Teaching philosophy (pedagogisk grundsyn)
(version 01 August 2021)
“What knowledge is.”
Science education should be combined with research to engage students, and to help them forge varied paths of interest and success. This is because knowledge itself, including that as provided from academia, is not produced for a single purpose or for a fleeting fact, nor has it any specific end-point. Knowledge instead accumulates. It is also dynamic; it becomes modified and updated. While it is forgotten, knowledge is also remembered. In these ways is knowledge temporally defined far beyond any specific class or, even, educational institution.
This also means that education, as a primary source of knowledge, is not a quick process nor achieved from any single experience. It instead spans the acquisition of a degree, with the certificate symbolic of the knowledge one has gained. In the same way that people might display their degrees on walls, the knowledge gained should resonate many years later, be it through referencing skills, rationalization abilities, or by helping to form complex ideas and to dissect nuanced concepts. One must have the capacity to retrieve factual information via memory and referencing, importantly, so that it may be used to logically assess real-world issues relevant to the environment and the interactions between nature and societies.
“What limits exist for what is possible to know.”
Educational institutions focus on goal-oriented learning, so that we must separate the ideals of philosophical knowledge and university education from the practicalities of human life, inclusive of varied social systems and demographic groups, and the need for specific types of knowledge. Given that most people, at this point in time, pursue higher education in reference to career development, it is imperative that this be a component directly addressed during their coursework. This is why courses in the biological sciences need to weave research and real-world applicability of the course material into the learning processes, by including opportunities to build scientific skills relevant to the workforces, of which the students will end up joining or returning to.
I would suggest that we also need to recognize the influence of soft skills to professional development, i.e., how critical it is to act in a professional manner, and that this aspect is most varied to how directly it is included in education. As the workplace is loaded with complicated interactions (which vary between institutions and countries), for a student to know how to navigate that upon graduation and employment securement, it would be helpful to demonstrate ways in which people interact professionally within the field that are most equally supportive. It is helpful to boost confidence in terms of interpersonal interactions, feeding into representation of previously under-represented groups. It is also the way in which science works: in communication with others.
This is because the stereotype of a singular-minded scientist, nearly obsessed in a life-long pursuit of knowledge in their field of study, has never truly existed. Even those used as examples are versions of stories which minimized the impacts of others: Linnaeus was supported by the contributions from many others’ travels and students’ work to create a nomenclatural classification system of plants and fungi; Mendel’s infamous peas were tended to by students, who were questionably too keen on demonstrating heritable influences to be purely objective; Darwin was in intellectual competition with contemporaries, for example, Wallace, to advance evolutionary theory, and in all events could only support his work due to a privileged personal life; the dynamic exploratory duo of North American natural history, Lewis and Clark, could not have reached the Pacific Northwest without the knowledge of Sacagawea, who despite her support was not considered of intellectual par to be reported alongside the two explorers; and the frenzied search for the molecular structure of DNA can appear like “good times” between two friends over beers at a Cambridge pub, but would not have matriculated without the microscopic photography of a dedicated woman, not really invited out much for beers, but whom did die young, with her work largely unrecognized by the two. No one works in independence. Education works best when it recognizes and supports the interactions of multiple minds, whether indirectly via published methods and referencing, or directly through correspondences, during meetings, and similar. It makes people more approachable for professional conversation. Given that, unlike those historical examples, education is now – and increasingly – provided more equally across diverse demographic groups, if we lag in providing those same groups the soft skills that they require for how to interact in the professional work environment, so will representation and diversity lag in those same environments.
Thus, the limits to knowledge can be broader than any specific topic, in which case they impact rationalization and reasoning, or they can be related to the subject-area, for example lacking the concepts and appropriate skill set for career development, or they may be less tangibly defined, but ultimately impacting interpersonal interactions and thereby career development and, especially, related to representation and inclusion.
“How learning happens,” and “How we should teach.”
