Teaching Philosophy

Learning and Instruction Philosophy

My contemplations about learning and instruction began freshman year in high school. I vividly recall heated conversations between groups of friends about the best way to teach in high school classrooms. I imagine these conversations would never have happened if not for the project-based school Compass Academy that had recently opened in our district, forcing our freshman class to decide between a magnet school or the traditional high school. Needless to say, everyone had an opinion and, inevitably, a rivalry was born.

I chose the traditional high school. I had many reasons for this. I was a little wary of being a guinea pig, and I had established myself with a couple of the programs only available at the traditional high school. I would see my friends with their school-issued personal laptops chatting about their latest projects, always comparing their experience with mine. My entire high school career, I evaluated and reevaluated my decision, continually mulling over the best way to learn and instruct.

Dr. Dave Merrill argues “motivation comes from learning. The greatest motivation comes when people learn” (Merrill). In high school I was highly motivated—then again, I wanted to prove my friends wrong; I wanted to show that even at a traditional high school I could succeed, that I could learn. I was selective about my classes, choosing programs like yearbook, photography, and web-design that were all project-based, as well as the rigorous, lecture-based AP classes. I learned that I loved—and thrived—in both styles of classroom. I remember my Compass friends arguing vehemently that my experience was inferior, that it wouldn’t facilitate deep learning. I would always quip back with the story of Malcolm X, one of the most articulate leaders of the Civil Rights movement, who learned how to read by studying a dictionary in prison (X, 2015); or Frederick Douglas, whose education came by trading bread to poor local boys in exchange for reading lessons. These exceptionally educated men learned through sheer grit in situations of both prison and slavery. Could we possibly say that their learning was inferior?

Later, Merrill’s first principles of instruction put this experience into perspective. Learning occurs in a variety of settings and instructional designs. As per Merrill, good learning occurs through principles of activation, demonstration, application, integration, and problem-centered thinking (Merrill, 2017). Any design which implements these principles can be effective. A pure model of only one instructional design simply won’t cut it because life will put learners in myriad environments which will test their capacity to think.

My philosophy, following this line of thinking, most closely ascribes to Dr. Barab and Plucker’s theory of smart people versus smart contexts. They write that knowing is “not simply (a) psychological construct existing in the head but (an) interaction” contexts (Barab & Plucker, 2002, p. 165). They write of one student who attended a summer program for talented students. The student, who excelled in her lecture-based school environment, did poorly at the summer camp’s constructivist, problem-based curriculum. Barab and Plucker write “her potential to act was a poor fit for this specific environment and…as a result, the interaction did not support the emergence of talent” (Barab & Plucker, 2002, p. 168). This example exposes a flaw in pushing for only one form of instruction. We need to expose students to a variety of learning contexts in preparation for lifelong learning.

Along with Barab and Plucker’s line of thinking, I also believe we need to stop having a focus on this idea of inherent intelligence. The two authors write that talent looks different in different contexts, pointing out that some individuals do math remarkably well while out buying groceries but faced with the same problem in school do poorly (Barab & Plucker, 2002, pp.167). This idea of persons-in-situations versus personal competence is so striking to me, perhaps so much more so because it is highly individualized. Everyone is in their own personalized context and their “talent” follows such. This includes a consideration of age and cognitive abilities. Gladwell makes a case in his book Outliers about this very subject, illustrating with studies that students even a few months older than their peers in class scored, on average, higher than their classmates (Gladwell, 2013). This wasn’t necessarily an example of intelligence, but cognitive capability.

This shift away from “all or nothing” intelligence, as well as a movement away from “one instructional design fits all,” is significant for other reasons. For one, this philosophy emphasizes growth in any individual and individual context. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset encapsulates this very idea. Dweck’s push for praising the process and believing in the ability to improve irrespective of our misdirected ideas of a “fixed” mindset should permeate our philosophy of learning and teaching (Dweck, 2017). The adaptability and resilience her ideas suggest are essential for students going out into a world in which they will engage in a variety of contexts.

Learning is highly individual and contextualized, and our instruction should follow suit. Students can succeed in any learning environment, especially when applying Merrill’s principles of instruction. Ultimately, I want to motivate individuals to engage in lifelong learning in any context.



Barab, Sasha A., and Jonathan A. Plucker. “Smart People or Smart Contexts? Cognition, Ability, and Talent Development in an Age of Situated Approaches to Knowing and Learning.” Educational Psychologist (2002): 165-82. Print.

Dweck, Carol. “Decades of Scientific Research That Started a Growth Mindset Revolution.” What Is Growth Mindset. Mindset Works Inc., 2017. Web.

Dweck, Carol. “Decades of Scientific Research That Started a Growth Mindset Revolution.” What Is Growth Mindset. Mindset Works Inc., 2017. Web.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. N.p.: Back Bay , Little, Brown, 2013. Print.

Merrill, M. David. “Using the First Principles of Instruction to Make Instruction Effective, Efficient, and Engaging.” Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology. Richard West, 01 Jan. 2017. Web.

X, Malcolm, Alex Haley, Attallah Shabazz, M. S. Handler, and Ossie Davis. “Learning to Read.” The Autobiography of Malcolm X. N.p.: Ballantine, 2015. N. pag. Print.