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Teaching Philosophy Statements: What are they and how do I write one?

Written By: Lewis A Baker
7 min read

Lewis A Baker, Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Surrey, UK

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to justify the engagement in developing a teaching philosophy statement and to scaffold the writing process. For those already familiar with such documents, this article will argue for the value of revisiting a teaching philosophy statement and updating it to reflect changes in one’s thinking and practice. Irrespective of familiarity, the intention is that readers, at a minimum, find this article helps them critique their current educational values, beliefs, and classroom practices (taken together, their teaching philosophy), and in doing so, reorient their teaching and learning practices to foster evidence-informed deliberate practice.

The motivation for this work comes from two observations. The first was engaging with the literature to understand why some neuromyths continue to pervade educational spaces at all levels of study. At the practitioner level, it is often because of confirmation bias cycles that make a critical analysis of education and neuroscientific literature challenging (Baker, 2020). The second was writing several teaching philosophy statements as part of my own continuing professional development, noticing what had and had not changed in my thinking and practice after significant periods of time, new experiences, and navigating different educational and working contexts (Baker, 2021). Reflecting on what has and has not changed makes you ask, why? To answer this requires some careful consideration of the educational literature to justify the actions one discusses in their teaching philosophy (Schussler et al., 2011). Teaching philosophy statements can therefore be a vehicle for critical reflection.

Interestingly, while teaching philosophies are developed and shared amongst communities of practitioners throughout educational circles (e.g., across a school or college), they are rarely written at the individual practitioner level, especially true within the secondary and further education sectors. As such, practitioners located here may miss two key development opportunities. Firstly, the writing process formalises and consolidates thinking since it is at least, in part, a product of the construction of knowledge (Beatty et al., 2009). Secondly, it elicits critical reflection on the rationale behind thoughts and beliefs about education, which requires engagement in evidence-based practices to develop professional knowledge.

The rest of the article is structured as follows: a discussion of what a teaching philosophy statement is and a justification for writing one; the dynamic nature of this document that should be updated as practitioners gain knowledge and experience; and finally, the imperative to critique evidence to justify the why, what, and how of our teaching philosophies.

What is a teaching philosophy and why does it matter?

‘Philosophy’ finds its etymological root in the ancient Greek word philosophia meaning ‘love of knowledge’ or ‘love of wisdom’. It’s a branch of study that challenges the assumptions of what constitutes knowledge, why we want to gain this knowledge, and how we come to acquire this knowledge through ethical and virtuous pursuits. A teaching philosophy, therefore, challenges the what, why and how of one’s theoretical conceptualisation and practical implementation of knowledge in their teaching and learning context (Zauha, 2008; Bowne, 2017). Given the nature of education, which spans scientific and social science domains (Alkove and McCarty, 1992; Kivunja and Kuyini, 2017), the philosophical framework that underpins one’s teaching philosophy will undoubtedly lead to shared thematic elements amongst other teachers. But one’s values, life experiences, beliefs and ideologies will conceive, prioritise, and orient knowledge in an individualised way (Fanghanel, 2009).

A teaching philosophy statement should, therefore, resemble a narrative essay that aims to articulate an individual teacher’s conceptualisation or ‘worldview’ of teaching and learning and how this is manifested in their practice (Goodyear and Allchin, 1998; Kearns and Sullivan, 2011). Such statements are often found in the higher education sector, however, their content is not unlike that which is uncovered in interviews to assess a candidate’s thoughts and opinions on teaching and learning. Indeed, requests for the inclusion of a teaching philosophy statement are often made in job applications (Merkel, 2020). A fundamental aspect of a teaching philosophy statement is that they should demonstrate scholarship. This means, where appropriate, it should be clear that the content in such statements is underpinned by a critical analysis of suitable evidence that informs the thoughts, opinions, and practices made claim. For instance, if one claims to incorporate a specific practice or concept, say ‘growth mindset’, into their teaching (Dweck and Yeager, 2019), it would be suitable to have critiqued the evidence for any positive learning gains it makes for students, as well as its limitations (Yeager et al., 2019).

It is here where I suggest that writing a teaching philosophy statement is particularly valuable. The process requires a deep reflection on many of the practices that have been acquired through training, mentorship, observation, continuing professional development workshops, trial and error, or are simply a requirement of a school policy (Elliott et al., 2016), and then challenges the rationale for doing so. For practices (which require time or financial investment) that have a poor evidence base for an intended impact (e.g., raising attainment), you may reconsider their use. For the practices that do have a stronger evidence base, you are likely to double down on their use with a better understanding and confidence of where it does and does not have the desired impact – these practices are now not only deliberate but are evidence-informed deliberate practices.

