I conceptualize my teaching philosophy and approach as constructivist, critical, and contextual. I believe that learning begins with a relationship between an instructor and students, which is built through communicating clear expectations, facilitating the co-construction of ground rules to foster classroom safety, validating multiple truths and perspectives simultaneously, and communicating unconditional positive regard as well as a significant investment in students personal and professional growth and development. I strive to promote a safe space for students to share their experiences, values, beliefs, and worldview’s so that they can become aware of their preferred frames of reference and biases and begin finding ways to develop awareness of these worldviews potential impact students’ future counseling practice. I value students’ forming small learning groups (three to four students) and getting to know each other first in a small group format and then in a large group format. Small learning groups create safety and support, so that students can ask what they might feel to be ‘stupid’ questions and get clarification before taking the risk to share tacit knowledge in the large group. Small groups continue outside of the classroom through the use of technology, so students can complete reflection journals throughout the week, which encourage inductive self-reflexivity, trust and connection with peers, and self-motivated learning.
The safety, relational investment, and connection that the instructor fosters both with and among the students is critical to the success of experiential constructivist teaching approaches. Students often report initial feelings of discomfort, confusion, and protest when the instructor does not take an expert role and places responsibility on the student to take charge of their learning in meaningful ways. Constructivist experiential teaching approaches may be more work for instructor and students as all members of the classroom serve as teacher and learner, however, constructivist approaches facilitate meaningful and interconnected learning. I prefer to utilize ongoing check ins and a just in time approach to teaching with students (e.g., Web-based surveys completed between classes) to assess areas of confusion or unclear concepts so that I can create targeted mini-lectures and experiential activities to fill learning gaps. When students are struggling with multi-layered and complex intersecting contextual factors they often have strong emotional reactions which recruit them into seeking dichotomous answers. This is an expected reaction to cognitive dissonance that accompanies the instructor validating multiple perspectives and ‘correct’ answers simultaneously. When this occurs I model counseling skills by staying with the emotions in a non-defensive and validating way and not taking student frustration personally.
I bring strong negative emotions and cognitive dissonance into the here and now through small and then large group interactions. I model counseling skills in the classroom by modeling group process in the context of repairing relationship ruptures. Clearly and congruently communicating in the moment and modeling respectful validation of the difficulty of the exercises and concepts while empathizing with student frustration often leads to a deepening of the relationship among the whole class, which creates space for vulnerable and authentic discussion and feedback.
I teach to a variety of learning styles and ways of interacting (e.g., cognitive, behavioral, visual, tactile, emotional, constructivist, problem based, metaphorical, experiential) to model the ways in which students can utilize relational, systemic, multicultural, social justice, contextual, and experiential factors in applied counseling practice. My teaching facilitates spaces for students to practice ways of interpersonally being, knowing, understanding, and intervening (Cheston, 2000) through applied client scenarios, role plays, and the co-construction of service learning projects. In recent years there have been significant efforts in counselor education to critically transform curricula and pedagogy to enhance students’ cultural consciousness and competency, cognitive complexity, reflective judgment, applied clinical skills, and ability to collaborate with diverse populations (Dollarhide, Smith &; Lemberger, 2007; Granello, 2002; Milem, Chang &; Antonio, 2005; Ratts &; Pedersen, 2014).
I strive to maximize student engagement and learning while encouraging ongoing self-reflexivity through structured hybrid online learning videos and reflection journals. Adapting contextual, critical and constructivist approaches to a hybrid learning format comes with some challenges (e.g., significant time commitment to produce videos, navigating fair use of videos and video editing, creating opportunities for interaction and active problem based learning during online reflective activities and discussions, etc.). Despite these challenges, intentional scaffolding and design of hybrid counseling courses has advantages for counselors in training as ‘lectures’ occur outside of class time, thereby maximizing class meetings time for interpersonal skill development, experiential activities, role plays, client conceptual and treatment planning activities, and interaction and feedback from instructors and peers while encouraging sharing of multiple perspectives and identification of multiple ‘correct’ answers. Starting with such approaches online may encourage thinking through multiple perspectives while giving students practice at transitioning from knowledge recall and comprehension toward application. This frontloads students for discussion and engagement in praxis based activities in the classroom that further solidify synthesis, evaluation, and application, leading to more opportunities for students to observe and demonstrate cognitive processes that are congruent with higher levels of critical thinking.
Online videos, mini-lectures, and learning activities include sound, graphics, animation, and video that add richness and depth to understanding while eliciting emotional reactions. Including these elements in online learning teaches counselors in training to learn to monitor their own emotional reactions while relying heavily on listening skills and visual and auditory cues to identify non-verbal behaviors, changes in tone and pace of voice, and eye contact, all of which can be made increasingly transparent through video case scenarios, in ways that written case scenarios can not. Text can also be added to live counseling session demonstration videos to make transparent what element of a theory a clinician is utilizing as the skill is demonstrated or described making the learning process significantly more concrete at beginning stages of learning and development. In this way, I work with students as they develop a framework for moving between concrete and abstract learning.