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Philosophy of Teaching
Kristin Edwards Supe
Graduate Teaching Associate
Department of Psychology
Winner of the 2010 Graduate Associate Teaching Award

If I could choose one way to give a picture of my personal and professional philosophy, then I would choose a classic smiley face icon.  Smiley faces are simple constructs that typically consist of two eyes and one smiling mouth encompassed in a circle.  Beyond just the simple “face value” appearance of a smiley face, I use it to represent my personal educational philosophy and values of seeking, sharing, applying, and enjoying knowledge.

The Eyes: Seeking Knowledge
The eyes are the first prominent feature of my smiley-faced philosophy of teaching and they represent the importance of observing the world in pursuit of knowledge.  I see life through the eyes of a psychologist and a neuroscientist and I have always had an insatiable curiosity for learning in general and understanding the process of understanding itself.  Therefore, I actively seek out cognitive and biological concepts relevant to the acquisition and dispersion of knowledge.  I believe it is always important to have one’s eyes open to seek out new experiences and perspectives so I frequently encourage students to ask questions and seek out concepts that they find similarly fascinating.  I consider it essential for students to learn not only the terms and facts of a particular subject, but also to seek out the explanations, concepts, and theories behind those principles.  Although they can be quite humbling at first, I have realized that many of my favorite moments in the classroom happen when a student asks a question and I do not know the answer.  I relish these opportunities because I can demonstrate my own enthusiasm for seeking knowledge and model different ways for them to seek out information in their own lives.

The Mouth: Sharing Knowledge
I believe that knowledge in a vacuum is not worth much; knowledge is only valuable if communicated with others. Therefore, the mouth on my smiley-faced philosophy of teaching represents the need to share information with others and open their eyes to the wonderful world of knowledge. I think it is important to use several different methods to share information with my students, both inside and outside of the classroom. I create detailed lesson plans for each class meeting that involve an assortment of techniques including interactive PowerPoint lectures, multimedia presentations, active learning exercises, small and large group discussions, and critical thinking analyses. I always try to incorporate varied learning styles, such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic approaches into each class session. Visually, I make sure to have a relevant picture on every single power point slide. Verbally, I place high value on using elaborate metaphors and personally relevant examples to explain a topic in several different ways.  Kinesthetic is often more challenging to integrate, but as an example I teach the neurophysiological concept of long-term potentiation by having the class act out the role of an assembly of neurons and we collectively do “the wave” common at sporting events.  This activity helps them to understand the difficult concept of how neurons can connect in such a way that those that fire together wire together.

Although students can find a wealth of information from a textbook or by searching online, there is no valid replacement for personal experience. I try to offer the benefits of my personal experience as a peer, a student, and a scientist currently engaging in new frontiers of behavioral neuroscience research.  As a teacher, I may be the primary source for sharing information, but I recognize that each student has unique life experiences.  Therefore, I encourage students to share their own knowledge and perspectives with other classmates as much as possible.  I vividly recall one class where I was discussing Tetrodotoxin, a very dangerous and powerful poison found in Fugu, a Japanese seafood delicacy,  that can be deadly if not prepared properly.  A relatively quiet student in the back of the room made a connection from this information to his own experience on a recent trip abroad and shared with the class how it tasted bitter and made his lips tingle because there were still trace amounts of the poison present in the fish.  The sharing of this personal experience really helped the students understand the effects of Tetrodotoxin, and created a great starting point for me to facilitate an interesting discussion on cultural differences using preferences for such dangerous meals as an example.  I aim to create an environment in which students respect others and can expect others to respect them.  Sharing my knowledge and encouraging others to share their knowledge in a respectful way is another of my core educational values.

The Circle: Applying Knowledge
The circle that encompasses the smiley face is evocative of life outside of the classroom that surrounds us all.  When I was an undergraduate student, a mentor told me that most of learning in college occurs outside of the classroom.  From personal experience, I believe whole-heartedly in that statement.  Therefore, in my classroom, I consider it top priority to emphasize the ability to apply principles and generalizations already learned to novel situations.  I take it upon myself to bring the real world into the classroom through concrete and relevant examples to which students can relate.  For example, I often use popular culture references that are relevant to the topics covered in the course to engage student interest and facilitate application outside of the classroom.  On the first day of class every quarter, I break my students into small groups and ask them to work together to come up with as many topics as possible that cannot be related to psychology.  So far, no group has been able to come up with a single topic that the rest of the class cannot apply to the field of psychology in some way.  All quizzes and exams feature application-based questions so students can practice applying familiar concepts to new scenarios.  I expect students to bring the classroom to the real world by synthesizing, integrating, and applying knowledge learned in class to their daily life.

The Smile: Enjoying Knowledge
The most important feature of the smiley face is its symbolic representation of happiness.  I strongly feel that learning should be as fun as possible for everyone involved. The instructor should enjoy the process of teaching and should teach in such a way that students enjoy the process of learning.  Several mentors and teachers have instilled a lifelong love of learning in me, and I wish to share that joy with every student I can.  I hope to convey excitement and enthusiasm in every class session.  I realize that not everyone will develop the same level of appreciation for knowledge, psychology, or neuroscience that I have—but I insist on trying.  I design every class session to be factual, informative and yet still enjoyable for students.  I am always looking for teachable moments such as active learning exercises, demonstrations, discussions, or funny videos I can use to increase enjoyment of a lesson.  I have not found a more rewarding experience than teaching others.  In short, knowledge, learning, and teaching all make me smile and I want to help students smile as well.

The Big Picture
It is my personal and professional mission to go through life smiling about the development of knowledge and help inspire others to smile also.  I find that every step in the educational process is a great reason for students and teachers to smile.  The smiley face is an iconic representation of my educational philosophy of seeking knowledge, sharing knowledge with others, applying knowledge, and enjoying every minute of it.

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