Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless,
and doubt to the faithful.
- Paul Tillich (as quoted in Paulus by Rollo May, 1988, p. 71)
** Please note that this is a first draft of my teaching philosophy, so it is still very much in process.
** Click on the section links below to go directly to that section of the teaching philosophy.
Introduction & Context | Student-Centered Learning | Depth Psychology Perspectives on Learning | Epistemology & Foundational Knowledge | Questions and Answers | Education as Process | Self-Reflection | Experiential Learning | Holistic Teaching | Anxiety, Paradox, & Tension | Critical Thinking | Multiple Angles | Why a Teaching Philosophy | Mentors, Teachers, & Other Influences | References
My teaching philosophy is deeply rooted in who I am as a person, a depth psychologist, and a graduate psychology professor. This could probably be characterized as an existential teaching philosophy or a depth psychology teaching philosophy. In other contexts, outside of the graduate psychology setting, there would be some slight alterations, but the foundational principles would remain the same.
Student-centered learning has become one of the new buzz words in pedagogy. However, its origins go back Carl Rogers, who applied the principles of his person centered therapy approach to teaching. Student-centered learning values students as individuals and remains flexible the needs of the needs of the students. To some degree, the student-centered educator allows each class to become its own entity and adjust to the strength, weaknesses, and needs of each individual class.
However, student-centered learning does not become whimsical giving in to the desires of the class. Rather, the student and the professor share responsibility for achieving the goals of the course.
Kirk Schneider (2004), in developing an initial formulation on what a depth psychology approach to education would look like, placed awe, mystery, and wonder at the center of the learning process. From this perspective, any approach to teaching which is overly confident of its answers is counter-productive.
A common perception of students, especially students at the graduate level, is that “the more you learn, the more you realize how much you do not know.” While this statement has now become cliché, it still embraces the realization that education always involves mystery and incompleteness. While this can be a frustrating experience at times, especially for those seeking false security in knowledge, depth psychology recasts this by seeing beauty in the mysteries of life.
One of the most important questions in education is the basic question of epistemology: “How do we know what we know?” It is amazing that learning about the philosophy of science and epistemology has been removed from so many programs. These issues are the pillars of all that we learn as professionals in the social sciences. It is also ironic that now, during the postmodern paradigm shift, we’ve stop teaching about the foundations of knowledge.
I believe every class should begin with a discussion of the implicit epistemological assumptions of the content area of the class along with a critique. For example, a research class should begin with the question of how do we learn or know from a research perspective. Then the limitations of this approach to knowledge should be discussed. A class on spirituality should address the ways people attempt to know spirituality and also discuss the limitations of this approach.
An emergent term or idea which deserves more attention in pedagogy is that of epistemological pluralism. Some scholars would categorize this as a postmodern approach, while others would characterize it as emergent from postmodernism (i.e., going beyond postmodernisms). Regardless, it point is the same. Implicit is the postmodern distrust of any singular epistemological approach. Instead, epistemological pluralism encourages the use of multiple epistemologies. In other words, many approaches to knowledge are valid, but all human forms remain incomplete.
Implicit in the foundation of every teaching approach is an assumption that teaching is primarily about questions or about answers. When teaching becomes about answers, it the learning process can quickly become focused on content. While content is an essential part of education, it is arguably not even the most important part, especially when training people for a career as a therapist and in mental health.
When teaching focuses on the answers, it remains open to the mystery and new learning. It maintains a healthy skepticism while still pursuing knowledge. But most importantly, it allows students to find their own answers, but encourages then not to close the door on other possibilities once they’ve found an answer which fits them.
Education is a long-term process that doesn’t end when a person receives a diploma. Good college and graduate instructions should inspire students to a life-long learning process and open them to the necessity of continued learning. More importantly, process-focused teaching doesn’t try to convince students that the education is more than it is.
It often is thought the in one day an individual transforms from being a student to a professional. Associated with this fallacy is the idea that it is the job of the school to prepare the individual so that when that day arrives, they are prepared for the transition. When you sit back and think about this, it is an absurdity. The label of “student,” “professor,” or “professional” do not qualify them for role they are taking. Rather, we all continuously occupy all three of these roles at times.
It’s maybe a healthier conception that the job of a school is to prepare a person to become a profession, not to be one at graduation. But there are evident limitations even in this statement, because in many ways an individual is a professional long before they graduate. The idea is that becoming a therapist or professional is a life-long process, not an end. We do a disservice to when we teach that a diploma or graduation date is what makes an individual a professional. Rather, it is important to engage the student in the process of becoming.
