Posts in teaching
Backwards Design

Backwards design is a method of approaching course design by starting "at the end" and working your way through the course backwards, so to speak. The basic idea is that you should begin the process by asking the following four questions (from Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do):

1) What should my students be able to do intellectually, physically, or emotionally as a result of their learning? 2) How can I best help and encourage them to develop those abilities and the habits of mind to use them? 3) How can my students and I best understand the nature, quality, and progress of their learning? 4) How can I evaluate my efforts to foster that learning? (Bain 49)

Fair enough. It seems good to me to begin designing a course by figuring out how people should be different after having interacted with the course. This comports with design advice in other areas. How should players feel at the end of a game? How should listeners feel at the end of a play, podcast, or song? How should readers update their beliefs at the end of an article or book? How should people interact with your park bench, tea kettle, headphones, traffic intersection, or whatever? How should the world be different after you've made your thing?

My concern about backwards design is that it presumes that we can predict how students will change during the semester. Maybe the thing that will change for them after interacting with your course is that they will have been evicted, or their kid will be sick, or they'll lose a parent. Maybe the most important thing about the semester won't be your course. My point isn't that life events are outside of your control or that they are unpredictable. My point is that you can't predict how your course will interact with the rest of a student's life.

Obviously as instructors we should consider who we are teaching, what their lives are like, and the material and social circumstances of their lives as they participate in the class. But what I don't think we can predict with any accuracy is how the course will effect them, either in the short term or the long term. This is why I think that the best approach to course design accommodates a largely individualized approach to education.

Accelerated Andragogy

As part of my ongoing teaching training I'm taking an accelerated course in andragogy -- or adult education -- and I'm going to use this space to talk about some of what I learn.

First, a historical note. "Andragogy" was coined by German education theorist Alexander Kapp in 1833 to describe Plato's theory of education.

Malcolm Knowles picked up the term and presented five assumptions made by andragogues(?):

  1. Self-Concept: As a person matures their self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.
  2. Adult Learner Experience: As a person matures their accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to Learn: As a person matures their readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles.
  4. Orientation to Learning: As a person matures their time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application. As a result their orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem-centeredness.
  5. Motivation to Learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal. (Knowles 1984:12)

These assumptions also suggest four principles that instructors should adhere to in designing their courses.

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented. (Kearsley, 2010)

It seems to me that the andragogical approach is less paternalistic than its pedagogical counterpart. It also seems to be less driven by a need to instruct values, since it's presumed that the adult learners already have a relatively fixed set of values.

I'm not sure to what degree any of Knowles assumptions are borne out, at least insofar as they apply to my own experience as a student. I guess I see how my learning has become more independent and informed by more experience. But just that fact, on its own, doesn't suggest to me that my own education ought to be any different. In fact, it might be better to reframe at least some aspects of my education in the opposite direction. Try to learn things for their own sake or to ignore my past experience.

I'm also curious what, if any, explanation Knowles gives for these assumptions. Are they just supposed to be axiomatic? Is there some reason why adult learners tend to be this way?

The Humanities Do Not Matter Because of the Capital They Create

Why do the humanities matter?

This question is at the root of the funding crisis the humanities has been experiencing for many years now. The market has decided that the humanities matter if and only if they produce good workers after graduation. And since they do not produce good workers, then they must not matter after all. Or so the argument goes.

Many humanists have responded with charts and diagrams showing all of the ways that humanities matter to producing good workers. Look at these writing skills! Look at these LSAT scores! Look at all of the ways that humanities graduates are valuable to the market after all!

While I don't want to ascribe anything other than good intentions to humanists who've tried to defend their discipline and jealously guard the scraps they are given, this response isn't enough. To respond to the crisis in the humanities by saying that the humanities can win grants and produce skilled workers after all is to already give up the terms of the game. We can not win by demonstrating that the humanities matter because they produce good workers. That is partly because they do not. It is also because that is not why the humanities matter.

So why do the humanities matter?

The humanities matter because they produce good people. Good people, however, are not good workers. Good people want to be paid a fair wage for their work. Good people want to have agency over the wealth they produce and to what ends that wealth is aimed. These are not traits of a good worker.

Good people are not good workers, but they are good citizens. They care about their fellow people, and they try to further the interests of others as well as their own. In other words, they cooperate.

The public good is served by creating more good people, not more good workers. That is why the humanities matter. And that is why the argument that the humanities must be constantly self-justifying by its appeal to the material goods it produces -- whether these are "research incentives" or "demonstrated value" or good workers -- will always fail.