SENCER E-Newsletter, April 2005, Volume 4, Issue 8
Wm. David Burns
It is always inspiring and thought-provoking to be in the presence of a great teacher. Barbara Tewksbury is a great teacher. So it should be no surprise that she helped the SENCER-New Jersey group make rather substantial strides in thinking about and practicing course design at the symposium held at Mercer County College on March 25. (More on that meeting and the wonderful planning work done by Laura Blinderman, Monica Devanas, Sharon Sherman and June Middleton can be found on pages 1-2 of this newsletter.)
Barb's day-long workshop made a deep impression on me. In many ways, what she did for us at Mercer helped me to organize some thoughts that I hope might help describe how SENCER courses actually work to improve learning. Though I hesitate to claim that the lessons I took from the day - and the way I will frame them in this little essay - are how Barb would "put them" if she were writing this, I hope that in attributing the lessons to Barb, I am staying true to her vision.
That vision, it seems to me, starts with thinking about things in a fresh way. You could say that Barb is not the kind of person who tinkers around the edges of something. She prefers to begin with a blank slate, form clear ideas of purposes and outcomes, and then build courses from there. It's no accident that she entitled the workshop, just as she has her SENCER plenary, "Designing a SENCER Course: Don't Just Beat It to Fit and Paint It to Match."
I'll summarize the take-home lessons I got from Barb in a series of "T" words:
First, the knowledge one gains in a course must be transitive: that is learning is more about doingthan being. It has a direct object. Learning has to take you from one place and get you somewhere else. A course's purpose therefore is not to modify a student in some ornamental way. Rather, the knowledge and practice one gains in the course should enable the student to use what is learned to "act upon" the world - and by so doing to change it (at least in an intellectual/perceptual sense of change; maybe even in a material sense, as well). Popular and attractive as it might be to say that the goal of a course is to increase "understanding" or to develop an "appreciation" for the subject, Barb points out that not only are these notions pretty vague and hard to measure, but they may appear to be much more valuable as goals than they really are. (I share Barb's misgivings about our casual use of the word "understanding": can I really say I genuinely understand Bernoulli's principle, even if I can tell you in general terms what it is? Or even if I know how to adjust the damper on my fireplace?) Barb is a scientist. She doesn't want to avoid doing something just because it is hard to measure. But the pragmatist in her leads her to set goals about "doing" that can be demonstrated. So, she'd like students to be in good positions to provide evidence that they can do such things as predict, synthesize, see connections between things, evaluate the truth value of claims, create new knowledge, or decide on promising candidates for what to study next. These are all higher order skills, as the knowledge taxonomists would say. More important though, they empower genuine intellectual activity.
Second, course material should be, to the extent possible, tangible. Tangible in the sense, to quote Webster, of having the quality of being "capable of being precisely realized by the mind." This isn't an argument against theory, but rather an argument about where and how theory should enter the process in an undergraduate course - which, as I see it, would be more at the end than in the beginning; more inductively and constructively, less deductively and through mastery of disciplinary orthodoxy. So you start with something you can actually work on - one of SENCER's complex, capacious subjects - and "mine it" as deeply as possible. (Barb's SENCER course literally uses a diamond mining activity to explore the connections between geology and the development of modern Africa.) Tangibility is another way of saying that you can gain breadth through depth, in a persistent perception of, and encounter with, the "laterals" (and their possible connections to "other places") that going deeper will inevitably expose you to. (I expect this idea is easier for geologists, as they think of the layers - the palimpsest - of geo time, each admitting to lateral exploration, but I think it has broader application, both metaphorically and in practice for all of us.)
This maneuver - of tangibility, as I am calling it - has the benefit of making the material of the course real, but it also has the quality of permitting us to see where we need the intangible - the theory, the as-yet-fully-developed "edge" - in order to take the next step. Studying the biology of HIV, for example, soon puts us in a place where we see both the amazing comprehension we have of cellular life, but it also shows the limits of our theories and identifies some new problems we need to solve. We get to see that scientific knowledge takes us to deep and mysterious places, dimensionally much richer than a broad but shallow "survey" would otherwise occlude.
