Justin Li

A Teaching Philosophy


Note: this is not an actual teaching philosophy I am submitting to job applications. It's more a rant about having to write one, and an exercise to help me figure out what to write.

The hardest part about writing a teaching philosophy is to not write a life philosophy.

It's difficult to remember a time when I didn't want to be a teacher. Back when I was a senior in high school, I was part of a group called the Math Center. Led by the math department teachers, this group in theory helped other students with their math homework. This being high school, very few students came to use the service. I was also on the speech and debate team, and helped train younger students by giving critique on their talks.

It wasn't until two years later, as a sophomore in college, that I became a teacher in any official capacity. My alma mater, Northwestern University, ran Gateway Science Workshops for introductory classes in maths, the basic sciences, and the engineering sequence. The goal of the workshops was to provide peer tutoring, as well as to present more advanced material to interested students. I was a student in the engineering workshops my freshman year, but did not find the material particularly challenging; in fact, I found that I often had a more intuitive explanation of the material than my facilitator. At the end of the year, I applied to be a facilitator myself, and for the next three years of college, GSW became the constant backdrop against my ever-changing classes.

The job of a GSW facilitator mainly involves meeting with four to seven freshman for two hours every week, guiding them through worksheets that were prepared by the faculty that taught the introductory engineering sequence. All facilitators go through a full day of training, where we were drilled to not give out answers to students, to instead guide students into working together to discover the solution. GSW was consistently the highlight of my week, as I became a friend and mentor to my students, enough that I convinced a student not to quit the engineering program. Four of my students later became GSW facilitators themselves, and I would like to think that I had showed them, by example, not only how engineering can be fun and interesting, but that teaching is a rewarding experience. In my junior year, I was promoted to senior facilitator, meaning that I was responsible for the group of six engineering GSW facilitators, and led the weekly meetings where we discuss the problems before our individual workshops, sharing our experience with the material and also trying to predict where students would stumble. Even then, I began noticing the ways that different professors taught classes, and personally noted the activities and projects that I liked and didn't like.

Junior year also saw my application to the Center for Talented Youth summer program, as a teaching assistant for a Lego robotics class for middle schoolers. I was offered the job, so the summer after my junior year I spent six weeks - in two three-week sessions - teaching little kids how to program. Although I was only a teaching assistant, the instructor with whom I was paired was also new to CTY; as a result, we collaborated on a majority of the curriculum. We were together responsible for ten students, and we made them not only build robots to solve the tasks we set out, but also to document their efforts and justify their solutions. The biggest influence of CTY, however, was not from teaching the students, but from being surrounded by a community of other instructors and teaching assistants who are excited about learning and education. The site director described CTY as an "academic Disneyland", and to me that perfectly captures the exhilaration of the place. I was hooked on being a teacher.

I attended CTY again the next summer, again as a TA. This time, however, my instructor fell sick for one week out of the six, leaving me in charge of the class. It was scary to have to control a classroom, particularly one where Lego pieces are strewn everywhere, but I managed. When recruitment for CTY came around the winter afterwards, I received a personal email from the administrators, strongly encouraging me to go back as an instructor. Although I was sorely tempted, by then I had started my graduate studies, which demanded that my summers be spent on research. I regrettably turned down the offer, and although grad school has continued to prevent me from going back, I hope I will once again have the opportunity to play in that Disneyland.

I had another teaching experience in between my two CTY summers, which came courtesy of a new professor at Northwestern. I first took his class programming languages when he first arrived, then decided to take his compilers construction class the next semester. On seeing that I was on the roster, however, he suggested instead that I work as a grader for him - despite my never having taking compilers before. I learned many things working closely with the professor - setting up high expectations, having an end-to-end system by the time the class finishes, having students explain their programs in a code walk instead of a written final exam. Here I was already friends with many of my students, but I never faced any issue with authority; I think by that time, my identity as a teacher has become sufficiently ingrained that I simply was a teacher, even outside of any particular class. It was like my relationship with the professor: I was learning simply by being around him when he makes teaching decisions, and I think some of my friends thought of me in the same way.

I became a PhD student at Michigan soon after, and was assigned to be a Graduate Student Instructor as my funding. I taught my entire first year of grad school, for the same introductory programming course. In some ways, the training I was required to go through as a GSI was laughable. The only real "teaching" we had to do was a five minutes lesson on a topic of our choice. None the less, being a GSI provided my first experience as the only instructor in a real classroom of thirty students. I learned how to keep students' attention with humor, to include exercises so students do not simply sit and listen. In office hours, I learned to coerce students into grudgingly thinking through their problems before coming to me, and perhaps instill some self-sufficiency in the process. I also wrote exams, preferring questions that made students stretch their existing understanding. For all this, I was awarded the GSI award by the department.

Funding from my research advisor meant I didn't have to teach in my second year, but the summer after that I applied to be an Engineering Teaching Consultant. Being an ETC meant I was helping other GSIs improve their teaching, and again I was trained, this time in observing teachers and in talking teachers through their problems. Perhaps because I wasn't teaching myself, I took a lot of joy vicariously from watching other teachers, and seeing the variation between classrooms and how some students responded to one pedagogical technique but not the other. Sitting in the back of the room, I saw the importance of getting through to what the students already know, and the importance of not just knowing the material, but also knowing how students would react to the material, and supporting the students correctly. For the first time, I was also reading education research in the biweekly ETC meetings, where we also discussed various active learning techniques for different sized classes.

My funding had a gap after three semesters being an ETC, and I finally had a chance to put what I learned into practice. This time, I was a GSI for an upper-level undergraduate/first-year graduate artificial intelligence course. The lesson that stood out the most was how most problem sets were unrealistic. I don't just mean the scenarios set up, of toy problems and contrived representations; I mean that students never have to be creative. Instead, I strived to write problems that required students not just to apply algorithms, but to generate knowledge. On a logic homework, I asked them to translate some rules of Tic-Tac-Toe, then asked them to describe a rule that has not already been implied. On a Bayesian networks homework, I asked students to calculate condition probabilities, then consider the ways in which the network was incorrect, and add a new factor that might make the network more closely describe reality. I think my goal was to show that AI is not just a class they're taking, but that it is part and parcel of the world they live in.

And so, a couple months after that class, I am faced with writing a teaching philosophy. I am asked to describe my various teaching experiences, over the last decade of my life, in two pages, that demonstrates that I can manage a classroom, that I can accurately assess student understanding, that my classrooms are inclusive environments for people of different genders, races, socioeconomic statuses, and academic backgrounds.

I don't know that I have a teaching philosophy. What I know is that, at least partially as a result of these experiences, I have become a better listener when people explain their thoughts, and have actively sought to understand perspectives that are different than mine - much like how I try to understand students' explanations to figure out their misconceptions. I have become better at expressing my ideas, making sure that each step is being followed and asking if my listener can make the next inference - much like how I guide my students to the answer without giving it to them. I have become better at connecting ideas, at being interested in the many fields outside of computer science - much like how I expect my students to connect what they're learning to their real lives as well. And I have become more introspective, including in my personal journal impression of my students and what they are having trouble with - much as I would if I was actually a mentor for them, and not just a grad student who teaches their optional discussion.

I don't know if I can write this teaching philosophy.