Getting to What You Want Them to Know

We have all had that moment when designing a new class or redesigning an existing class where it feels like you have taken all of the stuff out of your closet, and it is sitting in depressing heaps around the room, and thinking that there is no way to get it all back in so that things work better for you. I generally run through this process when I feel like my students aren’t getting what I want them to get out of my class. All of the pieces are there – I have covered the material that I want them to know, but it just isn’t coming together for them.

When I redesigned my classes to be flipped classes, I had to really think about what I wanted them to know. I stumbled upon Backward Design and gave it a try. It was tough at first to set aside my pile of concepts, definitions, and techniques and think first about the bigger picture, but when I finished the project, I had a much better sense of what I wanted my students to be able to do with my course. This led me to a better sense of what concepts, definitions, and techniques I wanted them to look at. It also allowed me to fine tune some assignments to better get the students to consider the critical things and design new assignments that filled the holes that I hadn’t even seen.

As a result of this process, I now have a better sense of which of these parts I need to reinforce more, and which will come along with the other work that we do without much intervention from me. To continue with the closet analogy, I started by figuring out what I wanted to be able to do with the space (find things quickly, categorize my items by how I use them, get things out quickly and put them away quickly). It was much easier after that to put together the work that I wanted them to do so that it led to these goals. I haven’t perfected the design yet, but it is now much easier to find the places where what I am covering doesn’t lead to what I want my students to be able to do and tweak things.

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.