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Philosophy of Teaching Statement

PHILOSOPHY OF TEACHING STATEMENT (living document)

Tigran Haas, School of Architecture and the Built Environment,

Dept. of Urban Planning and Environment, KTH – Royal Institute of Technology

Haas

"Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself."

Chinese Proverb

The spirit and purpose of teaching is embodied in passion, engagement, intellectual curiosity, knowledge, ideas and enthusiasm between the teacher and student. I strongly believe as an educator-teacher-mentor that passion, engagement, and continuous improvement & self evaluation are the key to success in this very complex and crucial element of Academia. This is what guides me in my everyday university life of teaching & research. I am an advocate of both of the instructional-dynamic and deep-learning paradigm in teaching. In other words transfer of knowledge and delivery of faculty instruction has to be combined with creation of learning environments that, as Barr and Tagg[i] call it, ‘elicit student discovery and construction of knowledge’. But I also realize as a teacher that different groups of students require different approaches and ways of communicating knowledge and feedback.

I think that undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students cannot be viewed in the same manner, i.e. the approaches to teaching and learning, as well as communication must be different. For undergraduate students the focus from the teacher’s side should be to lay a solid foundation for work or for continuing further studies and engage them in critical thinking and cross-connection across disciplines. At the end of the day they need to have a fundamental appreciation of higher education and trust in their intellectual abilities. When they reach the graduate level we need to empower them even more, i.e. even broader scientific linkages must be made and we need to allow for, as Werner Heisenberg[ii] elegantly posed, ‘critical scientific thought and conscious moral purpose’ in teaching of principles and fundamentals within a discipline. This will in return allow the student more freedom in choosing his/her course of (further) study whereas they shall (with our assistance) ultimately decide on their own, what really seems the most relevant and worth learning - that can have long-term consequences and application in their future careers.

In the graduate programs I feel very fortunate and privileged to teach to international masters’ students that come from all around the globe to KTH and Sweden for more than thirteen years now. This gives me a unique possibility to directly participate, learn and exchange ideas on cultural diversity, development problems, sustainability viewpoints, globalization processes and at a better understanding of complexity of different problems and approaches in various settings as well as to dwell into the sensitive world of various educational backgrounds and university systems that these students have been exposed to. So in a way this is an important learning process, both for me and my (international and local) students.

As teachers of a university-Institute of Technology that promotes and advocates excellence in teaching and research, it is not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Instead, it is our job to raise the bar of our education at all levels. In that respect, I regularly strive, to the best of my abilities, to improve my teaching (methods) and the syllabus of my courses by seeking new ways of learning, student feedback, talking with peers, attending teaching seminars, following the latest trends and publications, attending conferences, studying successful methods of others and even experimenting with new approaches at times. Also “the goal of most college courses should not be (just) knowledge (acquisition) but engaging in certain intellectual exercises”[iii], as Gary Gutting, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame points out. What this really says is that the purpose of university education should not only be in pure transmission of knowledge (most of that is anyway lost & forgotten along the way) in a strictly formalized, structured way using teachers who can correctly answer questions and to help challenge students in a straightforward instructional way.

Post-graduate (PhD) students also require a fundamentally different outlook then the ones afore mentioned. As a former post-graduate student myself I know a bit about this and I know that at that level one cannot look anymore within his/hers narrow discipline (something that unfortunately occurs often) but also has to have a systemic outlook, a broader view on scientific education and the existing linkages. This is also paramount for us teaching at this academic level. We have to understand that we are dealing with individuals at the height of their educational careers (as this is the peak of higher education) and also at the height of their maturity in a university environment and soon to stand on their own in society. I firmly believe that they cannot longer be seen as purely receptive beings, simply sitting in lecture halls & seminar rooms and waiting for the transfer of higher knowledge to occur. Absolutely not! They, our young colleagues, need to become (they already should be, while graduate students can be on that path) active agents and even the producers of knowledge themselves and we can only be active participants and facilitators – an active and equal learning partner with our students.

I am also a firm believer in active learning, and I try to maintain, whenever possible, a very lively, engaged and interactive classroom (especially on the graduate level). To me, teaching is not just about lecturing to students; it is about presenting theories, concepts, models, tools and empirical material & findings in a way that they can integrate this information into their own work and life experience. Accomplishing this is not an easy task but as teachers we try to that not only in presentations and lectures, but in the active discussion, dynamic feedback and direct questions that we pose that help structure student classroom discussion and, particularly, in seminars and writing assignments. Teaching is a learning experience; it is also inspiration and empowerment at the same time.

My teaching philosophy, deeply rooted in the fields of architecture, urban studies, city planning, and urban design, is centered on the conviction that educating future architects and urban planners is about nurturing not just skilled professionals, but visionary thinkers and responsible citizens. I believe in an interdisciplinary approach that interweaves theory with practice, encouraging students to explore the complex layers of urban environments. My goal is to guide them in understanding the profound impact of design on communities, economies, and ecosystems. Emphasizing sustainable and inclusive design principles, I challenge students to envision cities that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also socially equitable and environmentally resilient. In my classroom, learning transcends traditional boundaries, fostering a collaborative space where students critically engage with real-world challenges, learn from local contexts, and become adept at crafting spaces that enhance human experiences. Through this journey, I aspire to inspire a new generation of architects and urban planners who are equipped to shape vibrant and sustainable urban futures.

