Sunday, June 1, 2008

what is worth understanding?

I'm constantly thinking and re-thinking course design. And, always at the back of my mind is this question I encountered in Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe): What knowledge is worth understanding? Sure, we have a curriculum to cover and we have standards to uphold, but though these might seem to be too much for one semester, we know that they aren't enough. We want our students to leave our class with enduring understanding:
  • represent a big idea having enduring value beyond the classroom
  • reside at the heart of the discipline (involve "doing" the subject)
  • require uncoverage of abstract or often misunderstood ideas
  • offer potential for engaging students
I'm also impressed with the developers of Cutting Edge Course Design, who believe that a well-designed course should:
  • enable students to solve problems
  • prepare students to think for themselves in the discipline
We know it's important to envision specific goals for our lessons, but sometimes the curriculum or standards can cloud our thinking, or cause us to be mired in the details. Try to imagine: what will the student take away from this lesson? what will it mean a year from now? ten years from now?

So, for a specific example, I not only want my students to know the characteristics of Romantic era literature, but I want them to be able to make comparisons to Enlightenment era literature (neoclassicism) that came before. Why was it important to change the existing philosophy of literature? I want students to be able to read something modern and tell me which era has influenced this modern text.

This is the overarching goal or big idea. This is where critical thinking or uncoverage comes into play. And this becomes the basis for designing a course.

If you'd like to follow along with me as I design a course that begins with a big idea that is worth understanding, check out this document which I'll be updating in the weeks ahead.

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