Dr. Byrne's Educational Philosophy

 

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” ~ Plutarch

“Teachers open the door. You must enter by yourself.” ~ Chinese proverb

"Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand." ~ Confucius

“(Intelligence) is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” ~ Thomas Alva Edison

                “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” ~ W. Fusselman

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is tied to everything else in the universe.” ~ John Muir

"High-quality learning is absolutely essential to high-quality living." ~ L. Dee Fink

 

Relationships is the word that encapsulates the heart of my educational philosophy. I believe that a central objective of education should be to provide students with the foundational knowledge and skills needed to understand and discover relationships among ideas within and among disciplines. For this reason, I strongly support a liberal arts curriculum and enjoy teaching non-majors courses such as CORE 101. As a biologist and environmental scientist, I am particularly interested in exploring interdisciplinary relationships with students by using concepts from biology and ecology as starting points from which linkages between science and society can be discussed. In the classroom, I put this heart of my educational philosophy into practice, in part, by giving presentations within a broader interdisciplinary context and asking discussion questions that guide students toward thinking about relationships among scientific knowledge, contemporary societal issues and their individual opinions and worldviews. Although the nature and depth of the relationships to be made vary among classes, I believe that my philosophical approach to teaching and education applies equally well to courses at all educational levels and to those within a major and that fulfill liberal arts curriculum requirements. As such, I begin designing my courses by first answering this question: how does the content of this course relate to that of courses across the liberal arts curriculum and, for courses within the biology and environmental science majors, the content covered in other courses within these majors? In the classroom, I attempt to share my answers to this question with students and also explicitly or indirectly ask them, through various assignments, to reflect on this question. In this way, I hope to facilitate their development of the critical thinking skills needed to explore and discuss relationships and, in turn, gain interdisciplinary knowledge.

 

A second essential part of my educational philosophy is exemplified by the following Chinese proverb: “Teachers open the door. You (the student) must enter by yourself.” This proverb signifies my adoption of a learner- (or student-) centered approach to teaching, an approach described magnificently by Maryellen Weimer in her book Learner-centered Teaching. I have adopted this approach because it is clear to me—based on my own learning and teaching experiences and an emerging body of pedagogical research—that cultivating a learner-centered classroom provides for a more effective learning environment than the historically dominant instructor-centered teaching approach. The model for this latter approach was that of teacher-as-a-talking-expert whose knowledge could easily and directly be imparted on students. In contrast, a learner-centered pedagogical model gives more responsibility and ownership to students as makers of their own understanding and knowledge. In this model, the teacher remains an important member of the classroom but plays a role that is more of a guide, mentor and facilitator of learning rather than a provider of information. Putting a learner-centered educational philosophy into practice requires the use of different teaching and assessment methods. I have been reading about many of these techniques over the past year and have been incorporating them into my classes as much as possible with, I believe, successful teaching and learning outcomes. In the rest of this educational philosophy statement, I briefly describe some of these pedagogical methods and additional teaching objectives to exemplify how I translate my learner-centered educational philosophy that is focused on exploring interdisciplinary relationships into my teaching practice.

 

 One key method that I use to explore relationships with students is through the creation and discussion of conceptual models and frameworks that help organize ideas and illustrate links among them. Thus, one of my central teaching objectives is to organize course content around interdisciplinary conceptual frameworks that I share and discuss with students. Throughout courses, I encourage students to create their own frameworks that reflect their personal understanding of class material. As such, conceptual frameworks are useful for helping students integrate knowledge and see relationships among the sub-disciplines of biology (i.e., from molecules to ecosystems) and other disciplines. In addition, they provide a useful assessment tool for exposing how and where students’ understanding of concepts can be improved. Conceptual models and frameworks are also useful focal points with which to spark discussion of human-environment relationships and link theory with applied problems and solutions, i.e., to help students see the “bigger picture” relationships among science and society.

 

In addition to conceptual frameworks, I believe that relationships—especially ones of a biological and environmental nature—are most effectively explored in a learner-centered classroom through the utilization of hands-on, interactive classroom and field activities. This perspective is derived from personal learning and teaching experiences. For example, I designed a role-playing food web exercise for ecology courses in which students take on the identity of various organisms and then have to move around the classroom to find other students whose identities they can “consume.” After these trophic links are established among students, they draw their relationships on a poster and then we discuss the types of linkages made, the overall structure of the food web and relationships between species interactions and societal issues such as pest control. Similarly, I incorporated five field-based laboratory activities into the introductory ecology course I taught at the College of Wooster, including a simple “stump sitting” exercise and an in-depth study of forest community structure. At RWU, I have taken my core students in small groups on nature walks to observe and ask questions in the field. In my experiences of using such classroom and field activities, students developed a stronger understanding of ecological relationships—and had more fun—with such exercises than by hearing a lecture. Because I strongly believe that hands-on and field-based activities are necessary for giving students a deeper understanding of—and appreciation for—science and environmental issues, one of my central teaching objectives is to continually revise and develop novel teaching methods that engage students’ minds and senses and provide them with rewarding learning experiences.

 

Also beyond the classroom, I am committed to helping students improve their scientific thinking skills by helping them conduct hands-on research via small projects. I believe that such experiences help cultivate greater enthusiasm for learning and research among students and give them senses of ownership and accomplishment that increase their confidence and desire to conduct further research. I have seen such attitudes develop in many of the students I have worked with (both within and outside of classes) after they completed semester-long research projects. Encouraging students to think about how they would develop and execute such projects and, when possible, actually gather data and present it in posters, reports or talks are central components of my educational philosophy.

 

In addition, critical scientific thinking skills can be cultivated by using peer-reviewed research articles as course readings. In my experience, group discussions about papers encourage critical thinking about scientific methods and writing while fostering students to develop their own research questions. Because I also like to promote the development of students’ personal interests and enthusiasm, I provide opportunities for them to choose their own articles for independent reading and for use in student-led discussions. In addition, I like to use writings from other disciplines (e.g., philosophy) and the popular press (e.g., newspapers) to complement scientific readings and help students explore relationships between science and society.

 

Building effective relationships among words (i.e., communication) is vital to success in every discipline and career. This is a deeply held personal conviction that influences my educational philosophy and teaching practice. In every course I teach, I will help students’ improve their communication skills through detailed feedback about their writings and presentations. Assignments such as short lectures, journal entries, essays and semester-long research papers can be used as ways to integrate teaching of effective communication techniques with course content. From my experiences with undergraduates, I am concerned that writing is becoming a lost art form and that too many students lack appreciation for basic grammar and writing style (perhaps because of technological influences such as email). However, as I tell all of my students, it doesn’t matter how much one knows if one cannot clearly communicate that knowledge to others by building effective relationships among words.

 

        Finally, student-teacher relationships are important to consider in any thorough educational philosophy. My personal love of learning has been cultivated by many of my teachers who have challenged, inspired and befriended me. In turn, teaching provides me with great personal satisfaction as I watch others learn and, as a result, learn more for myself about how others think and view the world. I enjoy working with students to help them organize knowledge and develop deeper understanding and appreciation about the complexity of life, the environment and relationships among ideas. As an educator, I therefore seek to serve as a mentor who inspires students to think about, appreciate and, for some, further study relationships among biological and environmental patterns and processes and, more generally, science and society.