Learning can happen by different routes, and this is evidenced in how varied pedagogic theories can be. My specialization is in the biological sciences, and not pedagogy, but I am aware of the basic transitions in theory that relate to how learning occurs, and have witnessed examples of each form. My favorite, and which I try to emulate, is the final that is reviewed here, that of constructive alignment, as influenced by social constructivism. The instructor provides teaching and learning activities, with clearly stated intended learning outcomes, and utilizes assessment to measure what learners have learned. In assessment, the instructor considers themselves and the material they have provided as much as they consider what the students have accumulated in learning. I witnessed this best enacted during my times most recently in Uppsala, Sweden, and more generally during courses I sat in on while earlier living in Oslo, Norway. This pedagogy reduces the stereotypical demigod-like status of the instructor to that of a reasonable human, who does their best, based on their experiences and own knowledge, to provide the support and material needed for education. The students are not servants or peasants, but also reasonable people, and they are interested in learning through a combination of social interactions, process-based learning and instructor-supported information. Everyone understands that the significance of learning is not in the measure of one single test, nor a semester’s bell-curve rating which necessitates very few top-grades, but in the acquisition of the material and resources for future utilization, along with the analytical, evaluating and creating processes that stem from the process.
I never before admitted it openly, because of how sharply grades form a student’s academic and, thus, their career potential, but during my first semester at a very-large state university (over 20 years ago), I failed an upper-level calculus class. Through standardized admissions testing, I had (somehow) been placed into an advanced level calculus course. (Cringe.) I had asked my newly-appointed advisor to change from the upper-level class to one at a level more suitable to a biology-based degree, assuring him I was not much of a mathematically-minded individual, despite what the placement test results reported. He prompted me to take the course instead – who knows, he reasoned, you could surprise yourself. He meant well, I do believe, if he was perhaps too idealistic. The mid-term term grades arrived, suggesting I would not pass the class, and during a check-in with the same advisor, it led me to ask the same question regarding dropping. Again, I was advised to continue in the class. So, I did what was recommended: I approached the TA (an uncomfortable experience of gender dynamics), I crammed, I tried to complete the homework, and I fell farther and farther behind. Essentially, I tried to run and catch up, but instead tripped and fell. I tried again. Limping with severe gashes, I had no option but to stay the course. My homework answers were never correct, the TA couldn’t explain to me with any success the material (and was also basically unapproachable due to so many students approaching him), the large lectures lulled me to sleep so that I stopped going so often, and the book was a mystery to me that I read without understanding. I, ultimately, failed. Due to that, I lost my tuition grant and was put on academic probation – my very first semester at university. It was a completely shaming event. I felt entirely rejected by this university that I had, actually, grown up respecting and wanting to matriculate from (as the first in my family to obtain a university degree) – but not in the form that I did, instead I had romanticized myself as that bright student with good grades that then goes on to such-and-such a university or lands that-great-job-somewhere, in all cases, starting with good grades. In addition, as a financially self-supporting student, the loss of the grant due to the failed class was a major and lasting impact. The next semester, I took the calculus class, but at the non-expert level, and passed with a B; clearly, I told myself, this demonstrated my failed efforts of the first course were not lasting nor was my intellect fully to blame as much as I needed more time and less content for learning the material. But the system is not set up for that truth to knowledge. As it was a different class than the first that I had failed, they each remained on my transcript, and forever stained my GPA. It drastically impacted my future academic career, and damaged my ego. It also served as ammunition for anyone wanting to denigrate a female scientist’s worth – which, there were people who wanted to, and who did do that, unfortunately. Ironically, I had been advised to stay in that first, upper-level calculus class to boost female representation in what, even at that time, was a field with a noticeable gap to that demographic group. Somehow it actually managed to, in ways, destroy that same female’s academic potential. If only I had followed through with my own thoughts to drop that course…
I bring this story up because it demonstrates a behavioristic, or maybe a basic cognitivist, approach to education. In these approaches, students fill their minds with the facts and thoughts from material the instructor provides. The teacher is pedestalled to be considered the ultimate source of knowledge – and power. It was how my learning was dictated in those first, early years of university, and what I once thought was the accepted way to teach in higher-level education. Abuse of power is easy to occur in such a situation. The marks on report cards are no different than when Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s studies demonstrated that a stimulus invokes a response, which can be mediated by the outcome of either reward or punishment. Once upon a time, I received punishment in the upper-level calculus class that I failed, and that was enough to psychologically impact me, i.e., bell-dog-food-punish, but not in a motivating manner. I was punished immediately for the course, and forever because of the scar on my transcript which destroyed my GPA. I don’t believe in this method of education. It is symptomatic of a system not designed to benefit the collective whole of individuals utilizing it for education and societal betterment.
