15 A Current State of Evolution

Scott Coykendall

This is a great time to reflect on my takeaways from the CPLC because, as I grapple with the syllabi for my fall courses and wade back into the Curriculum Committee, I imagine that I need to articulate to students and colleagues why my approach must change. I’m sure others will be more eloquent than me when it comes to describing this transformation, but I’ll take a shot at describing two ways I’m shifting my practice in both teaching and governance:

  1. I understand better that Project Based Learning describes not just a type of assignment or even a way of organizing a course. By those simple metrics, I’ve been engaging in PBL as long as I’ve been teaching. But I’ve always been careful to limit students’ exposure to PBL to certain courses or even to portions of those courses. I wasn’t wrong to do so. As brought up in several instances in CPLC discussion boards and in our breakout sessions, PBL is a demanding experience for students and instructors alike. Students not only seek out information and skills, they participate in deciding which knowledge and skills the project calls for, then discover how to apply those knowledge and skills to the problem.Describing all of this to some friends, I compared it to a big box of Legos. I could provide my students the Lego Deathstar-With-Real-Laser-Cannon. They could follow the step-by-step tutorial and—if they were careful and persistent–possibly end up with something neat that could burn the neighbors’ house down. I think they would learn more from that experience than just how to stack and arrange blocks, but there’s no doubt that the tutorial would make many or most of the decisions for them. …Or I could pour out twelve million Legos on the floor, set my students the goal of building a galactic-scale weapon, and help them begin the long process of deciding how to organize our plan, what knowledge we would need to gather, what skills we would need to acquire or enlist. Maybe we wouldn’t get to vaporize Alderaan by finals week, but we would likely be better at breaking down problems, drawing up objectives, and designing a plan to meet them.We would also be exhausted. Worthwhile as they were, all of those decisions take time and energy and a willingness to make mistakes (and thus expend more time and energy). Even on a smaller scale than the Deathstar-With-Real-Laser-Cannon, too many such experiences could overwhelm students and faculty alike. As I’ve always known, this vision and scale of PBL is not sustainable across every class.

    But this summer I came to the conclusion that even if I can’t sustain big team-projects in every course, PBL is an ethos that can be applied to every part of my teaching. In many of the discussions, we agreed that PBL places the emphasis on PROCESS in ways that we have always professed to value, but often devalued in actual practice (especially through grading). I’m not sure I’m ready or able to let go of grading, but I’m thinking about ways that I can help students make their process more visible. Eventually, I think almost all of the work I ask students to engage in will reflect this ethos, but here is one concrete change: I’m approaching the inquiry paper assignment in my Studies course as a project rather than a paper. My students will be using DoOO to demonstrate their initial understanding of the concept, to respond to readings (both assigned readings and those they find and share), explore and explain contrary views, and finally to present their findings. Much as I liked to believe I was valuing process over product in my previous version of this assignment (and it was a valuable assignment), I’m excited to take a project-approach that I think will provide a better opportunity to demonstrate how their understanding of the topic has evolved. Will the final product still have to use APA and be formatted to the standards of the discipline? Of course…audiences always count and this is the Empire.

  2. I’ve been thinking about the ways in which University policy abrades against “cluster pedagogy”. If I’m honest, I didn’t really ask to join the CPLC because I wanted to transform my teaching (much as it needed transformation). As Chair of the Curriculum Committee, I applied because I imagined a wave (or at least a ripple) of new curriculum that might emerge as people began to reconsider the ways we engineer learning to fit the course-containers we use in higher ed. While I don’t think anyone believes it’s the job of the CC to develop those course-containers, I think most would agree that we need to be more expansive in our thinking about what those course-containers must look like, how they interact with other courses, how consistent they must be from semester to semester, and so on. Likewise, other policy-making committees may need to reconsider even policies once thought to be foundational—grading comes to mind—against a new set of values and objectives that is emerging from our thinking about cluster-learning.For this, though, I can’t point to a concrete action planned for the Fall. Through the filter of the CPLC, these policies may seem to police the faculty in ways that stifle innovation. But—whether or not they actually hit their aim—most of our policies are intended to provide clarity to faculty and staff, to balance the interests of stakeholders, to demonstrate integrity to our accreditors, and above all to support students and student-learning. To the extent that “flexibility” can diminish accountability…or fairness…or transparency…or clarity…we need to be thoughtful about what trade-offs and whose perspectives we are considering.I said in a post last week that our policies were the product of evolution. It would have been less lovely but more accurate to say that that our policies are an expression of our current state of evolution. We must continue to adapt and, to the extent that I am part of the conversation, I will try to keep our institutional thinking in motion.

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