ELTM4: Curriculum and Instruction—Rub Your head, Pat Your Tummy

Years ago I overheard an exchange between two young professors. Both were about to teach new courses on-line the following semester and they were talking about how they were going to prepare for it. They were clearly new to this whole teaching thing—you could tell by their “we’re going to change the world of teaching because we’re new, bright and clearly in-touch with what the students need” attitude. Within groups, talking is often (but not always) a process of consensus building. The participants feel one another out until they establish the boundaries of common ground. From there, they to flesh out the details and, in the process, often become even more firmly convinced in the positions they establish. In short, these like-minded types of groups tend to become polarized, often to the extreme. Some of this was clearly happening in the conversation.

The two decided that they’d had enough experience with the subject area—after all they did have Ph.D’s—that they could just go ahead and get started with the process of writing content. They knew what had to be taught and liked the idea of writing it down since a logical, ordered representation of the content was by far the best was of getting the students to learn it. Besides, as they noted, we can all read much faster than we can listen so it would definitely be the most efficient way of transmitting the knowledge across to the students. They discussed some of the previous experience they’d had as instructors and realized they had excellent teaching skills, the evidence being the overwhelmingly positive feedback they’d gotten from many former students. They figured that if they put down their heads and just went at it they could likely have most of the content written for their courses in time for the next faculty meeting. By then it would be developed clearly enough that it would discourage the somewhat annoying and un-asked-for comments they both were used to getting from their colleagues. They parted, shaking hands, wishing one another well on a venture sure to have a profoundly positive effect on shaping their future lives. Exciting times!

Even now, over a decade later, it’s easy to remember staying at my nearby table long after they’d left and thinking about what had happened. It turns out that I was involved in several similar projects at the time so many of the items they’d been discussing were pertinent to those projects too.

Mostly, though, I was left thinking that the two were setting out on ventures that would be doomed to failure.

“Well-started is half-finished.” That’s something a lot of the old-timers from my hometown used to say. As true as it was for one of their ventures, whether it was building a boat, a wharf or a fishing stage, it is even more so today with constructing an on-line course. Straightforward edits are easy but making the fundamental changes that are necessitated by not taking everything into account generally require rebuilding an entire structure. Things are inter-connected and it’s best to think it through before you start. Too many course developers jump right in, confident that they know what has to be done, Sadly, especially for the students, they are generally unaware of many things that could be pointed out if only they’d asked. As a result, the finished product is usually one-sided, incomplete, inconsistent and nowhere near as good as it could have been.

Start with the “jumping right in” idea. This assumes that the instructors were perfectly clear on the curriculum right from the start. But how could they be? Even in straightforward courses such as “methods for solving ordinary differential equations” there’s great latitude. Which “solution methods,” exactly? How complex will the examples be; that is, how difficult should be the ones that the students are expected to solve? What prior knowledge of mathematics will be assumed? How will you evaluate the students? All of these questions need to be clearly answered.

Then there’s the separate but related area of instruction. The two professors did not talk about that at all, thus leaving this nosy listener to deduce that they thought the methods they’d experienced themselves would be just fine. They probably were very wrong! Let’s play a little game. Think for a half-minute about the most recent concert you attended. In that same half-minute, prepare a ten-second ‘talk’ on the concert that you might say to a friend who asked about it.

Go on, do it—the next paragraph will be more meaningful if you do.

So, thinking back on your ten-second “talk,” was it about:

  • What you saw there? In which case you might be primarily a visual learner. You like to have things shown to you. The written word, videos, pictures and diagrams are very useful to you—probably the tools by which you best learn. In particular, you find yourself somewhat out-of-sorts if what you see does not match with what you imagine. Based on what I heard the two profs were primarily visual learners, by the way.
  • What you heard (it was a concert after all)? In which case you might be an auditory learner. You likely have strong speaking and listening skills and learn well through discussion and through such things as radio shows and podcasts. Learning languages probably comes fairly easily to you and you might also have a good ear for music.
  • How it made you feel? In which case you may be (warning—I’m stretching it here) a kinesthetic learner. You are constantly in motion—some may think of you as hyperactive. You are at your best when you get to manipulate things. You learn mostly by doing.

