Thomas K. Wessels (MA)Faculty Emeritus
Department of Environmental Studies
Like many university professors, I have never taken an education course and know little of the formal language or theory related to teaching. My philosophy has directly emerged from my own experiences as both a learner and educator. I see teaching as something that requires openness. In this regard I have often thought of the evolution of my own teaching as being quite similar to natural selection. If something works I maintain it, if it doesn’t work it is either jettisoned or reworked. In this way students are the selection pressure that has molded my teaching.
At the core of my teaching philosophy is that teachers create a container in which learning can take place—a house building analogy may help. My role as teacher is to construct the external framework for the house and the student’s role is to use that framework as a jumping off point to create their own house, however they choose, based on some initial constraints relating to the frame. In this regard I need to understand how the frame bounds the learning environment while at the same time allows students to design aspects of their learning to best fit their interests and needs. The frame is constructed based on student learning outcomes that direct the development of the curriculum, the syllabus, and all learning activities. Critical to this is that the learning environment needs to be multi-textured so students with different learning styles can be successful. That multi-texture approach comes in a mixture of lecture, discussion, application exercises, individual and group problem solving activities, space for reflective practice, and the ability for students to tailor assignments to best suit their needs.
The five areas that I believe are critical to my teaching are: a holistic approach to develop a big picture as a means to create context for the material learners are engaging in, a focus on foundational concepts and principles that can cross disciplinary boundaries and can serve as a means for synthesis, problem solving activities that develop critical thinking and real world application of the material, flexibility in assignments to allow each student to tailor them for their own interest and needs, and creating opportunities for reflective practice so that students can transform knowledge into understanding.
I believe the last point is critical to the engagement of the learner and is the desired result of all teaching. Knowledge is a tool that we can use, but on its own informs us little about the world around us. Only when knowledge is transformed into understanding—comprehending the implications of knowledge—does learning become both a fulfilling and affirming process.