Teaching with My Whole Palette

All told, I have probably spent 20 full person-years in college and university classrooms. I’ve taught courses in sociology, public policy, information science, design, philosophy, and geography. I’ve taught studios, labs, lectures, workshops, and seminars. I’ve taught in small liberal arts colleges and public and private R1 universities. If you commission me to teach or design a course, I bring to the task a lot more than just my experience and “domain expertise” and (hopefully) wisdom. I bring to the task a whole lot of STUFF. An attic and garage and toolbox full of STUFF. Time was that stuff was in filing cabinets, notebooks, and stack of paper in my university and home offices. Now it’s mostly on the hard drive of my computer or stored in the cloud.

That stuff is the palette from which I can paint a course.

I’ve got syllabi and draft syllabi, bibliographies, annotations of readings, outlines of readings, PDFs of readings, diagrams of the argument logic of books and articles, lecture notes, scripts for videos, exams and problem sets, solutions to problems, catalogs of learning outcomes and course and program objectives. I have instructions for assignments, examples of student work on those assignments, and rubrics for evaluating that work. I have descriptions of classroom activities, examples of important concepts, and agendas for class sessions. And I have slide decks, countless slide decks, multiple versions of slide decks, decks of slides removed from other decks of slides. And I have stuff that’s out there on the net. YouTube videos I’ve made and videos of others that I’ve curated. And Sound Cloud files. And bookmarks in my browsers that are more or less (mostly less) well organized according to a system that sort of looks like what I teach and sort of looks like what I write about and sort of looks like the institutions I’ve worked for. And then there are the courses I’ve put on my institutions’ learning management systems (LMS); most of the material there is the stuff I’ve already mentioned but sometimes the LMS copy of something is the only one I have. And the question banks I’ve developed, hundreds of problems and solutions inside of courses on Canvas or Blackboard that are basically unretrievable. And I have course evaluations that occasionally have good ideas for subsequent iterations of courses and smart ideas that I’ve committed to paper when proposing new courses or applying for course development funding of one kind or another.

It’s a giant trove of stuff. To go through it all would probably take as long as it took to develop it in the first place. To find particular things can take even longer – the thing you want is always the last thing you find.

When you commission me to teach that course, all of this stuff is the raw material from which I will, in theory, compose a new masterpiece. Except probably not really all of it because the primary mode of organization of this material is, for all practical purposes, “the pile.” Even when it’s filed alphabetically in drawers or arranged in hierarchical directories on my computer, most of it is out of sight and even further out of mind. You hire me for the breadth and depth of my palette, but what you get is pretty much constrained by my ability to remember where things are and actually find them once I do. And that ability does not correlate with how smart I am about other things. Call it recency or availability bias or just poor housekeeping, most of my stuff is not really available and I spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel.

Now that kind of reinvention is not always a bad thing. Sometimes the essay your re-write, in tears, perhaps, after losing an entire draft is better than the original. But it is always time consuming and the result is often no better than before and thus represents a missed opportunity to iterate and improve. “What is to be done?”

Analogy: Bibliographic Software

Long ago accomplished scholars were keepers of troves of index cards. They read books and articles and scoured archives and processed interview transcripts and committed each tidbit to an index card along with keywords and citations. The workflow of scholarship was arranging and rearranging index cards into sections and chapters and books. Among other functions, this practice allowed the scholar to rigorously cite their sources.

Modern scholars are apt to have bibliographic software like EndNote, Mendeley, or Zotero to fulfill this function (along with eliminating the tedious task of writing footnotes and typing up bibliographies). It’s not unusual, in fact, for a scholar’s bibliographic database to contain a record of every article, book, and website they have every consulted. Over the course of a career they might catalog tens of thousands of references.

Teachers should have a similar tool, but not just for references.

What If There Were a….

What if there were a platform – be it digital technology or just a disciplined way of doing things – that afforded me a synoptic (def. “affording a general view of a whole”) view of my stuff along with any conceivable subset or slice or abstraction of my stuff (show me every problem I ever wrote that has anything to do with learning outcome #distribution or show me all of my slide decks on APIs or which course syllabi include Foucault’s Discipline and Punish?).

Moreover, what if there were a platform that would allow me to create a draft syllabus by tagging items in a bibliographic database or the rough draft of a lecture by tagging annotations and/or slides? What if problem solutions automatically knew about related problems or good review material to recommend to a student who’d found the problem challenging? What if learning outcomes knew what class activities or lecture sections they appeared in? What if problems knew that students who had trouble with this problem also had trouble with this other problem? What if slides knew about alternative examples of the concepts they described? What if sample problems were as easy to embed in a slide as in a homework problem set as in an exam? What if a code notebook example could be tagged for inclusion in a slide deck? What if lecture notes and slide decks and videos were synced and cued to one another? What if any pedagogical artifact that I’d be willing to share with a colleague were accessible to them without me having to be involved?

These are a few of the affordances I imagine for a pedagogical information system worthy of the 21st century.

Entrance vs Exit Exams

My students often care about the grade they earn in my course because they believe it will influence subsequent opportunities. And so they care about the final exam because it has a big influence on that grade for the course. And so they want to know which of the things we are learning in the course will be on that final exam. And, all too often, that’s a pretty big part of our relationship.

Sometime I feel like I’m a coach of a team – perhaps a swimming team or a track team. Now and again we have time trials as a part of our training. But of course the time trials are a means to an end not an end in themselves. The trophies and the medals are not earned in the time trials we do at practice. It’s the races in the meets that matter.

Exams feel to me more like time trials than meets.

What if, instead of final exams for courses we had preliminary exams for courses? What if we thought about curriculum in terms of what each course wanted to build on and what it wanted to leave you with. And what if you didn’t get into the next course based on a previous grade but rather on what you still had in your knowledge and skill set when you wanted to do that next course?

Maybe we could see “next” courses as building on multiple prior courses – effectively taking the idea of pre-requisites seriously and forcing ourselves to say why something is a pre-req – what knowledge am I planning to build upon in this course. Maybe each course could come with a list of “what you should already know and be able to do” goals that we could match up with the “outcomes” of other courses.

In this scenario my students are not asking me whether something will be on the exam at the end of our class; instead they are concerned about using this class to get in shape to be ready for the entrance exam for the next courses they want to take. That would likely up their game and mine too.

And the records can start to reflect how well my course contributed to their success at getting into the next course (or, eventually, passing some sort of final milestone for a degree or credential).

Another "What We Know about Teaching and Learning" Sampler

Kathleen McKinney is a sociologist who focuses on the “scholarship of teaching and learning” in sociology. ┬áThese lists are not earth-shattering or paradigm-busting (some are even “obvious” … once you read them), but I find them to be good reminders of how to get the basics right.