Wednesday, August 4

Teaching Philosophy

Recently I was asked to write a teaching philosophy for a staff ed. session on teaching theory at work.  "Staff ed." sessions are the museum's version of internal professional development exercises.  While I'm all for professional development, I confess that interminable discussions on museum education theory are, for me, the professional equivalent of eating my brussels sprouts.  Maybe it's my Midwestern no-nonsense practicality, but I find that you improve your skills at a task by doing it, not by talking about doing it.  Theory has its place, of course, and can be used as a tool to improve an educator's teaching skills, but I see many educators fall in love with theory, discussing theory, and listening to themselves discuss theory.  When this love affair with theory takes over, these discussions quickly descend into intellectualizing theoretical sessions that are ultimately of little or no practical use.  

My view on the matter is that, at best, education theory is plain common sense, and often is not all that helpful to me when I'm in the trenches teaching everyday.  In any case, I don't think of myself primarily as an educator--I think of myself as an historian who makes history accessible to people and enjoys sharing it with them.  So, having no formal training in the field of education, and having absolutely no idea how to go about writing a personal "teaching philosophy," you can imagine with what wild ecstasy I greeted the assignment.  However, rather than take the assignment as an instruction to clumsily try and pretend to an education background I don't have, I decided to sit down and just bang out my opinion of what it is I set out to do when I get up in front of a group of people in the museum.  To my surprise, I knocked out a document that I rather like, so I thought I would share it with you.  

Whether it would meet the approval of someone with professional training in education, I don't know--but it spells out my genuine take on how and why I approach talking to the public about ancient history the way I do.  Not art, mind you--history.  I am firmly in the camp that ancient artifacts are first and foremost historical and archaeological evidence.  Thinking of them as "art" prioritizes aesthetics over history and archaeology, and when you get down to is really just us re-appropriating these objects for our own purposes in our modern culture and society.


The core of my teaching philosophy is this:  to make the ancient world meaningful to my audience by demonstrating how the distant past is relevant to our world today.  And, in making the past relevant to contemporary society, to create a genuine appreciation of ancient history in people and provide them with a new perspective on the past.  Ultimately, when a person’s time with me is done, I want her to leave thinking about the past in some way that is different than the way she thought about it before.  For example, a key idea I always emphasize and try to help the public understand is that ancient “art” in many cases was not created as “art” but was created to be functional.  By bringing this important concept to their attention, I want to not only get them to understand the original functional nature of the artifacts we are discussing, but to open their eyes to the fact that the objects we spend so much time looking at and admiring on an aesthetic basis were often not created to be viewed as art or to be seen by mass audiences.

Good teaching should have more to do with questions than with answers.  The value of a history teacher lies in her ability to engage her audience with the material and encourage them to develop their own questions about the objects, the way they have functioned through time and how we continue their stories by finding our own meaning in them, the past, and how museums such as the Getty Villa present the past to the public. When I stand in front of an audience, my goal is not to weigh their thinking down with names and dates that in themselves offer no thoughtful insight into the ancient world, but to provide a social and historical context for the objects around them and show them how to use factual information to understand history and ask questions about why and how things happened the way they did.  

Yet teaching history must be more than just posing questions and encouraging the audience to pose them.  I must also use the artifacts and other historical evidence to show people how they can be used to support answers to our questions.  The public often approaches history with the idea that it is about learning the “truth” of what "really happened" in the past, but I set out to express to them the idea that history and archaeology are disciplines marked by contested theories and interpretations which are always open to reevaluation  and refinement based on new evidence, new perspectives, or new understandings of existing evidence. 

As an historian, I also consider it my responsibility help the public learn how to think independently within the museum—discouraging them from floating through the galleries as a passive learner and instead encouraging them to actively engage educators, labels, and other didactic resources, whether by questioning or critical thinking.  This is a skill which must be developed through example and practice, and it is my hope that my teaching helps people to refine their existing skills in this vein, or to begin in that moment to develop them, and thus create visitors who are more alive to the possibilities of educational experiences in a museum.  In this way, I endeavor to teach visitors how to take ownership of their own learning experience.  Therefore, to transform a visitor’s learning experience in the museum from a passive to an active one is another key component of my teaching philosophy.

Through formulating questions, articulating ideas, close looking, and discussion, the ultimate goal of my teaching is to create the framework for a rewarding intellectual exchange and a meaningful learning experience in the museum.  As is the case with so many aspects of the human experience, the ideal museum learning experience is something that escapes strict definition--but, like pornography, you know it when you see it:  that tell-tale spark of recognition, or discovery, or even revelation in the eyes of your audience.  For me, those moments when I have managed to share my love of ancient history in a meaningful way with others are the moments that motivate me in my teaching and make what I do a worthwhile professional pursuit.

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