Learning is a process, and that is what primarily sets individual constructivism apart from the prior pedagogic theories. It acknowledges the importance of the learner to constructing their own knowledge, in that knowledge is created (i.e., constructed) by the application of learning in living or doing something. The theory does not yet include the importance of interactions between students and teachers until modified into social constructivism. Here can knowledge be interpreted as the interactions between information provided, the process of learning it, along with the social interactions that occur during learning. Learning is not a binary one-way interaction between instructor and student, but a network of interactions between everyone, facilitating thought and application of the subject material. The instructor’s role is to mediate, i.e., coach and encourage, students to formulate their understanding. The students are able to interpret their knowledge gained within a social context, i.e., cognitive development is a student-driven process instead of a teacher-driven process. This is constructive alignment, my favorite of the pedagogic theories, as it shifts the instructor’s role from that of the “sage on the stage” to, instead, a “guide on the side,” i.e., it recognizes that student learning is only so much impacted by instruction (given quality and appropriate material) as much as it is a process driven and motivated by the student. In the most of ideal situations, a grade isn’t even necessary (as I have witnessed in Scandinavian countries) because the motivation for students to learn is implicit in their attendance and participation. In terms of the instructors, they have no motivation to unfairly constrain the student population’s grades into a bell-shape curve of assessment. There is no motivation to overwhelm students with too much content in recognized “weed-out” classes. Assignments are flexible to due date (to a point) and mostly material is provided which can be attended to in the class or limited hours outside of it as allows personal lives to simultaneously occur. Finally, positive interactions between students and instructors is promoted by alleviating the power dynamics that the prior theories instated. I have watched students in such classes, as well as their future career developments as graduate students and onward. They are more confident and comfortable – irrespective of demographic attributes – in interacting with people across varied stages of education and career development. They are supportive to their peers and interact in more collaborative than competitive means. They are just as smart as those from other forms of education, and in ways more open to new ideas because they have not been surrounded by the singular notion of a specific “right way” of gaining high grades over true knowledge acquirement. In other words, they are not nearly so “damaged” as those from a more punishment-ready form of education are, when even minor, but forever impacting, mistakes can be used to denigrate intellectual worth more than the trials and tribulations to success in spite of that first, subjectively placed, failure.
In keeping with social constructivism and constructive alignment, my goal as an instructor is to, then, provide the students learning activities so that they may reach the learning outcomes, that I also establish as an expert in the field, effectively within the course’s duration. In doing so, I engage with the students on the topic material, I promote inquiry and discussion, and I grade based on assessment of tangible learning outcomes, which means assessing myself as much as the students.
“What is important to know within our subject.”
This final section turns to more tangible topics of what is important to know within biology-related subjects. I conceptualize this into three main areas, considering them in terms of what I am concerned about for the students to learn. My first concern is with respect to knowledge building, and its applicability of within society. If I can help to build a strong foundation in students’ field(s) of biology (and to subjects beyond), then this will accomplish my first goal. Consider that, at the most basic level, learning helps to increase facts to retrieve and to use in the rationalization process, exercising short- and long-term memory. In the biological sciences, this means applying attributes and principles of the natural world, from molecules to ecosystems, to the patterns and processes that define living organisms. In this way, education is partly about learning facts, i.e., rote memorization, for example how RNA and DNA work to program and initiate cellular processes that lead to tissue development, or the nutrients responsible for cell growth as well as signs of deficiencies, and the taxonomic classification system used to delineate species in relation to their evolution and ecological characteristics. Students must form a subject-area foundation from which they can build complexity in their ideas and applications to real-world topics. For example, in understanding how environmental perturbations, such as from global change, can affect natural systems, thereby influencing ecological and evolutionary principles.
In doing so, I, as the educator, must consider how to supply subject matter in which the breadth and depth of knowledge can reach students across multiple academic pathways and learning types. I try to produce varied teaching material to help (hand-outs, lecture slides, study questions, quizzes, worksheets), for example, as well as differing communication and media forms (written, auditory and video, such as with news and documentaries on relevant subjects). For these materials, I update them to stay contemporary to issues critical in society and the environment. When possible, guest lectures and field trips are means to offer more diverse perspectives within a subject, something I consider important in being able to reach more students (across demographic, learning and personality attributes). Online learning platforms are now exemplary resources when distance is otherwise impeding. The goal is to promote an interest in understanding the subject material that applies beyond the classroom, so in terms of both general knowledge as well as career-based learning.
