A colleague recently asked me about my process for managing the information I present to students in my classes, and here's my response:
I'm increasingly attuned to the importance of my role as a curator for my students. It's unhelpful to simply throw a mass of undifferentiated information at them. I need to sift through it and help them determine where to focus their attention. So, for example, some readings are required, others are optional, still more are simply referenced for those who want to explore further. And specifically with regard to the classroom experience, what I leave out is as important as what I put in. An over-stuffed class agenda diminishes learning by leaving everyone feeling like they can't keep up and are being left behind. It's also just lazy teaching on my part, a disregard for the curatorial aspect of my role.
All that said, it's also my responsibility to present students with a wide range of perspectives and viewpoints (including not only different voices in the syllabus, but also my own views on those voices), and thereby compel students to do the hard work of deciding for themselves what matters to them and why. "Curation" isn't "spoon-feeding," and we need to find the proper balance that both provides students with materials that are organized in such a way that they aren't overwhelming, while also creating opportunities to find (and create) uniquely personal meaning in those materials, a process that inevitably involves making subjective decisions. I'm a curator, and they are, too.
So here are three practical steps I take:
First, my syllabus is pretty tightly focused on the materials I want them to engage with in class and their written assignments, but after each class I make a broader range of materials available, including other resources that influence my approach to the topic and additional work of my own. (Here's an example.)
Second, in class I spend a significant amount of time having students discuss course materials and concepts among themselves, in various configurations. When there's just one voice in the classroom (mine), there's usually a lot less learning occurring. I do lecture, but typically in short bursts, reflecting my orientation as a coach and an experiential educator. Note that I put a lot of effort into creating the optimal context for these student conversations. Sometimes this involves persistent pairs that meet regularly, to build deeper and more trusting relationships. Sometimes this involves small groups, to increase diversity and expose people to different perspectives. The key has been mixing it up from class to class, and using a variety of exercises over a series of weeks to create a sense of safety and intimacy in the classroom and to invite students to use that atmosphere in these conversations.
Finally, I occasionally have them do a mind-map in the moment, as a group, on the whiteboard--it can be a useful way to help them see for themselves the information that they're retaining, the information that others are retaining, and the connections (and gaps) that exist across the class.
Some resources that have influenced my approach to course design:
- Work by Judy Willis and David Rock on the implications of current neuroscience research for education and organizational life, discussed in Neuroscience, Joyful Learning and the SCARF Model
- Andy Goodman's approach to presenting, discussed in Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good People
- Lynda Barry's gleefully creative Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
Photo by Robert S. Donovan. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.