21 June 2008

The big four questions

I mentioned in my last post about how John Wick's comments about running a role-playing game made me think about running a class.

A strange comparison, you think? No. In both cases, one person is given somewhat arbitrarily given power (teacher or GM / DM) to determine the fate of another group of people, who have divergent opinions, goals, strengths and weaknesses (students / players) and they have a somewhat adversarial relationship.

I'm stealing from John Wick who steals from Jared Sorensen.

John and Jared says there are three big questions to ask about a game, but I think these can also be applied to creating classes.
  • What is your class about?
  • How is your class about that?
  • How does your class reward or encourage that behaviour?
In any particular class, people tend to focus on the content. That is, a certain set of facts, ideas, and concepts.

But classes are also about behaviour. As instructors, there are certain things we want students to do. Often, it's developing a skill. This can be lab based skill, meeting a deadline, arguing, writing, analysis, collaboration.

And we want students to do things a certain way -- the way that meets the professional standards of the field. When we want them to write, we want it thoroughly researched. We want it to be original, and not a cut and paste job from the internet.

In my case, in the fall, I'll be teaching a writing class. That answers part of the first question, but only part. What are the skills I want them to have? That leads to the second question, which I'm still struggling with. How will my class be about writing? About the one thing I've decided is that it won't be a class where I get up and talk for 150 minutes a week, and give students homework and a monthly test.

And the big one: How will I reward and encourage that behaviour? After reading more about how economic incentives often fail to change people's behaviour in the desired way (also mentioned in my last post), I am skeptical that the answer is going to be "just with marks."

If you want students to do literature research in a certain way -- say, not start and stop with Wikipedia -- do you have any mechanic to encourage that behaviour other than reviewing the final paper and searching for plagiarized Wiki articles?

If you want students to ask questions in class, do you have a mechanic that rewards them for doing so, other than maybe remembering to say, "Thanks for the question?"

If you want students to work together, do you have a mechanic that allows for them do turn in a joint paper, say? Or do you insist everyone does their own?

I haven't been very good about this myself, as I've tended to have classes where I focused on a combination of memorizing factual information and drawing logical inferences. In other words, the very bottom of the thinking hierarchy (a la Bloom's taxonomy).

John adds a fourth question, which I wish more instructors (including myself) would think about more often:
  • How do you make that fun?
A lot of instructors would probably turn up their noses that their classes should be fun. But if the "F" word annoys you, think of it as engagement instead. How can you do all this and engage people?

No comments: