Why I Teach – A Personal Philosophy of Education

What one does and how one does it is the product of what one believes and one’s orientation toward the future.  Upon that premise, I set forth now, as a classroom teacher and an experiential educator, my personal philosophy of education.  Let it be known that this I believe:

What is education?  What is teaching?

I believe that the true goal of education is the realization of human potential, that one’s personal human potential is the full expression of authentic self in relation to truth in community, and that realizing one’s personal potential depends on a reliable foundation of accurate self knowledge.

Therefore, education is the system by which we strive to realize the heights of human potential through the practice of teaching and the process of learning.

Teaching is the day-to-day endeavor to inspire and bring about learning in students. Its goal is the acquisition of knowledge, the advent of insight, and the development of personal capacities through live encounters with matters of real concern and the processing of experience. All knowledge is self-knowledge by virtue of the subjectivity of the knower; what is known, and even the act of knowing, is not independent of the knower, and, ultimately, what is experienced by the knower is a manifestation of self.

Self-knowledge is that collection of relevant and comparative information that a student uses to form a conception of self in community others and with truth. Furthermore, self knowledge allows the identification of passions and empowers the pursuit of happiness in moving forward with the uncertain business of living a life.

Fundamentally, teaching is the judicious practice of managing experiences to make them useful to students in interpreting the world and in pursuing their passions. Interpreting the world means making meaning of history and the human condition and understanding one’s place in both human and natural contexts. Pursuing their passions means identifying their talents and affinities and feeling empowered to develop them in community with others.

The individual and the community

The individual and the community coexist in collaborative interdependence, the two thriving on each other in measured balance. Human potential can only be realized in community with others because it is dependent on a human social context for its value. Individual expression in isolation has no effect, no benefit, and no real-world value. As such, it is a feckless and impotent gesture, incapable of either improving or diminishing the human condition. Self expression is made real when the effects on other people are manifest.

Community only exists to the extent that it recognizes and celebrates individuals and their free and personal expressions of self. Oppression is the curtailing of free and personal expression of self, and an oppressed community is diminished in capacity and human potential by the lack of expression. A community without a vibrancy of distinct and striving individuals working in common cause does not advance or progress and eventually collapses for lack of original thought and new ideas, both of which come only from free and personal expression of self.

The questions students ask

While they might not always be consciously aware of the questions they are asking, and even if they have come to give themselves automatic and pat answers, I believe students always ask three big questions about themselves while learning:

    • Is this about me?
    • Can I use this?
    • What am I compared to this?


These are the questions that compose the student experience of learning.

Is this about me?

This is the fundamental question that determines a student’s level of engagement in the learning process, and engagement is the primary modulator of lasting learning. Engagement engenders experience, and experience causes and necessitates a change in one’s perception of the self in relation to truth and the world. In reaction to experience one changes one’s mental models of the self and of the world, and from there one moves forward into new experiences with a new set of expectations and understandings.

So, “Is what is happening around me about me, of me, for me?” becomes the primary question, often tacitly asked and tacitly answered.

The degree to which a student feels able, invited, and compelled to participate in the content or material being learned is the degree to which it has an influential effect on his or her mental models of the world, of truth, and of the self. Enduring mental models are most of what we call knowledge, and a mental model that includes a conception of self with an active agency in the world is the foundation for citizenship in a community.  To create a sense of citizenship, of vested interest in a community, schools have to succeed in engaging students and instilling a sense of effectual participation. To do that, students have to feel that what they are learning is essentially and in some way about them.

And so, the content of what is taught should be relevant, first and foremost.

At risk is the alienation and anonymity that comes from the perception that this community or this experience or this world is not about me or my people, and there is nothing at stake for me here.

Can I use this?

The human brain forgets far, far more than it remembers, and thankfully so. Actually, it doesn’t forget so much as it sifts and filters experience to identify relevant and useful information to store in memory. The vast majority of what perceived through the senses is never even stored for future recall – because it is deemed irrelevant and has no identifiable bearing on health or well being.

Those things deemed relevant and useful are acquired, stored, recalled, and applied to new situations effortlessly. And incidentally, it happens all the time, within school and without, in every situation. The brain never “turns off,” it is always acquiring and evaluating information for relevance and utility, and the information it stores as relevant and useful are accessed without trouble.

So, the critical question that is asked, usually unknowingly, to determine whether content material is stored for later use or not is Can I use this and how? For learning and memory, utility of what is learned is critical. If we want students to remember and use what we teach them, we need to be very clear about how they are going to use what they are learning to interpret the world and their place in it and to navigate their pursuit of what they find most meaningful in life. That is what the human brain has evolved to do; there is no other way.

And so, the content of what is taught should be useful.

At risk is the notion that what is learned in school is not necessary, static and dead, already known by other people who do other things, and that learning is simply a short-lived torture of memory.  At risk is the notion that there is nothing new under the sun.

What am I compared to this?

Learning leaves a mark on the self. Everything we experience goes to creating a conception of the self that is dynamic and constantly changing with new experience. The brain is the seat of selfhood, personality, character, affinity, truth, beauty, and passion. Everything that is perceived comes through the brain and is affected by the mechanisms of thought, memory, consciousness, and emotion. Content material exists in and of itself, but what is experienced and learned is a combination of the thing itself and the self.

