Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Agency in a Syllabus

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So for this week of #moocmooc one of the things we’ve been asked to do is consider ways of enhancing/fostering agency of our students

It’s not worth being in a MOOC if all I feel is self-validation that I am on track (though that’s really useful, too) – the MOOC needs to inspire me to push boundaries, go farther, and so this is what this week of moocmooc has inspired me to do… So I’ll give you a history of my attitude towards syllabus and where i think my next-gen approach will be

Gen 1: Useful syllabus
When I first started teaching for-credit courses, I thought the act of thinking of learning outcomes, assessments, etc, was a really useful exercise. I quickly learned that my teaching is too responsive and dependent on students for me to ever actually follow my syllabus. Thankfully, my department head for teaching at the time agreed completely, and asked me to just keep track of “what actually happened” not only “what was planned”. When I read about curriculum theory later, and realized I was following a process rather than content or product approach to my curriculum, i was relieved to find a language for what i was doing. It’s strange how academics have this need. It might be social scientists/humanists, because i find some people around me from engineering and medical backgrounds don’t have this compulsion (they have others, like brevity, accuracy and directness in speech).

Gen 2: syllabus as guideline largely to be ignored
Well not completely ignored, but definitely not sacred – i do it coz i have to, then i proceed to respond to my students’ needs and interests. The work that goes into creating the syllabus is useful because it makes me think about the course and brainstorm things to do… T the thinking i do between meeting students one day and the next is much more reflective and useful

Gen 3: syllabus as editable by students
Got this idea from Dave Cormier. Have syllabus as google doc. Allow students to edit, comment, etc. this failed technically in the sense that students did not have the guts to edit the syllabus in writing. However, it succeeded in spirit because i explicitly negotiated every single thing on the syllabus and changed a lot of things. For example, in a capstone course where each student was meant to do a project in their own schools, the timing would not have suited them and their institutional structures would not have allowed implementation. So instead, we did a group website to benefit all Egyptian teachers and each student had a role in the project.

Note: all of the above refers to teacher education courses where i was teaching adults for 12-14 weeks at a time. All of the below refers to teaching undergrad students, an educational game design module in a creativity course, which is only a 4-week module.

Gen 4: Human syllabus
This was inspired by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno – instead of ignoring the syllabus, write explicitly in it how I felt about what I was teaching and why I did what I did; write my philosophy of flexibility right into it.

Gen 5: Liquefy the syllabus
One of my best ideas yet. I took Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s liquid syllabus idea (making the syllabus more engaging via multimedia among other things) and instead of creating one myself, I asked student to liquefy MY syllabus. Since I co-teach a course with three modules, last semester i asked them to do two things with one of the modules:
1. Liquefy – make it visually more engaging
2. Change 2-3 activities/assignments to make it more engaging

Best assignment ever ๐Ÿ™‚ But it has two flaws:
1. I did it mid-way through my module so only one student felt he could liquefy my own module. The solution i have for this is to make it at the very end as their final projec
And
2. Students were able to reflect but not able to actually change the syllabus they were actually living – which is a justification to start doing it earlier. Ummm

Gen 6: Recreate with liquefy the syllabus: LIVE
So here is the plan. To foster agency. I’m probably not doing #TvsZ this semester (but maybe a short version during one of our conference workshops where we are playing it), so the #moocmooc chat and discussions this week have inspired me to solidify an idea that’s been playing in my head for a while

1. Extend the Twitter Scavenger Hunt instead of just one day.
2. Add to twitter scavenger hunt that students find recommended readings on edu game design via twitter hashtags or asking ppl (and compare those to what they find through regular google searches)
3. Each student can blog a summary of the resource or two that they find useful
4. As students start designing their own edu games, they can blog their idea and get feedback FROM THE WORLD via Twitter – and i will ask my PLN to help provide that feedback if possible. Lots of great resources there ๐Ÿ™‚
5. Also liquefy the syllabus as normal, but also along the way, allows students to question choices in the course syllabus, not just at the end.

So in this way I am fostering agency by:
A. Having students find their own content and evaluate it and share it with the class
B. Having students write publicly about their work-in-progress and receive feedback from an authentic audience
C. Question everything from the beginning
D. Make suggestions for change in hindsight via liquefying the syllabus

That’s where my head is at for now…still open to change, as always ๐Ÿ™‚

3 Comments

  1. I love the reflective writing in progress and the enhancement of syllabus by the students to make it more engaging. It’s all about responding emotionally to the syllabus and being part of the creative, collaborative process.I’m sitting here thinking about how I can do a version of this kind of learning – as a teacher librarian I don’t have classes that belong to me and my classes are often one-offs. But then I have some collaborative classes where I co-teach – doesn’t happen often but when it does, there are possibilities… Thanks for outlining all the Gens.

  2. Maha, This quest for agency is also something that I am very interested in. I’m reading David Rose’s book, The Intellectual History of the British Working Classes and Rose frames European autodidactism, which he charts from the early 16th century, within the context of intellectual independence, that the self-taught should

    “become individual agents in framing an understanding of the world. They resisted ideologies imposed from above in order to discover for themselves the word of God, standards of beauty, philosophical truth, the definition of a just society… More than a few members of the educated classes supported his movement, but many others treated it as a serious threat to their own social position — which, in an important sense, it was,” (Rose, 2001, pp 12-13).

    Of the options you’ve cited here, I think Dave’s negotiated syllabus comes closest to this ideal of letting students direct their own learning. As instructors, our intervention should be carefully weighed and considered. I do not see advising students in the design of their course to be much different from advising faculty in the same task. That said, we are not usually dealing with a roomful of seasoned autodidacts (those often avoid institutional education, for obvious reasons). Dave reported that his students required more “direction” than he had initially anticipated, and this can create a dilemma for instructors who are committed to minimal intervention.

    Goal oriented, task driven students often expect close direction and can be disoriented when presented with too many choices (some don’t want any choices at all). In programs where “independent learning” is a stated curricular goal (and this is a common “buzz word” in American HE programs), we can write self-direction into syllabi and work students up to it as they progress from more elementary to more advanced modules or courses. So, considering “agency” as a goal that requires the development of both understanding and skill may offer us an alternative to throwing everyone into the deep end and then lamenting that they swim like stones.

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