My Teaching Philosophy

By Alan Nicoll

The following was written while I was trying to get hired as a teacher in public school, 4 or 5 years ago. Since 2003 or so I've abandoned this goal, largely because I think teaching in public school is too difficult, stressful, and uncertain a job for me. The only way I would be willing to teach (in the long run, at least) is contrary to virtually all public schooling I've heard of, because I think school harms children. I knew this before, from reading John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, and many other critics, but I thought I might be able to make schooling less harmful.

So at this point, the following might be taken as a view of how I would reform public schooling. It no longer qualifies as "my teaching philosophy." This comment was written 9/9/04; the following is unedited from its original form.

I have long anticipated teaching at the K-6 level. This assumption has guided much of my reading and thinking, and naturally has affected my teaching philosophy. Major changes can be expected as I get teaching experience.

My guiding principles are:

The relationship between the teacher and the students is crucial to any learning; if the students dislike the teacher, they are not likely to learn much. This is especially true in the earlier grade levels.

Crucial to this relationship is the sense that the students are part of "us," not "them." That is, the administration, teachers, parents, and students need to feel that they are all on the same side, working together.

I agree with Herbert Kohl when he says, "If there is anything common to [effective teachers] it is our concern to listen to what the children have to say and the ability to respond to it as honestly as possible . . ." Other writers have also stressed the need for the teacher in class to be a "real human being," not playing an artificial role.

Children need a guide through our culture, a guide who will offer them the worthiest choices without forcing them by threats to study. They must "buy into" the value of what we want to teach, for without this we cannot expect much in the way of attention, interest, or effort. Children can be forced to learn, but they cannot be forced to love learning.

The best way to get children to cooperate in learning is to allow them as much freedom as possible in controlling their own educational experiences.

Lectures and discussions can be very useful to present certain kinds of material, but, in general, "factory model" teaching encourages the students to do what Paul Goodman calls "parrot and forget." Learning by doing is generally superior. Also, if learning is to be efficient and effective, the task must be something that the learner wants to do.

It is the teacher's duty to do his best for his children by: giving them as much freedom and power as he can, protecting them from abuses of the system where he can, grading them as fairly and responsibly as possible, and working for positive change in ways that won't do harm to the future careers (in or out of school) of his students.

Open Classroom:

Because the results of effective open classroom programs are impressive, I am persuaded that some type of open classroom may be the best learning environment for children in the early grades. The teacher should act as coach, counselor, organizer, facilitator, and even co-learner with a class of students pursuing worthwhile interests.

I recognize that open classrooms cannot be fully implemented in many schools because the state, school administration, community, and business will have goals that are perceived to conflict with these methods. Obviously, one teacher cannot singlehandedly implement such a plan because this will cause dissension.

In addition to the need to fit into an existing school, I must also avoid the chaos, student anxiety, time-wasting, and other failures of ineffective open classroom programs. As a compromise I have resolved on what I call "free study": allowing students as much freedom to direct their own education as they can use responsibly and productively. Naturally, the precise nature of this freedom will depend in part on the age and sophistication of the students. It is my hope that educational freedom will become a "carrot" to encourage the students to use that freedom wisely.

I envision the following as a start. Assuming I will be teaching a single class, I will allow half an hour a day of "free study," which the students can use as they wish, provided that a reasonable level of order is maintained and that they have something to show for their time. If the students are producing, the time and freedom allowed can be increased; if not, the time will be reduced or additional teacher controls can be imposed. Further details about this idea are available on request.

Other Teaching:

I don't intend ever to have all student time devoted to free study; I also have some ideas about other teaching situations. Fundamental to my thinking is the idea that it is important for the children to "buy into" the value of what they are being asked to learn. I think this can often be done by presenting reading, writing, science, math, computers and other technology, speech, and to an extent history, art, music, and even dance, as tools that can help students accomplish their goals. I believe it is a mistake to present these as "content to be covered," which reduces these to inert ideas (to use Whitehead's term).

What are these student goals that the teacher can tap into? Naturally, existing needs and goals will vary from student to student, but goals can also be influenced by the environment, by activities proposed by the teacher, and by previous instruction, perhaps such as the "narratives," as described by Neil Postman in The End of Education. These "narratives" seem useful and perhaps can form an important part of the experience of schooling for both students and teachers.

Writing can become important to students if they have a sympathetic audience. According to Herbert Kohl, "Once one realizes that writing is not merely a skill to be acquired but an activity that can pervade all the other activities of school life, anything can develop." Kohl, John Holt, Ken MacRorie, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, and others have described many effective writing programs.

If reading is fun, kids will read and skills will improve; this is demonstrated in Daniel Fader's Hooked on Books. "Book sharing," described by Charles Silberman in Crisis in the Classroom, may be superior to book reports. And reading to students can show them the value of books.

Math is best learned as a byproduct of doing things that are otherwise fun or interesting; What Do I Do Monday? by John Holt and Math, Writing, and Games in the Open Classroom by Herbert Kohl show the way with many examples. Also, as described in Seymour Papert's books, computers can offer a math-rich environment for student "learning by doing."

I think science is probably best learned through the combination of "true stories of discovery" and hands-on experiments, with a good deal of "messing about" in a well-planned environment. Neil Postman points out in The End of Education that a historical approach, rather than teaching science as "discovered truth," shows that "error correction" is a superior view of science.


I think grading and report cards should emphasize achievements rather than focusing on deficiencies and errors. Schools force students to do what they don't like, to do more of what they do poorly, because all students are expected to achieve competency in all subjects and skills. This practice naturally follows from the "factory model" of assembly-line schooling. Students are individuals and school should be enjoyable while it is taking place, rather than being viewed as something to be "gotten through" in preparation for the "real life" that will happen later, maybe.

Classroom Management:

Classroom order is best maintained by having the students interested in what's happening, not by the teacher's efforts to "keep order." As much as possible, student conversation, flexible seating arrangements, shared decision making, and other personal freedoms should be allowed; John Holt's "Q system," described in How Children Fail, is a model of how student self-control can be encouraged. As with educational freedom, children can learn that the personal freedoms they desire are possible only if they use their freedoms wisely. This principle forms the basis of most of my teaching philosophy.

The quotes from Herbert Kohl are from his book, Math, Writing, and Games in the Open Classroom.