Thinking About What to Teach

I just came across this post by Tom Haymes that asks us to think about how education can respond to climate change (and it is well worth the read). It isn’t asking how we teach it, but rather what kind of thinker we need to create to help solve the problems that climate change will bring about. This got me thinking about how we think about what to teach.

We all know the August/January anguish of figuring out how we can fit all that we want to do into 15 weeks of instruction. We ask ourselves if we tweak here or there, can we get in one more concept. This got me started thinking about the push for content coverage vs. getting students to use those concepts vs. getting them to think the way members of the discipline do. This is a complicated and delicate dance, but it is worthwhile spending some time thinking about the ultimate goals of our courses and our disciplines. The answer will likely vary both between courses (e.g., it would be different for an intro and an advanced course), but also between audiences. What does a student in the major need vs. a student who is taking it for distribution requirements? How do you balance these needs?

In my own discipline, sociology, there is always a tension between understanding the basic concepts (the content issue), applying them to the world that they live in, and using sociology to create a scientific framework for analyzing claims about the social space. Students need to understand what norms are (rules for behavior), but I also want to be able to go out and identify norms that they are (or are not) following without noticing. However, I also want them to be able to understand how norms are made and changed and how we react to the changes. Next, I want to know if they can use the results of social science research to help them understand these changes. This semester we looked at how cell phone norms are developing to help understand norms as a concept, but also to see how rules are or are not developing. This moves them from thinking about people just behaving WRONG to thinking about how societies change and react to those changes.

The post referenced above got me thinking about how this might connect to the challenges presented by climate change. Sociology allows people the opportunity to step out of oneself and one’s preferences to think about how the social system is evolving and analyze it in terms of outcomes, rather than what that individual wants or doesn’t want. This could be useful in a rapidly changing physical, political, and social environment. The only question left is how to find a way to make sure this is part of my class.

The rush of the semester doesn’t always leave time for deep contemplation about our teaching. The next couple of posts will talk about how to radically rethink your course while ensuring that your content needs are met. There isn’t any magical formula that makes it all fit, but there are ways to think about it to manage the parts that you really need.

2 thoughts on “Thinking About What to Teach

  • November 16, 2019 at 11:04 am

    This reminds me of a TED Talk that I use in my English 101 course as a part of an assignment in which students ask questions about things they don’t understand, figure out how to find the answers, then write about the process. The Talk is called “The Pursuit of Ignorance” and is by Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist teaching at Columbia University. Firestein talks about a course he designed called Ignorance in which he brings in guest speakers to discuss the many unanswered questions in their fields. The larger point he’s making is that the purpose of education is to teach students how to think and ask interesting questions, not to fill them with existing knowledge and let them believe that all of the questions already have answers. As Stacy points out, this approach necessarily has different applications in foundational and advanced courses, but in my opinion it can (and should) be integrated into all teaching in whatever way makes sense for the discipline/level.

  • November 22, 2019 at 9:57 am

    This is a great talk that really makes one think about what it is we really want to accomplish and letting that drive our course design rather than focusing only what we think we need to cover.


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