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Personal Philosophies of Teaching: A False Promise?

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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While many institutions use the requirement of a personal philosophy of teaching statement to good and fair purpose, there are some (my own included) that offer more of a false promise than fair purpose in requiring such a statement as part of the periodic review process. The purpose of this article is to examine those false promises and disentangle the assumptions that lie behind them.


The posting below looks at the pros and cons of personal philosophies of teaching statements/. It is by Dan Pratt, University of British Columbia and it first appeared in ACADEME, American Association of University Professors, 91(1), 32-36, January-February, 2005.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Personal Philosophies of Teaching: A False Promise?

Increasingly, faculty at universities and colleges are being asked to articulate their personal philosophies of teaching as part of the review process for reappointment, tenure and promotion (Schonwetter, et al 2002). For many faculty members the request to produce a statement of one's personal philosophy of teaching can be an unfamiliar and daunting task, requiring them to articulate what they normally take for granted -- their beliefs about knowledge and learning and the implications these have for their role as a teacher. Few within the academy argue against it. Most simply assume it is a worthy and appropriate task, assuming perhaps that it will provide better understanding and more equitable judgment of teaching. While many institutions use the requirement of a personal philosophy of teaching statement to good and fair purpose, there are some (my own included) that offer more of a false promise than fair purpose in requiring such a statement as part of the periodic review process. The purpose of this article is to examine those false promises and disentangle the assumptions that lie behind them.

Two Promises

As worthy as it may be, the requirement to produce a philosophy of teaching for periodic review holds within it at least two implied promises: (1) That the review process will be open to more than one philosophy of teaching; and (2) that one's philosophy of teaching will be given serious consideration within the review process. As with the tantalizing aroma of freshly ground coffee beans, the implied promises may suggest more than can be delivered.

Four Assumptions

Within the implied promises are four unspoken assumptions that are part of understanding how we might use a personal philosophy statement for evaluative purposes: First, is the assumption that there is agreement as to the form and substance of an acceptable philosophy of teaching statement; second, that all acceptable philosophies of teaching should be 'learner-centered'; third, that the reviewers' own philosophy of teaching will not prejudice them against other philosophies of teaching; and fourth, that student evaluations of teaching will have fair regard for a plurality of acceptable philosophies of teaching. Each of these assumptions will be examined in turn.

Assumption 1: There is agreement as to the form and substance of an acceptable philosophy of teaching statement

While trying to find a structure that would help faculty articulate their orientations to teaching, Maddin (2002) scoured the Internet to see what others had used. She searched for sample statements, definitions and guidelines, hoping to find something that would provide common guidance, while also allowing for personal variation. She was trying to find structures that would be helpful without being too deterministic as to would be acceptable statements of teaching philosophy. Initially, many of the samples and guidelines looked similar. As she looked closer, the reason for this became clear: Many university web sites had borrowed their guidelines from another university (often with due credit given). For example, within the U.S., Ohio State University (2002) provided more than a dozen sample statements and was cited as a source by a number of other university internet sites. Within Canada, the University of Guelph (2002) provided fewer samples but was a source of guidance for other universities. In the UK, the University of Nottingham's site (2002) provided guidance and structure for other universities. Nottingham's site was different from most others in one important respect: They asked faculty to reflect on values, beliefs and the underlying question of 'why' in their teaching. These three universities were not, of course, the only ones cited; nor were they used only by universities within their own country. They do, however, represent a sample of sites that were widely adopted or adapted by other universities and, thus, contributed to an emerging consensus as to how faculty were to think about the form and substance of a philosophy of teaching statement. With the exception of a few sites, such as Nottingham's, the substance of resulting sample statements was often less than would be necessary if the statement was to be used in a critical review of teaching. More often than not, sample statements focused primarily on the aims of teaching and the means by which those aims might be achieved. Little was said about underlying values or beliefs that would give justification to either the aims or the means. Although the guidelines often encouraged faculty members to say what they believed to be the nature of learning, and many samples did say something about learning, seldom did faculty members talk about the nature of knowledge in their field, profession or discipline, or the imperatives that guided their teaching. For the most part, sample statements and guidelines were more concerned with describing what and how, than about building a rationale that would justify particular aims or means. As a result, while there was convergence on the form and substance of what should go into a philosophy of teaching statement, the result was often less than would be useful in any rigorous evaluative review. Although the request was for a 'philosophy' statement, the product was more often descriptive than analytical in its substance. This could be critical if a person's approach to teaching differed from the norms within a department. If it is to be used for evaluative review, the substance of a personal philosophy of teaching should help reviewers (and students) better understand both the logic and the heart of someone's teaching. More than a mere description of aims and means, a philosophy of teaching statement should reveal the deeper structures and values that give both meaning and justification to an approach to teaching. As of yet, we see little to suggest that there is agreement as to the substance that would be useful in rigorous peer reviews of teaching.

