22 February 2010

Promising syllabus

Usually, a class syllabus is a boring legal document. So it was with great interest that I went to a workshop by Ken Bain last Friday. Ken is the author of What the Best College Teachers Do.

Not surprisingly, he had a very different view of what a syllabus should be, informed by his research. Very effective teachers started the class not with the usual “Reading of the rules,” but with a story that established what the class would be about. Ideally, it would be set up a topic so deep that you could spend the semester studying that one thing.

As an example, one fellow faculty at the workshop gave an example of starting his philosophy class with, “Could God make a rock so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?” This, he said, would let the students know they were in for a class that examined puzzles and paradoxes.

Bain called this the “promise” that the instructor makes to the class. That’s the heart of his idea of a syllabus. The other sections of this “promising” syllabus are more familiar, although they get a different emphasis and name than usual. For instance, having made the promise to the student, the instructor then has to tell the student what activities they will be undertaking to fulfill the promise, and how the instructor and student will recognize that the student is learning. Now, those latter two look a lot like “assignments” and “grades.”

I like the ideas a lot, although I don’t know that it helps to call it a “syllabus.” I think you could do the “promising syllabus” verbally at the start of the class, and keep the more traditional “policy” document confined to paper.

More at Best Teachers Summer Institute. I won’t be able to go, but if you do, tell ‘em Zen sent ya.

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