As techniques and methodological innovations in science are what help us move forward in research and education, I believe that providing applied skills to students is necessary for their success. This includes course components in the field as well as the lab. It is best if this can be coordinated across departmental classes and instructors, thereby optimizing opportunities to introduce new technologies. Standard and novel techniques should complement classroom topics and help build the skills necessary for a positive transition into future research and other jobs in the workforce. For example, a class could conceivably include people with futures in teaching, agriculture, forestry, policy and government, communications, tourism and industry, and these branches of career possibility help to determine information a student may find relevant to their futures. Course material can be tailored to target a representation of these, and varied between the courses offered. I work considerably in R, which can be used to help teach scripting, for package design, for data manipulations and wrangling, bioinformatics, statistical analyses and graphical output. These are all topic areas which could work in tandem with other skill sets to keep students up-to-date on the techniques that will serve to hire them in the future.
Finally, and relatedly, it is important to me that students flourish intellectually through exploring new concepts and developing strong analytic skills, in an open-minded atmosphere. They will be challenged to explore concepts and topics of societal importance in varied perspectives, and to understand that often there is no right or wrong concerning an issue, rather different views and ways to measure the importance(s). I think this is especially important in the societal and political climates many countries find themselves in. In emphasizing critical thinking, students will be challenged to form individuality in thought that should build strength and confidence in their own skills and knowledge. For example, asking them to weigh the options of choices based on their knowledge, or to consider ways for communicating topics and subject-matter themes to the general public. These are also suitable for small-group, individual and/or class projects.
In summary, I will strive to maintain a high level of educational learning, promoting academic excellence to capture the attention, scholastically motivate, and challenge the levels of learning across an array of students.
In their words
Approach and personality
‘Friendliness, forwardness, and openness’
‘Respectful attitude and a genuine interest in wanting to help us help ourselves’
‘Professor was always prepared and on time’
‘The teacher always had an open mind to answering our questions’
‘She is very respectful and never makes anyone feel less than her. She communicates with us with professionalism and honesty’
‘She talks to all of us’
‘She is fair, honest, knowledgeable and a great instructor’
‘The BEST, most easy-going professor I have had in college. She is very open and easy to talk to’
‘Very understandable and explains concepts very efficiently’
‘Dr. Andrew was always positive and respectful’
‘Polite, flexible, respectful, fun’
‘Very kind and patient…. Especially with some classmates who were very annoying. She always listens first and very kindly diverts conversations to the real topic’
‘Dr. Carrie is interesting, fun, knowledgeable, and respectful’
Communication and availability
‘Easy to understand for everyone’
‘Direct, very easy to talk to, and knew a lot of subject matter’
‘Always available to students, in person and via email, always easy to talk to and friendly’
‘Answered any and all questions all students had’
‘Always responded to emails immediately and was available before class’
‘She explains things well, if it still does not make sense she can explain things differently until for the student, it does’
‘She was very easy to talk to and communicate any concerns or questions we had. Very approachable and always was available to listen to us’
Knowledge, presentation and the classroom environment
‘Very detailed and knowledgeable’
‘Lectures were informative and thought provoking’
‘It was a pleasant class, friendly environment, great teacher…. Making a class interesting is definitely hard, however this teacher managed to do it’
‘She was always there early, preparing to hand back assignments, and getting everything set up for the lecture. She was very organized, graded and handed assignments and tests back quickly, and stuck to the schedule that she gave us on the syllabus’
‘Anytime she is giving a lecture and we have questions, she will stop and take time to answer’
‘She knows all subject matter, as well ecology related questions not covered in class (also, anything about fungi). If she doesn’t know the answer to a question, she will tell you (instead of making stuff up), look it up over class periods and then come back to you with the answer the next time class meets (or through email)’
‘Very friendly and approachable. She never blew off a question and always provided you with an answer even if she had to go out of her way to look it up! (I asked a lot of complicated ecology questions.)’