Assumption 2: Acceptable philosophies of teaching should be 'learner-centered'

Across North America and increasingly elsewhere, there is a move toward a single, dominant philosophy of teaching, usually labeled 'learner-centered'. The argument for a learner-centered philosophy of teaching is, at least in part, a reaction against teacher-centered instruction that dominated much of higher education for the past forty years or more. To some, this makes infinite sense; to me it is troubling. The commitment to learners and to learning, itself, is not troubling since a discussion of learners and learning should be an essential part of any philosophy of teaching. However, the way in which this view of teaching is constructed and promoted in higher education assumes that we are in agreement as to what 'learner-centered' means, and that our personal conception of learner-centered is (or ought to be) everyone's conception of learner-centered.

This dominance of one view very quickly approaches an orthodoxy that excludes variations on 'good teaching' that don't fit within that particular view. Consider, for example, societies with long honored views of teaching that conceptualize learning and learners quite different from our own prevailing views. According to the work of several authors (e.g., Watkins and Biggs 1997; Marton and Booth 1997; Pratt, Kelly, Wong, 1999; Wong 1995) Chinese faculty and students commonly understand 'learning' in terms of four stages that students are to move through: memorization, understanding, application, and questioning or modifying what is to be learned. All four are important, but the sequence is equally important. Learning is a matter of moving through the four stages in the prescribed order. Therefore, each stage is a valid form of learning for it prepares the learner for the next stage. Within these stages, memorization is the most often misinterpreted by westerners, especially when contrasted with our own preferred notions of learning. Yet, from a Chinese point of view, memorization serves a legitimate function. Through drill and repetition (as a means to memorizing) students are beginning the process of understanding and, hence, initiating the second stage of learning. For example, students may read the same material several times, each time making the content more familiar, while also focusing on different aspects of the text each time it is read. As such, memorization is not an end, but a means toward understanding the content as it is authorized. From this perspective, understanding can be a gradual process, or it can come suddenly through an "ah-ha!" experience. Either way, understanding the material in authorized forms is only achievable through diligent, repetitive study.

Some teachers in North America produce confusion and frustration in foreign students when they disparage of memorization and encourage students to move quickly toward the far end of this chain (questioning and critique). Foreign students often find it difficult to provide their own structure and guidance through the earlier steps of learning that seemed both useful and legitimate in their home country. It is not that they are incapable of doing it; they are simply not used to starting at this further stage of learning without having been guided through more preparatory stages. In addition, for many learners it may seem disrespectful to challenge and question the text (or teacher), especially when they have little assurance that they understand that which they are to critique.

In this version of 'learner-centered' (or 'leaning-centered') teaching, professors are responsible for guiding students through their content, down a well-defined sequence of steps, toward mastery and then application of the knowledge, fully confident that they, the teachers, are in control of the knowledge and the stages of learning. Students, in turn, are to be willing and compliant recipients of the teacher's authority. Together, teacher and students enter into an equally well-defined set of reciprocal roles and relationships that give further meaning to learning and alternative forms of effective teaching.

Finally, current notions of 'learner-centered' may also exclude many of our own memorable teachers, those whose passion for a subject ignited our interest and redirected our lives. In short, 'learner-centered' has become the mantra of faculty development across our institutions without acknowledging variations on its meaning and corresponding views of effective teaching.