Third, course development and the pedagogical practices adopted in a course should be tactical. This seems pretty obvious. One surely ought to have a reason, an end, and a goal in mind for what one does, indeed for each element of a course and each proposed exercise to achieve the goal. But it is amazing to me how often such an elemental idea falls prey to the hegemony of a textbook's table of contents, or a perception that deviance from some orthodox version of "content" requirements will subject the professor to possible punishment, or that students aren't capable of doing anything that could be perceived as different, harder, more risky. Barb's simple lesson is that there is nothing magical about outcomes. If you want students to learn to write better, then you've got to assign writing, take it seriously, give feedback, plan for revisions, etc. The writing just won't improve by itself no matter what else you do. You've got to have tactics to get to the goal, and the basic tactic is practice. It's the modern version of the exchange: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice." Tactics make us think about the choices we make. What do I give up in order to have more of something I want? Tactical thinking is also parsimonious. It recognizes the limitations on time, resources, etc: it makes exchanges in order to achieve perhaps fewer goals but to promote greater success in the goals chosen. It is a reductive activity, paring away desirable but not essential elements. In so doing, it promotes appreciation for what some call "knowledge hierarchies." This is not as easy as it sounds. When we developed the idea of SENCER - and tried to directly connect science education with civic engagement - some people heard "civic engagement" and thought, well, if I add a community service element to my course, then I'll have a SENCER course. Not really. That maneuver just confused students. "What does this have to do with the course?" they asked Only when the addition of a service learning pedagogy is directly connected to the course goals, "transparently" identified with course purposes, practically intertwined with learning objectives, does it begin to achieve its tactical goal. "Don't just beat it to fit..."
Fourth, really good courses result in knowledge transfer. It seems that they do this not by guaranteeing that a host of time-bound facts are remembered, but rather by developing capacities that enable the application of knowledge gained in one setting to new settings. This learning is what will enable a student to face one of the fabled "forked road" situations that John Dewey described, and, once having chosen a path, to take what is known and apply it with some efficacy to the new situation. Planning for a really good course, then, should foreground the idea and goal of transfer of knowledge. This planning - and the larger goal of transfer - becomes a corporate responsibility for a member of a faculty, one that at least complicates or elaborates the aims one has for any given course. "How can I make it more likely that what is learned here will be helpful in other situations not covered here?" would be the planning challenge. Eugenia Etkina and Jose Mestre in their SENCER Backgrounder argue that one way of promoting what they call "fluid" knowledge, is to "provide...exercises across a variety of contexts and situations"...to "make...learning last." This, they argue, "is the best way to promote transfer of learning." This recommendation might seem to clash with the point made earlier about "tangibility." Etkina and Mestre might appear to be advocating jumping around, from situation to situation, rather than sticking with one topic and mining it deeply. Taken at face value, theirs could be an argument for "breadth" and broad coverage. What SENCER courses do, however, is promote the transfer process in a different way, by picking topics for study that are in some sense "indeterminate." The "stories" (what I have sometimes called the "big narratives") of SENCER courses are invariably multi-dimensional and we, more often than not, don't really know how the stories will turn out. They present "multidisciplinary troubles" (to use the phrase we borrowed from Professor June Osborn). Thus they contain many opportunities for taking what one learns in one context and trying to "transfer" it to another. In many cases, another closely-related context.
This "proximality" would seem to serve the transfer process well. One might take what one learned, for example, in Professor Dick Fluck's tuberculosis course and apply it to the emerging, enormous public health challenge that asthma is presenting. I want to suggest that knowledge transfer might be facilitated through the SENCER courses precisely because the topics of the courses are themselves so connected to other issues that students will encounter in their studies and lives in ways that "intro to geology" will never seem as obviously connected to a comparative politics or macro-economics course, for example.
Lastly, for learning to happen in classrooms and laboratories we need to have good teachersand the materials need to be teachable. The eminent historian, William Cronon, once wrote:
"The way I would put it, as I think about what we offer students with our disciplinary knowledge, is that we teachers - in our passion for our particular, peculiar, individual subjects - are a bridge for the journey [our] students are on, but we ourselves don't know the end of their journey. We do know that it is almost never the place where we ourselves ended up. They are headed somewhere else....If our disciplines are to serve the larger goal of liberal learning [learning that Cronon describes elsewhere as "learning for human freedom"], we must recognize that we are a bridge for a journey we do not know and we ourselves will never see. We must therefore think about the kind of bridge we want to be..."
This surely makes the case for how conscious and almost clinically - sensitive teachers ought to be and it reminds us just how much trust and responsibility is reposed in those who are called to the teaching vocation. Beyond that, however, I think it says something about what is "teachable" - and though I do not have the space to develop this idea here, I guess I want to simply ask, inspired by Barb's work and Cronon's observations, if a lot of what we are trying to do by way of "introductory" courses is in some fundamental sense "teachable." "What makes material teachable?" would be a good place to start as it would soon get us to what makes for good learning. To be sure, there are lots of good programs that seek, through a variety of methods and strategies, to reduce the casualty rates in many basic science and math courses. But in the end, we have in our midst students whose paths are not marked "I want to be just like you" or who don't appear to be marked clearly at all. So, as we think about what kind of bridges we want to be, let's think about not who is teachable, but what is teachable. I think Barb Tewksbury helped us think about the "teachability" issues by dint of asking us to be clear about our goals. It's a good place to start. And it took a good teacher, indeed, to stimulate and support the learning that we enjoyed together on that Good Friday in New Jersey.