So, everything that is learned serves to define the self who learns and chart a path forward.  In this sense learning is always an act of comparison.  Students work to understand a concept or master a skill and then through the questions of relevance and usefulness come to some conclusions about themselves in comparison to what is learned.

Reading and studying Macbeth,for instance, coming to know the play through experience, can bring a sense of identity, as in – I know Macbeth. I am the one who knows Macbeth. Of course, other conceptions of self in comparison to Macbeth are possible, too, as in I am one who does not understand Macbeth. Any conception of self that comes from an experience with Macbeth serves to define the self who moves forward into new texts and new learning. The anticipation of a reading of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, will be influenced by the conception of self that was changed by reading Macbeth.

And so, learning should empower further learning.

At risk is the notion that I am nothing compared to this. Powerless before knowledge, incapable of growth, students who come to see themselves as inadequate in comparison to content will choose not to learn, not to express themselves in community with others and the human condition, and the human social context will be the poorer for it.

The bottom line

Through the brain-intensive process of learning, students actively redefine their conception of who they are in the human condition. In answering the questions Is this about me? Can I use this? and What am I in comparison to this? students gain self knowledge and insight into themselves as individuals, capable of self expression, in community with others and in relation to truth.

Because of that, the experience a student has while learning is far, far more important than the material learned.

This I believe.

7 thoughts on “Why I Teach – A Personal Philosophy of Education

  1. james shipman

    How much of this do you think people actually read? (And the 4th question kids ask: “how do you know this?”

  2. Grace

    Some kids actually say, ” I won’t learn from you”, have you ever come across something like that? One more thing that has been puzzling me as an educator of grade 6-12 is the noise level in our societies today, considering that schools are in the middle of the cross roads and rails of all the human activities. These are outside noises, but I think there are inside noises in students heads, I don’t want to say their minds. Learning is becoming difficult, or should I just come out and say, “teaching is becoming impossible” because of noise. It does not seem like we can stop the noises that are being heard, the physical ones, and the ones I imagine are inside each kids head, or each person’s head. I am not sure if i am making myself clear. Students talk nonstop these days, and they may request to work with their music plugs in their ears, that is the only way some of them could be quiet. They claim that they can multitask, I just had a lecture about the human brain, this lecturer said there is no such a thing as multi-tasking. It means, the brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time. My point is, I give you credit for writing your philosophy, I really do. I don’t know what my philosophy is anymore, I think it is lost in the noises. Thank for taking the time to write.

  3. putyatin Post author

    Thanks for reading, Grace, and for your thoughts. I hear you. I do think there is more noise now than ever before – the sheer volume of information available to students today via the internet is testament to that. I also think the messages kids receive from – ultimately – the corporate world have gotten much craftier and much more persuasive. The effect is that it has gotten harder as an educator to compete for student buy in. Education for learning’s sake – or for happiness’s sake – is a harder sell compared to the corporate messaging that sells schooling as a means to grades which are a means to a higher paycheck.

    I don’t know if that is on topic of your concerns. I do think there is more noise and, in thinking about the changing nature of schooling (like, all the time), I think the noise comes from Madison Avenue and the astonishing extent to which the corporate world wants to sell kids stuff.

    And it is true about multitasking – it is a misnomer and a myth. Your brain lecturer was right: the brain can attend to only one thing at a time And we know this from any number of common experiences. The brain’s inability to do more than one cognitive task at a time is why we sometimes can’t remember the substance of what we have just read in the past few paragraphs. Our brain has been attending to another thought. It is also why our eyes flit from place to place in viewing a painting or a landscape. Our brains attend to one thing at a time and then our brains integrate the information into a whole picture.

    Which is not to say, by the way, that some students don’t find it pleasant to listen to music while they do homework. It IS to say that the benefit some sense in listening to music – or skyping or watching TV, etc. – has nothing to do with attention or focus. It simply makes the experience of doing homework more pleasant. The unpleasantness of most typical schoolwork is a different problem – one that is addressed by the three questions: Can I use this? Is this about me? What am I compared to this? If kids answer “no” (or “not much”) to these questions, they tend to look for relevance elsewhere – like in music – which IS useful, IS about them, and DOES make them feel competent.

    Keep up the good work, Grace. Good teaching is harder than it ever has been, but there has never been a better time for it.

  4. growthinprogress

    I love the three questions, and I found your philosophy inspiring. Do I agree with all of it? No. But the writing was lyrical and the information motivational. In this day and age (I fear Grace has a point), we could use a little motivation to re-invigorate our souls and remind us of why we went into this profession in the first place.

  5. hgh

    Thanks for other major berth. Where else could anyone get that typewrite of substance in much an model way of oeuvre? I jazz a show close hebdomad, and I am on the looking for specified content.

  6. math toys

    I seldom create responses, but i did a few searching and wound up here Why I Teach – A Personal Philosophy of Education | Cairn.
    And I do have some questions for you if you do not mind.

    Is it simply me or does it appear like some of these comments appear like
    coming from brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you
    are posting at other social sites, I’d like to follow anything fresh you have to post. Would you list of every one of your social sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?


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