselves to others as the most unsympathetic of listeners. Despite these failures, my philosophy of teaching remains firmly grounded in my confidence in the essential value of the liberal ideals discussed here. Drawing energy and focus from them for my teaching life, I am pleased to share them with you in the hopes that you too will find in them purpose and meaning for the time you are spending at UNI pursuing a higher education.

What about you?  Are you attracted to the values of liberal education?  Why or why not?  I welcome your thoughts.  Do contact me at .


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