In truth, no one word completely describes a learner. We are far too complex to be described simply. The above is a superficial and incomplete touching on the idea of learning styles. You can easily find better and more if you just search based on the term but the above is sufficient to make an important point: learners are not uniform. People learn differently. Add that to this fact: un-seasoned teachers tend to use a combination of the methods they have experienced and with a distinct emphasis on the ones that have worked well for THEM. That’s dangerous, especially as applied to the case I described. The two professors were intelligent and well educated but, unfortunately, also cocky and blind to the likelihood that they did not know much about how people learn. They certainly did not seem it was all that important to find out what worked best for their students. They just believed they knew it anyway.

Notice also how they, in fact, dismissed the students’ feedback entirely? They just said they many students had given them positive feedback. Did they expect students to tell them that they suck? Did they count the number of students who gave positive feedback and compare this to the total? While the words from a few students are always powerful this would have to be put against the total number of students in the course. If, for example, you taught 300 students and 20 of them came to you to tell you the course was great, the fact is that as many as 280 of the students may have found it was not. Overall, the consensus about the good feedback was simply an exercise in confirmation bias. The two profs had an expectation of the result and just looked at only the results that supported that view. In all seriousness, people with Ph.D.’s SHOULD know better! Nothing replaces honestly and validly connecting input from students.

Then there was the matter of getting as much of the work done as was possible in a short period of time so as to ensure that peers would not be able to provide meaningful feedback. Clearly the two agreed that this was unwanted but you’re left wondering why. Perhaps the faculties to which they belonged were so dysfunctional that no good would have come from it—but I doubt it. While there exist some “bad” faculty members out there, throughout my fairly lengthy career it’s been my experience that the overwhelming majority of tenure-track faculty are erudite, highly skilled and willing to work. Some may be a bit jaded and some may have an unrealistic sense of entitlement but just about all are very good at what they do. Nope—I seriously doubt the faculties were the problem at all. It was rather much more likely that the two in question were over-confident in their abilities, over-eager to finish the product, and overall not patient enough to let their ideas be subject to the in-depth scrutiny that academic institutions have been created for. A slower, more reflective start would likely have been a much better idea.

Out of all of it, what was most bothersome, at the rational level, was the obvious conflating of two related but still distinct concepts: curriculum (the ‘what’ of teaching) and instruction (the ‘how’ of teaching). You’re thinking, “Why on earth would you want to separate the two? After all, why design a course, curriculum first, without thinking of how you would deliver it? That’s just plain stupid!”

Agreed—it would be foolish to construct a set of outcomes statements, stating what students will be able to do, upon successful completion, without giving due consideration to how you might achieve those outcomes. Doing so would likely result in an unrealistic course, much of which would be impossible to teach! But that’s not what’s being said here. This is not to say, “First develop a complete list of curriculum outcomes. Then, and only then, can you develop your instructional strategies.” NO.

So what IS being said here? This: when developing a course constantly remind yourself that curriculum (the what) and instruction (the how) are two distinct but inter-related things. Developing curriculum requires one mindset and developing instruction, another. Yes both can be done by the same people, but not necessarily at the same time and not necessarily to the same degree.

Think about rubbing your head while patting your tummy. Sure you can do it but it’s much better when you decide to do the two separately! Think also about playing a sports position you’re not totally used. Yes, a forward can play guard well enough but not to the same degree of excellence. Same thing here! So what should you do? There are lots of answers. If it has to be a solitary effort you could do both, It is quite doable as long as you try not to do the two at the same time. Do what’s necessary to write a decent curriculum outcome. Now, read the outcome and think of what it takes to achieve it. Now go back and revise the outcome if you need to. Take one more look through your instructional lens. If all’s well, move on. See—it’s possible. If it does not have to be a solitary effort then think of putting together a small team. Assemble these strengths: familiarity with the content, skill with teaching in general, technical skill both in assembling course content and with using various technologies related to the subject matter. No one member need have all of the skills but ensure that it is there in the aggregate. Most of all, if you are the team leader, be respectful of your committee; they have been assembled because you do not know it all!