The common -default view is that contemporary teaching imparts knowledge, either in terms of specific skills – ‘knowing how to do it’ or in terms of information receptors – ‘knowing that something is...’ As one of my former mentors did, I would also like to provoke my students to think differently, to see that the subjects that concern us are not firmly frozen and compartmentalized in one narrow discipline, but are more complex, cross-disciplinary and holistic, engaging manifold questions in our environment at large. The late Professor at MIT, my former Post-Doc host, William J. Mitchell[iv] used to point out that, ‘that there must be an effort and willingness to make the cross-conceptual connections (sometimes it might not work but it’s worth trying), that can at some point in time establish or nurture a new form of critical thinking valid and valuable to any field of study’. As both a teacher and a former under-graduate and post-graduate student, one of the most satisfying experiences in the classroom have revolved around the fact that this (university/higher education) environment really gives the possibility for students to see the world differently and thereby to bring about the positive changes with their acquired knowledge and experience. That can be brought about by us teachers, only with an open curricula, such a curricula where all ideas have equal standings, one that generates criticism and creativity and a platform where students are seen both as receptive and active agents in creation of knowledge & ideas.

As a university professor, I still firmly believe that delivering great and inspiring lectures (as opposed to completely moving to learning paradigm and away from instructional one) is crucial in shaping the minds and futures of students. In my own journey, I've always been inspired by the likes of Richard Feynman, whose ability to illuminate complex scientific concepts with clarity and enthusiasm was not just educational, but transformative. In a similar vein, my aim in every lecture is to not just disseminate knowledge, but to ignite a spark of curiosity and passion for learning. Feynman once said, 'I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring.' This resonates deeply with my teaching ethos; I strive to infuse every lecture with a sense of wonder and excitement, akin to discovering something new for the first time. By engaging students through compelling narratives, interactive discussions, and real-world applications, I endeavor to make every topic not just understandable, but truly come alive. This approach, I believe, is essential in nurturing critical thinkers, innovators, and leaders who will drive positive change in our world."

Finally the key to my (academic) philosophy rests on the idea that if I must set high university standards for my students I foremostly need to do that first for me. We as teachers must lead the way by giving the example to our students, but also empowering the students in such a way that they critically think and develop a systemic outlook and intellectual curiosity (intellectual culture) on the ever more growing complexity of our environment and real world life, as well all the challenges and obstacles it poses. Our education and our teaching needs to respond to the ever growing complexity of our world and to the converging crises we see out there. As Professor Gutting points out, ‘we need critical thinking and creativity: the ability to detect tacit but questionable assumption and to develop new ways of understanding issues—in short, to think beyond what “everyone knows.” In conclusion I believe teachers have a duty to their profession, to their students, and to themselves. We at KTH are in many ways in a very privileged, but also extremely demanding and responsible situation (profession), where we must lead the way in creating holistic learning environments of interaction, success and change.

My philosophy of teaching, honed through years of experience at different universities, but especially at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is grounded in the belief that education is a transformative journey, both for the student and the educator. I endeavor to create an environment where curiosity is not just encouraged, but is the cornerstone of learning. My approach combines rigorous intellectual challenge with a supportive atmosphere that respects each student's unique path to understanding. By integrating cutting-edge research and real-world applications, I aim to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical implementation, fostering not just skilled professionals, but innovative thinkers and lifelong learners. In this dynamic and collaborative educational space, I see myself not just as a teacher, but as a facilitator of knowledge, guiding students to question, explore, and ultimately, to understand the world in a way that ignites their own passions and drives them to continually push the boundaries of what is possible.

It is with this last point that I want to conclude this short philosophy of teaching statement, for it summarizes my drive and love of/for teaching and academia in general.  When I say ‘leading the way’, I mean in essence, that aside from all the textbooks, tools, interactive agents and materials they get during their studies, it is key that we as teachers retain continual personal contact with students and create a positive learning environment, a humanistic agora where we can leave a positive, valid and morally good and intellectually honest imprint for that generation and many others to follow. As a teacher, this is my aim, my passion, my quest, my ethos and finally my teaching philosophy call and statement.

Dr. Tigran Haas, KTH – Stockholm

December-2023 (revised)

[i] “A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education”: Robert B. Barr and John Tagg in AAHE Change Magazine Nov/Dec. 1995.

[ii] Heisenberg, Werner (1974) Across the Frontiers, New York: Harper & Row.

[iii] http://philosophy.nd.edu/people/faculty/gary-gutting/ (Professor Gary Gutting)

[iv] http://web.media.mit.edu/~wjm/ (The late Professor William J. Mitchell)