Assumption 3: The reviewers' own philosophies of teaching will not prejudice them against other philosophies of teaching

Most departments either have, or are in the process of considering, ways to conduct peer reviews of teaching. This is founded on the assumption that one's peers are the best judges of how well the discipline or profession is represented in course readings, lectures, tests, assignments and so forth. This is an important, but often neglected part of the evaluation of teaching. (Pratt, 1997) Yet within disciplines or professions there can be serious divisions of thought about what is to be learned and the central role and responsibility of a teacher. Within these divisions some teachers see their primary responsibility as transmitting an established body of knowledge accurately and efficiently. Other teachers see their primary responsibility as one of socializing students into behavioral norms and professional ways of working. Still others see their primary responsibility as one of awakening students to privilege or oppression that is embedded in the discourse and practices of a field or profession. (Pratt and Associates 1998) These differences are fertile ground for prejudicial judgment in peer evaluations of teaching.

As a result, if peer evaluations of teaching are to genuinely accommodate different philosophical orientations, the process must involve a discussion and consideration of what content, questions, issues, debates and authors are included or excluded from a course, what is emphasized or minimized, and what forms of knowledge are valued through the evaluation of learning and how these decisions are connected to a person's philosophy of teaching. (Shulman and Hutchings 1995) Unfortunately, in all too many evaluation schemes, there is little or no discussion of such issues and, therefore, little guidance to direct peer evaluation. Instead, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that those who have passed the test of tenure will be able to judge the teaching of others. For example, when Henderson (1997) reviewed the evaluation procedures and policies of post-secondary institutions in British Columbia, she found no precautions against peer reviewers having different orientations to a discipline or field of practice and how such differences might be discussed within the evaluation process. Nor did she find any attempt to encourage evaluators to make explicit their own beliefs, commitments or philosophy related to teaching and learning during the evaluative process. Across most of the institutions she surveyed, almost nothing was provided in the way of guidance or caution to see that reviewers would be open to different ways of thinking about a discipline or different philosophies of teaching. Nor is there evidence of any change since that study was completed that peer reviewers are encouraged to disclose their own views of 'effective' or 'good' teaching, or to be cautious about the possible intrusion of those on the evaluative process. In sum, there is little to guard against the reviewers' own philosophies of knowledge and of teaching prejudicing them against alternative views of what should be taught or how it should be taught. Without such precautions and guidelines, the process of evaluation is open to bias and may be skewed in a direction where reviewers look only for a reflection of their own philosophies of teaching.

Assumption 4: Student evaluations of teaching will have fair regard for a plurality of acceptable philosophies of teaching

Most universities place high regard on student evaluations of teaching and usually rely on questionnaires as the most common form of gathering data (Marsh & Roche 1997). Such questionnaires are either constructed in-house or 'borrowed,' and perhaps slightly modified, with little thought given to the underlying values represented in the constructs that define teaching. Seldom, if ever, do those charged with gathering student data on teaching step back from the procedure to consider the epistemic and normative values embedded in the items or the conceptual models of teaching that make up those instruments. For example, in one study that involved six departments across four universities within Hong Kong, we found nothing in university policies and procedures that questioned the universal application and fit of teaching evaluation questionnaires across disciplines. As well, in our surveys and focus groups, no faculty member or administrator raised the issue of possible bias in student evaluation questionnaires. Across hundreds of respondents, we found not one instance of concern for how procedures might be examined and adjusted in response to individual faculty members' philosophies of teaching. (Pratt, Kelly, Wong 1999) There is reason to suspect that these findings are more common than uncommon in universities across North America and around the world. For example, Henderson's (1997) review of post-secondary institutions in British Columbia showed a similar absence of concern or awareness that there may be a misfit between personal philosophies and student evaluation instruments. Indeed, part of the reason that student evaluation forms are so widely adopted as the primary (and often the sole) source of data on teaching is that they are easily administered and yield averages, allowing expedient and numerical comparisons within departments and across an institution. It would seem that the expediency of student evaluation trumps any epistemic arguments of faculty who would be so courageous as to draft and submit their own philosophies of teaching.


