Why STEM instructors should think about their teaching philosophies

What makes a good STEM instructor? Manan Bhan argues that the answer lies in their teaching philosophy.

By Manan Bhan, with inputs from TheLifeofScience.com team

There may have never been a time when scientific literacy among the public has been valued quite like today. The pandemic, climate change and inclusivity are the wicked problems of our times. In cultural dialogue, as in scientific research, we are all putting our heads together to solve these challenges. But how do these urgent topics translate in the classroom? To my mind, it is the instructor’s philosophy of education that is a key determinant of the student taking up these questions.

An instructor can often be a potent figure that learners draw inspiration from, setting up a chain which ultimately can benefit their societies. Of late, I have thought about this deeply as I am currently in a doctoral programme, with ambitions of becoming an instructor myself. Even though I have sat in courses offered by different instructors in several disciplines across my academic training, only a handful of researchers and academics have been inspirational. Geographical, cultural and academic contexts have differed dramatically between these instructors as well—I have been fortunate to have been exposed to Indian, British and Austrian systems of education. Along the way, a few of them have changed the way I see the world and their scientific discipline. They have been able to convey their passion, engagement and knowledge effectively. What was my responsibility in this exchange? All I had to do was turn up with an open mind. What makes me recall them fondly? I think the answer lies in an often-neglected aspect of instruction: their teaching philosophy.

A teaching philosophy, as I see it, is a reflection, in practice, demonstrating the instructor’s beliefs on how knowledge should be accessed, delivered and understood. What is important to the instructor? How is that visible? What should learners take along with them? Key signposts in this regard are clear learning outcomes. These can be new knowledge, new skills or a development of character. I see learning outcomes as threads running through the instructor-learner relationship.

A teaching philosophy, as I see it, is a reflection, in practice, demonstrating the instructor’s beliefs on how knowledge should be accessed, delivered and understood.

Let’s ponder on how the instructor’s teaching philosophy draws from STEM fields. As a budding scientist (I study global land use), I think there are several characteristics of STEM disciplines that directly feed into a teaching philosophy. These are critical thinking, the role of human innovation and intellect in problem solving, the process of scientific enquiry and curiosity, as well as an interest in global and regional issues while making connections to everyday life. STEM disciplines consist of rich and diverse subjects that allow for a great deal of room for creative thought, to go along with the scientific rigour required. To pass all of these on is an enormous responsibility on the instructor’s shoulders. But it is effortless if the instructor embodies them.

In a learning environment, a mutual relationship is established. The learner looks to the instructor for guidance and mentorship, while the instructor seeks engagement and a reflection of their own curiosity in the discipline. Such a training has life-long impacts and determines what a learner takes out of the course. 

Today as we experiment with new modes of teaching, both inside as well as outside the classroom, physically as well as virtually, a new generation of instructors influenced by interdisciplinary approaches is coming forward. However, the objectives that instructors have for their learners remains much the same: (1) to facilitate the appreciation of complex, big-picture issues in the discipline while (2) providing knowledge and tools applicable to learners’ academic and professional careers to (3) enhance awareness of the world around them.

The learner looks to the instructor for guidance and mentorship, while the instructor seeks engagement and a reflection of their own curiosity in the discipline.

If I am an instructor teaching a course on climate change, am I making my discipline come across as dismal and pessimistic? Or am I trying to convey realistic hope and agency to my learners, both in individual behaviour change and systemic change? This is where one’s teaching philosophy, and by extension one’s outlook towards the world, would be reflected. This would be reflection that has been consciously or subconsciously chiseled over time. What an instructor delivers in the class has been developed over hours, days and even years of work. Starting from course design to eventual delivery involves much planning and preparation, not only in the material but also in the person delivering the knowledge. In the best instructors, what is important to the instructor often shines through. 

It is obvious that motivations, philosophies and approaches differ. As the number of instructors, as many the number of approaches.  These approaches may reveal aspects of their teaching philosophy: why they teach, why they teach the way they do. When their philosophy conveys the curiosity and the excitement that they themselves feel about the discipline, when their efforts translate into joy in seeing their learners become independent thinkers, is when I am most motivated to make the transition across the classroom desk myself.

Author bio: Manan Bhan is an ecosystem scientist and a doctoral researcher who lives in Vienna, Austria. His research tries to understand how societies engage with land, and what that means for the carbon stored in these landscapes. He can always be found with a cup of chai in his hand. 

Note: Featured image is from U.S National Library of Medicine Digital Collection

About the author(s)
TLoS Team
TLoS Team

thelifeofscience.com or TLoS is a feminist science media collective based in India