5 reasons to write your teaching philosophy

5 reasons to write your teaching philosophy

One of the popular pages on this blog is ‘My teaching philosophy’. Although I sometimes wonder if its the subtitle (What would Death do?) that attracts people. Having a teaching philosophy can sound a little … pretentious. But being able to clearly explain your beliefs about learning, and why you teach law the way you do, can be incredibly useful. Here are 5 reasons to write your teaching philosophy.

1. It allows you to reflect

Lots of law teachers start teaching law with little or no formal teaching training. But they usually started teaching law because they were passionate about working with law students. There are also lots of very successful law teachers that have been teaching for some time. But they sometimes haven’t stopped to think about why their teaching is so successful.

Taking a minute to really interrogate your ideas about why you are teaching, rather than just the what, can help identify ideas or concepts that are applicable regardless of the content. In thinking about those things, like most lawyers, you’ll probably also end up looking for what others are doing in that space (because we love precedent). You might find that there are things written about learning that sit neatly with your own ideas. But you might also find something that challenges them, and encourage you to think harder.  That’s not a terrible thing in a professional setting and is at the heart of ongoing development.

2.  It helps with your planning

If you’ve got an idea of your approach to teaching, and what makes teaching successful, you can use it as a foundation for planning an entire semester.

We’ve all had that moment, before semester starts, trying to plan for activities that support the material and the learning outcomes but in a way that engages students’ skills and interest. It’s easy to fall back on the traditional ‘discuss’ or ‘present’ type of options. But it’s easy to miss how ‘discuss’ is going to involve and engage students.

Having a clear picture of the types of things that you believe are effective in learning tends to naturally lead to ideas about how they can be applied to the material. For example, if you believe that authentic learning opportunities help students grasp concepts, that’s going to lead to activities like introducing activities to solve real-world problems. But if you’re excited by learning through doing, then that’s going to lead to activities that involve some focus on skills development and content mastery.

The advantage is that you can identify what other things you might need to include in your teaching plan to support those activities. For example, are you going to have to include multi-disciplinary perspectives on a topic? Will students need to be helped to develop some specific skills?

3.  It helps you answer the ‘Why?’ question from students

So, you’ve planned your assessment with the curriculum, syllabus and your philosophy in mind. Great! But now you get the ‘Professor, why can’t we just write an essay?’ question.

I’ve sometimes had that question, especially from very good students that have perfected the art of essay or exam writing. I have run semester-long simulations that frustrate those students because they are ‘harder’ than writing an essay.

Being able to explain clearly the ‘why’ behind the seminar activity or assessment is a fantastic thing.  In fact, including a summary of ‘why’ in the instructions for the activity or the assessment gives students an idea of the objective and purpose. I often do that with my assessment instructions. I was thrilled one day to hear one student explain to another (who was complaining quietly) why the assessment worked the way it did. They even made links to how it would help after graduation!

4.  It helps you answer the ‘Why?’ question from the dean or other law teachers

So you’ve decided to include a field trip for law students in this semester’s teaching program. You’re going to ask students to visit a court, museum, monument or even the ‘scene of a crime’.

I’ve organised field trips for students to different sites. Field trips are sometimes complex to organise. But they can be an incredibly valuable way of getting students to connect with the material. For example, explaining how the legislature works is more natural if students get to play the role of law-makers.  Doing it in a seminar room takes away a lot of the impact. Getting students to interpret museum displays and explain them to their peers builds their understanding of legal history.

But field trips (aside from a trip to the courts) are a bit unusual in law school. The dean or head of school might ask why. Being able to point to a teaching philosophy that explains, for example, how important you think context and ‘place’ are to learning is sometimes a useful thing to be able to do.

It’s even more useful if you need to write an application for money or resources to support it. You’ve already written half your application!

5.  It can help you get a job (or get that promotion)

Its the standard question in interviews: ‘What can you offer …?’ We want to be able to say that we’re an excellent academic and a good teacher. But we need to say something more than the standard LinkedIn buzzwords like ‘I have a track record of …’

Demonstrating research ability is sometimes easy. We can point to numbers – numbers of publications, impact scores etc. But proving a track record of good teaching is harder. Being able to explain why you teach the way you do also allows you to naturally link in examples of where you put that into effect. It shows consistency of thinking and application.

But it can also allow you to explain how you have developed. Maybe your philosophy at the start of your career was different. You applied it, but it didn’t quite deliver the outcomes you wanted in terms of student success. So, after reflecting on things that worked (or didn’t work), you changed and refined your approach, and reflected in your philosophy.

It can also allow you to highlight things that you believe are valuable in developing your teaching further.

There are lots of resources out there …

Hopefully, these 5 reasons to write your teaching philosophy have prompted you to think a little more about why you teach law the way you do. But, if you’re looking for more help, there are lots of resources out there.

Legal education blogs are always a good place to start to see how other law teachers are thinking about their roles. And they are often written in much less formal language than journal articles.

If you’d like to know a little more about why and how I developed mine, and how Death plays a role, comment or email me. I’d be happy to write a follow-up post on how to write a teaching philosophy!

5 reasons to write your teaching philosophy

About Andrew Henderson

I am a law school teacher in Canberra and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, researching the 'hidden' or informal curriculum of law school. I am passionate about developing engaging and authentic educational experiences for law students.

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