A Philosophy of Teaching

John Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming
UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture

I believe a university education should prepare a student for both life and livelihood.  My work is to create an educational environment in which students may acquire information, knowledge and wisdom toward this end.  In addition to gaining basic subject matter knowledge, students in my courses are guided to clarify their core values, individually and collectively, and to examine their behavior in the context of these values.  In this process students are challenged to discover their place as citizens of the world, by constructing a sense of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, and global-self.  This approach seems to have made these courses attractive to many students who struggle to find personal meaning in their lives, their studies, and their intended careers.

I believe university education should be transformational.  That is, education should not only provide a means to a career (which is important) but it should also build the student’s capacity to discover meaning from their life-experience.  Many science courses are grounded in a commitment to instrumental knowledge, that is, knowledge of how the world works.  Once mastered, this knowledge is used to manage the world (often toward valued ends, such as improved health, food productivity, or short-term profitability, etc.).  While instrumental knowledge is important, a full educational experience should also include transformational knowledge based on values, feelings, and cultural concepts such as justice, freedom and love.  Transformational learning is a process in which the frame through which we view the world is reflective, inclusive, and open to criticism and therefore evolutionary change.  I work to create this sort of learning environment using instructional techniques such as decision cases, field experience, role-playing, dialogue, team-based inquiry, and community service learning, in addition to lectures.

I believe an effective teaching and learning system should recognize sources of motivation and power.  While instrumental learning can be successful in a system where the power of the teacher is greater than the student, transformational learning requires an environment more supportive of a teacher/student partnership.  Most adult learning after graduation is intrinsically motivated, unstructured, and occurs as a result of living and making meaning from experience.  In much of our university education, knowledge is pre-packaged by teachers for delivery to students.  Power remains in the hands of the teacher and the primary motivation for learning comes from extrinsic sources such as grades and the promise of a good recommendation to potential employers.  While efficient in one sense, this form of teaching does not adequately nurture the curiosity, inventiveness, or leadership capacity of active adult learners.  I challenge students to take responsibility for their own educational experience and to tap into an intrinsic motivation for, and a love of learning.  Many students seem to be attracted to this challenge.

I believe that transformational education requires a human-to-human connection that is real, personal and lasting.  It is nurtured by an environment of community caring where thinking and feeling are both honored, and the values of happiness, health, love, justice, freedom, responsibility, truth, and productive work are explicit and desired outcomes of the learning experience.  I’ve observed that transformational education can result in rigorous intellectual, emotional, and ethical growth motivated by wonder and awe.  It is this experience that I try to create in my classrooms.  Sometimes I succeed.

March 2008

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