What goes into a teaching philosophy statement?

Now that the case for writing a teaching philosophy statement has been made, we discuss what goes into writing one, with several good resources for developing them (e.g. Eierman, 2008; Kearns and Sullivan, 2011; Yeom, Miller and Delp, 2018). Summarising a teaching philosophy statement, one would expect a narrative that captures one’s experience in teaching and learning contexts; their worldview of teaching and learning which guides the specific teaching and learning models they employ (e.g., curriculum design, classroom pedagogies, assessment and feedback strategies), contextualised with specific examples of how this knowledge of teaching and learning is applied; and the rationale for doing so (Eierman, 2008). The document itself is usually (relatively) short – one, two or three pages would be typical. A suitable narrative structure of a teaching philosophy statement might therefore follow the suggestions of Eierman (2008):

  1. Your experience in and commitment to teaching
  2. The teaching philosophy that guides your use of teaching and learning models
  3. Your teaching interests, particular expertise, and possibly, future teaching and learning interests
  4. An executive summary that brings everything together into a coherent picture of your teaching philosophy
  5. A reference list which underpins the content of the statement. You might cite some works within the text (like this article has) but you might also include additional readings or resources which are not directly referenced. In this case, this list would then resemble a bibliography.

 

The above gives a reasonable starting point to the narrative structure of a teaching philosophy statement. It is useful to reflect on several questions which challenge one’s assumptions of teaching and learning to help align values and beliefs with the practices employed. Some representative questions are given in Table 1 to consider (Kearns and Sullivan, 2011; Yeom, Miller and Delp, 2018). Importantly, if there is a particular idea, practice or activity held as key to one’s worldview of teaching and learning, this would be an excellent opportunity to research more deeply to understand the evidence base for its inclusion (some useful starting resources might be Hattie, 2008; Coe et al., 2014; Higgins et al., 2016). Reflecting on these questions and writing a bullet point or two about them, taken altogether, can form a strong basis for a teaching philosophy statement.

Finally, consider the use of evidence to support a narrative. Generally, one tries to articulate the ‘reach’ (who is affected, e.g., a single student, a specific demographic, the whole school), the ‘value’ (what is gained, e.g., new skills, deeper understanding, new experiences), and the ‘impact’ (how you know this value was obtained, e.g., attainment was recorded higher, positive feedback from stakeholders, other outputs from your actions) of your teaching and learning practices on the various stakeholders in your educational context. Such stakeholders might include you, your students, other teachers, the school and senior leadership team, parents, and future employers of those you have reached and impacted. Citing suitable literature to support claims in a teaching philosophy statement, and quotes from peers, students, parents, and senior leadership that demonstrate the value and impact of one’s teaching and learning practices can provide excellent evidence to support and rationalise one’s claims.

 

Conclusion and implications for the classroom

This article aims to raise awareness of what teaching philosophy statements are, how to write one, and the value to teachers in engaging with the process. The beliefs and values one has as a teacher are shaped by knowledge and experience, both of which inevitably change over time. As such, teaching philosophy statements are often very personal documents which should evolve and be updated accordingly. A key premise of writing a teaching philosophy statement is to challenge one’s assumptions about teaching and learning, find relative alignment to philosophical educational frameworks and critique the evidence base for holding any assumption. Doing so will make future practices not only more deliberate but also evidence-informed. Without engaging in this process, teachers may risk finding themselves integrating practices which have no good evidence to justify their use.

For readers then, there are several actions which may follow. For those who are new to teaching philosophy statements, why not try to write one? It is a rich intellectual exercise which will challenge even the most basic assumptions made on a day-to-day basis. For those who have a teaching philosophy statement, why not read it again now and ask yourself, do you think differently about anything written? Perhaps you have a more developed understanding of a piece of pedagogy, or perhaps you have never critiqued your claims against educational literature. For teacher trainers, consider asking new trainee teachers to write a teaching philosophy statement early in their course, and then rewriting it towards the end of their course, and encouraging a reflective piece on what has and has not changed and how they might locate and justify why this is the case. This might even form an assessment for a PGCE or QTS assignment if the formative nature of this writing is not compelling enough! Finally, for senior leadership and school leaders, consider how this might be embedded or encouraged in your environment to help foster reflection among your staff.

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