There are two kinds of bother. One type—the type addressed above—is the type that you arrive at logically. This is what happens when you examine a systemic process and realize that there are things about it that are out of whack; things that can be addressed through channels that everyone can work with. You deal with them by doing what a professional would be expected to do. Things like conferring with members of the team, drafting a logical report explaining the issue and suggesting alternatives, and so on.

Then there’s the kind of bother that primarily involves feelings. Face it: some things just plain piss you off, leaving it difficult for you to respond without at least some attitude. For me, unwillingness to accept that one can be anything less that 100% right happens to be one of those things. Come on! Good as we may be we’re all rather flawed in many respects and it’s best when we acknowledge that and work within our limits. Unfortunately, that over-confidence and/or polarity in point of view is just what tends to happen when committees complete tasks. Yes, some committees are rancourous; divisive; dysfunctional. They are the minority. It’s much more common that the committees (democracy—houses of representatives and senates, for example, being a major exception to this) have been engineered to work together. The members know this and, so, seek out the commonalities and work within those boundaries. Once established, the work generally reverts to fleshing out what’s inside; establishing the Canon. When that’s done, heaven help those who disagree, as they’re considered to be wrong, stupid and, more likely less skilled, people to be ”handled.”

That’s exactly what happened when the two profs got together. Whatever frame of mind they had before that grand conversation, in the end they were a tight team, completely convinced that they, alone, had the answers. They know how to put the course together and were not about to let the uninformed outsiders deter them from the path, so they engineered in steps to ensure that the vision and execution would be theirs and theirs alone. They figured it would be best that way.

And in all likelihood they would be quite wrong. That’s what brings up the anger!

Taking a step back and looking in, which is just what I was able to do, it was so easy to see how this small, closed, highly skilled and competent group had so expertly set itself up to fail. Had they decided to spend about one-third of their time getting advice from fellow faculty and students, scoping the course out before constructing anything (it’s easy to make fundamental edits to a written document, but virtually impossible to do the same to a web; it’s often easier to start over), thinking about diversifying the instructional approach to meet the needs of many learners and just plain thinking it through with good advice, they would have been so much better off, and with no extra outlay of time.

I don’t know how their story ended but in the dozen years in between I have not heard anything of how their two courses revolutionized teaching and learning in their two fields. Who knows?

Those of you who follow my blog may have noticed that it’s been a long spell—three weeks—between posts. An impending, completely overhauled school district structure in my province, coupled with imminent departure from my current position (retirement) has resulted in a brutal June. There’s not been much time for personal pursuits like blogging but, I’m happy to note, a fair bit of work getting is done. Today’s Father’s day and the crowd had decided to let me off the hook for my normal domestic duties…for now. Hence this post.


13 thoughts on “ELTM4: Curriculum and Instruction—Rub Your head, Pat Your Tummy

  1. There is a fine line between refusing to be discouraged by naysayers and blocking out useful information – I’ve observed many who started out on one side and ended up so deeply entrenched on the other – to their detriment…

  2. Well Maurice, you’ve manged to hit several nerves with this one. The ‘nerves’ being issues which I’ve dealt with in my tenure as a University-professor-type. All your points are very well taken. Although I indeed see myself as being in full command of content, I must admit to my guilt in NOT consulting with folks who know more about the psychological and sociological side of teaching and learning. There are seminars, and lunches, and retreats, and this-and-that which encourage faculty participation in course development, assessment, and in closing-the-loop in refining course stratagems. Perhaps it is a generational thing? I believe that many younger faculty are on-board with what you describe. As I mentioned however and perhaps unfortunately, those of the ‘old guard’ are pretty opinionated and set in their ways. Many feel … ‘This is the way I learned it … and that was good enough for me … it should be good enough for the bright and motivated students in my classroom.’ An unfortunate position I admit. So … I repeat … you are correct and on target … the key to the success of you and the like-minded is to get folks like me and like-minded to STOP, LISTEN, and CHANGE THEIR WAYS … as hard as that may be to do! D PS: And, yes, I did notice the absence of posts … glad you’re inching your way toward retirement … when is the magic date? Is there one?