Interns and postdocs in psychology often talk about the “imposter syndrome.” This is the label which is used to describe the experience that one is “playing at being a professional, but not really feeling like one.” Much of the education process today encourages this by overemphasizing this idea of the one-day transition from being a student who is protected, guided, and mentored to being a professional who is now on their own.
Good teachers continually reflect upon their own process when teaching and in relationships while encouraging their students to do the same. It is important to ask the questions of how a topic applies to the student and the student’s life. What the student chooses to do with this question or the resulting knowledge is up to them. The educator cannot and should not try to force the student to share this information. Often it is best left for the students own reflection.
What is essential is to not shy away from the question. This often helps to bridge the gap from cognitive learning to experiential learning…
Experiential learning can occur through many processes. The first and most basic is through inviting the whole person of the student to be present in the classroom. As discussed earlier, asking the questions of self-reflection often help to begin this process. As the professor invites the student to ponder these questions, it will often bring in emotions, making the learning process more holistic and more experiential. But again, this is only an invitation that the instructor makes and they must honor the student’s choice to stay as a cognitive level or processing.
Experiential learning can occur through being aware of processes that are occurring in the classroom. This information can then be incorporated into the teaching process. For example, I will often use the comparison of transference in therapy and transference in the classroom. I discuss common ways in which student’s experience of the professor may be distorted by previous experience with parents, prior teachers, and other authority figures.
An important distinction occurs in relations to disclosure. In the classroom students are encourage to explore their own process internally, they are not asked to disclose this information. In therapy, clients will be encouraged to explore the transference process. However, classroom professors must honor the student’s right to not disclose personal information.
Historically, education has often been viewed as being about the intellect. As suggested above, teaching which is holistic must take into consideration more than just the cognitive realms of learning. This brings us back to the idea of becoming a therapist or a professional as learning a way of being; or a way of being that is healing.
To be holistic, education must include the emotions, the intellect, and the spiritual domains, among others. The challenge for educators is to find ways to invite in these various realms of experience without imposing viewpoints or as part of the process. However, the creative teacher can accomplish this through encourage the students to explore their own processes and applications on their own.
The modernist approach to teaching emphasized the importance of Knowing. From this viewpoint, learning was about accumulating knowledge and knowledge was something we could be quite certain about. However, postmodernism brought into question the simplicities of the modernist enterprise and called into question the epistemological certainty which modernism espoused.
In the postmodern period, we are much more aware of our human limitations than what modernism was comfortable with. Quantum theory in science and constructivism in the social sciences help bolster this transition by calling many of our previous assumptions into question. One of the great gifts of the existential movement was to help us become aware that anxiety, paradox, and human limitation were not necessarily bad. Rather, they are part of the experience of being human. To deny these aspects of learning is to deny humanness in education.
Any approach to teaching which claims more truth than it can attain is damaging. According to Ernest Becker (1973, 1975), it is this denial of human limitation that is the basis for evil. Many examples can easily come to mind about how when knowledge is no longer question, it often becomes abusive and oppressive, particularly when placed in the hands of insecure people in positions of power.
From this perspective, it could even be argued that it is an ethical imperative in education to accept human limitation and limitation in human knowledge. This returns us to what Kirk Schneider (2004) refers to as maintaining a capacity for awe within the educational paradigm. To present a perspective as Truth or Ultimate Truth in education is counter-productive. However, as Schneider points out, this does not mean that education cannot be passionate.
Many professors attempt to take the anxiety out of education by making things overly or unrealistically clear. Paradoxically, the result for some is that education and the profession the student preparing for becomes stagnant, boring, and lifeless. Additionally, it does not do justice in preparing students to think through professional issues.
Ethics becomes a perfect example. There is a clear movement in much of psychology to make ethics overly clear and precise. While there are obvious benefits to this, there are also problems. When an individual is told what is ethical, they often don’t learn to think ethically. Learning to think ethically is much more important for the future clients a student will see, but learning ethics codes is often easier and more comforting because it is clear. I am not suggesting that we should not teach ethics codes, but I am concerned that in teaching ethics codes we have lost sight of learning to be ethical people and even what it truly means to be an ethical person.
Learning a topic is much different than learning to think critically about it. Today in the field of psychology this is an important process that often gets lost. Many therapists are trained to learn skills and techniques, but never learn to think critically about these techniques and when to apply them. The result is a therapist who often has success, but doesn’t know why. However, they also often have what appears as a successful treatment, but upon further reflection is not.