‘She is very knowledgeable and has a deep passion for the course’
‘Dr. Andrew really knows the subject well and is very articulate’
‘Her excitement transferred to the class and its students’
‘We are provided with a lot of options when it comes to materials, we do quizzes, notes, movies, study guides, group works, it is never boring in the class’
‘She got us involved’
‘Usage of outside factors to promote awareness of the material’
‘Her lectures are not boring, she is able to include visuals, videos and documentations when needed. Not boring’
‘She was eager to educate us, excited to answer questions, and loved engaging in conversation regarding the subject material both before, during and after class’
‘Very, very friendly and explains materials in different perspective if [the] student doesn’t understand’
‘Very hands on and gave each student one-on-one attention’
‘She facilitates your learning [and does] not just spit out what you have to do, with this professor you feel more in charge of your own learning’
‘Giving feedback to students, answering questions, explaining things clearly the first place, these were all excellent’
‘Learning is not just memorizing, and having key words at the beginning of every lecture, quiz and exam helped me a lot, especially with being able to focus on the content rather than just memorizing…. I will definitely incorporate such learning strategies within my classroom environment as a future educator’
‘It is not an easy a class, but it’s a class that is worth the effort…. if I had a choice I would definitely take another class with this professor’
‘If I was to take another class with her I know for a fact that I would learn even more’
‘I enjoyed her method of teaching and feel like I could learn a great deal more in the future, if given a chance to have another class with her’
‘She was just a really great instructor and I would love to take another class with her’
‘Carrie Andrew was amazing! I would not have done so well in Biology without her instructions. She made the class relatable to her students and their everyday lives and I thought she did a great job!!!!!’
‘Great class! Would definitely take another class with this instructor’
‘Thanks for making this class interesting and answering all of our questions’
‘I would highly recommend her to become part of your professors on a full-time basis’
‘I loved her style of pedagogy, and would recommend that others take classes with her since she is an excellent professor’
‘I had Dr. Andrew last semester and I picked ecology this Spring in part because she was the teacher. I look forward to having her again for mycology’
‘She is an outstanding teacher and one of the best I have had so far at NEIU’
‘Dr. Andrew is one of the best professors I have ever had in college. I wish there were more professors like her around!’
‘I find her enthusiasm to be contagious, and her approachability with questions, problems regarding class material and overall friendliness to have contributed greatly to both my learning of the subject matter, and making me FEEL like I learned a lot’
‘My biggest criticism is that Dr. Andrew needs to be a FULL TIME instructor here!!! … I enjoy the respect she gives her students and never makes us feel lesser than her’
‘She really cares about teaching and [is] so willing to help. She is a wonderful teacher. I wish that more were like her. She is fabulous’
Mycology in particular
‘I find mycology a pretty boring subject matter but Dr. Andrew made it as interesting as possible’
‘She has a true passion for the subject and cares about the students and enjoys the company of others’
‘I highly recommend this [mycology] course, as well as any courses taught by Dr. Carrie Andrew’
‘She was able to answer even the most random questions about fungi’
‘Before every lecture she had the lab properly set up with all the stations with specimens and/or microscopes and slides ready. We never had to wait for her, she was in class early and always stayed late without any problem’
‘She always had our labs all set up and ready to go before we even walked into class. Our lectures were always organized and well displayed on slides’
‘Answered questions openly and left keying sessions open for interactions between students and teacher’
‘She made fungi come to life. I really never knew how much I really didn’t know about fungi’
‘I really have looked at the field of mycology at a whole different perspective’
‘Many of my classmates and I intend to petition the school for a more advanced mycology class with Dr. Andrew because we were so impressed by her teaching, and have had such a positive experience with the subject’
‘I would love to take another of her classes. I truly enjoy learning from a professor that has love and passion for the subject’
Teaching science to art students
‘Carrie did a good job teaching mycology to a bunch of art students. I did feel that at times she spoke kind of fast, but she was always ready to answer any questions and always open for them. Also, to review or back track on any information we covered. She was engaging, never fell asleep!’
‘She wasn’t too strict, made class fun and friendly while establishing a basis for the second half of the class. It felt like the whole class liked her’
‘I liked the more theory-based lectures as well as the class structure of lectures then worksheet’
‘I really liked Cary – she was fun and personable and explained the subject in easy to understand ways’
‘Always on time. Assignments are given back frequently, no delay’
‘Very accessible! Good at emailing back’
‘Carrie was very informed and excited about conveying her knowledge. It is not a topic I personally was very enthusiastic about, but I found myself interested in what she had to say’
‘Good teacher. Very intelligent’
‘Very friendly and interesting. Really nice to be around with’