    1. What I didn’t say in the post was that I probably noticed those errors because I’d done them myself so many times. I will say again that if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career it’s this: confer with others; run ideas past them and, most of all, carefully consider (with gratitude) the advice you receive. It took a while to learn it but it did, eventually, sink in. What’s more I found that most people find joy in helping others. I used to think that asking for advice and help imposed a burden. Now I see it differently.

  3. Welcome back! The message I’m getting from this post is that teaching itself is a life-long learning experience and that we should always be receptive to new ideas of presentation. I truly believe that some of our best teachers are those who have been out in the “real” world and have an understanding of what is required beyond the walls of academia.

    1. I agree with you Jenny that teaching involves far more than understanding what is required beyond the walls of academia. As a teacher, I have learnt that you have to integrate the real world into the classroom if you really want to truly educate these students. Gone are the days when “chalk and talk” use to be an effective method. Currently, even the smallest child prefers to use a tablet/ ipad instead of listening to a teacher talking; as everyone has become so technologically savvy and these are issues that as teachers we must be able to deal with and solid lesson plans alone will not cut it, integration is also important.

      1. Agreed, and my secret weapon: my colleagues :>) Making sense of all of this is best done as a team effort. I find particular value in reading “stories from the classroom” that appear in others’ writing.

    2. Yup! While we can read about and absorb the experiences of others, nothing compares, in raw power, to the real thing. Our work experiences, especially the difficult ones, can have a profoundly positive effect on shaping us if we reflect on the lessons that may be offered.

  4. Interesting post – I can relate … self-critically.
    Some sort of teaching has been part of my job for many years, but I admit I found teaching the more interesting and compelling the more similar the audience was to myself. What I enjoyed most were train-the-experts workshops on very specific topics in IT security, targeted to an audience that appreciated off-agenda notes from the fields, and my plunging into any challenge presented to me by the participants (totally messing up my own so-called agenda and people applauding me for exactly that).

    I think I was not such a great teacher or trainer for students who preferred a more structured style of learning. I’d rather start talking, painting on flip-chart and playing with some systems in stand-up comedy style instead of using my own lecture notes and slides.
    I gave a lecture at the university the last five years, but having to stick with my own agenda, designing lab exercises and grading exams was quite a dread for me. I also feel that educational systems (anything… school, university, trainings…) had become more standardized and “quality-controlled” in the last 25 years. I do understand why you need that part – but otherwise I feel it fosters a “teach to the text mentality” in terms of “Which things do I need to know in order to pass?” / “Is there a solutions manual for that?”
    Probably this is a European thing though – I am not that convinced that our so called Bologna process was that great.

    1. You are completely correct in your assertion that standardization can lead to ‘teaching to the test.’ Standardized systems are constantly facing this charge–and justifiably so. In the end I see no solution to this issue. What’s more I do not want to! That’s because it’s my belief that we are at our best when there is a good tension between the need for (a) creativity/responsiveness and (b) standardization. I believe it’s for the best when we struggle to balance the two, and that’s a dynamic rather like trying to balance a stick that contains two ball bearings that are free to roll along it. The fulcrum must constantly move to and fro :>) Oh, and now knowing something about your subtle sense of humour and insight I bet you were an excellent teacher for those who wished to think.

  5. Welcome back – happy you could get the break on Father’s Day! Very interesting and thought provoking post. I hope many “in the business” read it. My experience is limited to being the learner…in a very interactive environment, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

    1. Thank-you. Yes, the online environment can be an excellent solution–in fact I believe it’s often (but not always) the most effective one.
      With one condition, of course: the learning comes first.
      But, of course, that should be the touchstone for every learning institution.

  6. Pingback: eLearning: That & More 4: Curriculum and In...

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