For example, there are many very helpful techniques which can be associated with solution focused therapy. These can be quite effective in helping a person control their emotions. However, these same skills can be misused. This can be used in the service of repression making it easier to avoid dealing with a painful experience that is longing to be worked through. Another more disturbing example is in regards to dealing with guilt. It may not be beneficial to society to teach an abusive person technique to deal with their guilt. I often use a similar example of the used car salesperson. I would not want to teach the overly ambitious used car salesperson communication skills before my friend goes to them to buy a car.
Developing critical thinking skills, in part, is learning a new way of thinking and developing healthy attitudes. By now it is hopefully also clear that it is closely tied to being ethical. Without the ability to critical think and self-reflect, a person is often bound to unethical behaviors. For, as Otto Rank (1936) suggests, we are often bound by material which we don’t understand and which we are unaware of.
Included in critical thinking is maintaining a healthy skepticism throughout the learning process. A personal pet peeve of mine is when information which is taught is accepted as truth because the content comes from the professor, a person believed to be an expert in the field. Additionally, it is equally problematic when students take the opposite approach of automatically rejecting content because it is contrary to their frame of reference or because they don’t like the professor.
Postmodern theory talks about knowledge in terms of a web theory in which each connecting point impacts the struggle of all other thoughts. The process of learning is continually evaluating and then adjusting the different connecting points. Each change impacts the entire web, often causing many other connecting points to be re-evaluated. The web is never destroyed or completely taken down; however, it is continually re-examined and restructured.
In therapy, it is often the smallest insights that make the most profound differences. It may not even be an insight that brings new information to the individual, but rather it is seeing the implications of the knowledge in a different context or as being related to different objects. In my life, I’ve continually learned that often the most powerful and life changing insights or bits of learning have been ones that later appeared really obvious. It was the subtle shift, seeing the knowledge in a different light that made all the difference.
Take for example a work of art, such as a painting of a person’s face. You can studying the painting for hours and learn every crease, bump, line, and contrast. Then you move to look at the painting from a different angle and the discovery process can begin all over again. Next you may bring the painting into a different light and find a whole new set of discoveries. While these new insights about the painting result from this same painting that you know so well, these subtle changes can often be very powerful in the way you see and experience the painting. If you were to put the painting aside for a week, a month, or a year and then return to it, the same familiar painting may come alive anew because now you are the one who has changed bringing entirely new frame of reference to the same initial stimulus.
We learn our greatest lessons in subtleties, when we remain open to them. However, often in looking for the grand insight we loose track of the most powerful and transforming lessons of all. Good teaching admires the richness of the subtle lesson and seeks to inspire students to remain open to these same lessons.
Most people teach without an explicit teaching philosophy. In other words, their approach to teaching remains primarily unconscious and implicit, yet enormously influential on their teaching. In part, developing and maintaining a teaching philosophy helps a professor to remain conscious of their approach to teaching. Yet an explicit teaching philosophy becomes problematic when it is used to keep an approach to teaching stagnant. The effective teacher is continually questioning, challenging, and reformulating their teaching philosophy and style.
Teaching without an explicit teaching philosophy is teaching without a foundation. Yet many, maybe most, teachers in higher education teach in this manner. In part, this is because most college and graduate level teachers have never been trained as educators. They’ve only been trained in the field they are teaching about. Yet it is still their responsibility to learn to become an effective educator.
At its best, a teaching philosophy forms a foundation from which to teach from and a basis from which to continually critique and reformulate one’s approach to teaching.
Two types of mentors or teachers have been highly influential on the approach to teaching I take. First, there are the written or theoretical mentors, which includes Ernest Becker, Rollo May, Carl Rogers, and Paul Tillich. But without personal mentors, it would be difficult to put a teaching philosophy into practice. This list includes people who were my classroom teachers, people I’ve co-taught courses with, and other mentors. Some of these people I’ve known well, others I’ve known only through glimpses of experience. It includes Robert Murney, H. Newton Malony, AnnElise Parkhurst, Winston Gooden, Myrtle Heery, James Bugental, Kirk Schneider, James Olthuis, and my brother, John Hoffman.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.
Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York: Free Press.
May , R. (1988). Paulus: Paul Tillich as spiritual teacher (Rev. ed.). Dallas, TX: Saybrook.
Rogers, C. (1980). A way of being. Boston, MA: Houghton Miffin.
Schneider, K. (2004). Rediscovery of awe: Splendor, mystery, and the fluid center of life. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.