Friday, June 6, 2008

simplifying the overarching idea

We want our students to come away from our classes with the overarching idea which creates enduring understanding. Such learning is not forgotten over the weeks of summer vacation, but becomes a foundation for further understanding. So, for instance, we don't just teach Frankenstein, or a few poems by Wordsworth and Blake, and call it a day. The overarching idea is Romanticism itself, the abstract for which we provide concrete examples.

Now, it's certainly easy enough to put a list of the characteristics of Romanticism on the board for students to copy into their notes. That's Education 1.0, which they are distancing themselves from more and more everyday. We could put the characteristics into a slideshow, along with fancy graphics. I'd call that Education 1.5. But both methods merely point out how much I know, and how much they are able to memorize. What we want is enduring understanding, and a comprehensive yet efficient method for getting there.

Most textbooks provide information about the different eras we study, but it's just background noise, and students won't pay much attention to it unless we change the dynamics. Tell your students that it is up to them to discover the characteristics of Romanticism (or, any topic). In fact, narrow it down for them: Which are the four most important characteristics of Romanticism? The number doesn't matter, really; they can add or subtract as their research dictates. But providing a number limit creates a dynamic where they have to debate amongst themselves which factors are most important, and be able to defend their positions. The exercise only works in small groups, where they will end up competing group-to-group to come up with the best ideas for the right reasons.

What are you doing all this time? Monitoring. Clarifying. Providing resources.

As far as resources are concerned, you can point them to that blurb in the textbook as a start, if it's useful. There are other online sources for an overview listed on my course design notes page. On that page you'll see that even YouTube has some interesting videos on the subject. Your students will likely think them a bit corny, but no matter, they will augment the reading. These videos also add a further dimension of art and music.

Each group needs to keep their notes and ideas somewhere, so have them open a Google doc, where each group member is allowed to share from their own computers. Make certain they add you as a share partner, so you can monitor progress, see who's contributing, and leave comments. Tell them the first thing you want to see on this shared document is a list of four characteristics they think are most important, based on their readings and discussions. With each new source reading or viewing, they must rethink that list, and change it or reorder it if necessary. Google docs provides access to their revision history.

By the end of this exercise, your students should not have to memorize a thing. They will know the characteristics of Romanticism. And, when they read Frankenstein or Wordsworth's poems, they will know what to look for. And, you will have the tools to know what they know.

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