I fear we are building a very narrow view of what counts as effective teaching and giving false promise to the belief that personal philosophies of teaching will receive serious consideration when used for evaluative purposes. My hope is that we will be vigilant and not naively yield to those who believe that there is but one single and viable perspective on good teaching. I wish to honor those teachers who were memorable but different; those whose teaching was instrumental to our learning and our professional path, without necessarily fitting within yet another orthodoxy of teaching. (Pratt, 2002) I am not arguing that all philosophies of teaching are equally good or acceptable. That kind of solipsism is neither defensible nor practical. I am arguing against merely substituting an old orthodoxy with a new one; and I am arguing for acknowledging a plurality of acceptable philosophies of teaching. If we are to acknowledge and respect a plurality of views of teaching, we must avoid both extremes of 'anything goes' or its opposite, 'one size fits all'. My argument is derived from more than a decade of research in several countries, studying hundreds of teachers in adult and higher education (Pratt and Associates 1998). Across a wide range of disciplines, contexts, and cultures, my students and I found a plurality of good teaching, not all of which rest on the same values or principles. Our findings are not unique. They correspond to those of many other researchers around the world, as far back as Fox (1983) in the UK and as recently as Grubb and Associates (1999) at Berkeley. Across all these varied studies and sites of practice, no single philosophy of learning or teaching dominated what might be called 'good teaching.'

As I watch the mounting pressure on faculty members to produce philosophy of teaching statements, I see strategies ranging from genuine reflection on commitments that clarify and justify specific educational aims and means, to simple borrowing of ideas and texts from available samples and sites. For those involved in the review of teaching, it may be difficult to discern genuine reflection from simple borrowing unless we move these documents from the periphery to the center of the review process. If such documents continue to be peripheral to the substantive aspects of a review, there is little incentive for people to opt for the genuine rather than the borrowed as they craft their own statements. And there is every reason to assume that reviewers will have difficulty telling the genuine from the contrived, the sophisticated from the na?ve, and the profound from the prosaic. In any case, the power and purpose of a personal philosophy statement lies not in its eloquence or its fit with some current discourse of teaching, but in its ability to reveal what is hidden, yet essential, to understanding someone's teaching. At its best, it can be an advance organizer for peer reviewers and students, a map to the deeper structures of a teacher's values, revealing both origins and destinations of teaching. If teaching philosophy statements are to live up to this potential, they must not be left on the periphery as unsuspecting instruments of false promise.


Fox, D. (1983). Personal theories of teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 8(2), 151-163. Grubb, W. N. & Associates (1999). Honored but Invisible: An Inside Look at Teaching in Community Colleges. New York: Routledge. Henderson, M.M. (1997). The evaluation of faculty in British Columbia Colleges. Unpublished masters thesis, The University of British Columbia.

Maddin, G. (2002). Philosophies of Teaching: Can the web provide guidance? Unpublished masters paper, The University of British Columbia.

Marsh, H.W. and Roche, L.A. (1997) Making students' evaluations of teaching effectiveness effective: the critical issues of validity, bias, and utility. American Psychologist, 52(11), 1187-1197. Marton, F. and Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness, New Jersey: Laurence Earlbaum and Associates. Ohio State University (2002). []

Pratt, D.D. (1997). Reconceptualizing the evaluation of teaching in higher education, Higher Education, 34: 23-44, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Pratt, D.D. and Associates (1998). Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Pratt, D.D., Kelly, M., Wong, W.S. (1999). Chinese conceptions of 'effective teaching' in Hong Kong: Towards culturally sensitive evaluation of teaching, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 18(4), 241-258.

Pratt, D.D. (2002). Good teaching: one size fits all? In Jovita Ross-Gordon (Ed.) An Up-date on Teaching Theory, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Schonwetter, D.J. Sokal, L., Friesen, M. and Taylor, K.L. (2002). Teaching philosophies reconsidered: A conceptual model for the development and evaluation of teaching philosophy statements. The International Journal for Academic Development, 7(1), 83-97.

Shulman, L. and Hutchings, P. (1995). Exercise I - teaching as scholarship: reflections on a syllabus, in Hutchings, P. (ed.) From Idea to Prototype: The Peer Review of Teaching -- A Project Workbook, Washington DC: The American Association for Higher Education. University of Guelph (2002). []

University of Nottingham (2002). []

Watkins, D. A. and Biggs, J.B. (eds.) (1997) The Chinese Learner: Cultural, Psychological, and Contextual Influences (Hong Kong Comparative Education Research Centre: University of Hong Kong). Wong, M. (1995). Apprenticeship Teaching Among Chinese Masters. Unpublished masters thesis, The University of British Columbia.