I’ll kick off the discussion with a few remarks after my rereading of Bean’s Chapters 1 and 2. For each Chapter I’ll then throw out a question or two for you to respond to. These follow roughly those guiding Qs found in the Schedule for Week 2 – but I’m tweaking here and there as we go.
Let’s start with, hmm, Chapter 1! Bean wastes no time in setting the stage with a host of interesting ideas and problems. For me, the most important concept introduced in Chapter 1 is the idea of design – in our context, the intentional decisions made by the teacher regarding the learning experience that the student will undertake.
For many teachers who have worked exclusively at the post-secondary level, the development of courses and assignments are guided by a set of default assumptions and procedures, often based on their own post-secondary educational experiences. I create an interesting course by first selecting some interesting content; then by telling the students some interesting things about that content in my classes; and then by developing some interesting homework assignments, essays and exams, where the students can tell me that they have indeed understood what is so interesting about the topics covered in my course. The primary objective is the transmission of knowledge. While some great teaching and learning can and does occur under this imperative, experienced teachers also know that, with depressing frequency, students are not always very interested, and the work they produce is not always very interesting.
In Chapter 1, Bean brings to visibility the fact that along with being a subject matter expert, the teacher is a designer of the student learning experience. As a result, default choices can be replaced with intentional ones once the teacher gains a more explicit awareness of what the end purposes of the design process ought to be. You might think that this should be obvious for teachers, at least experienced ones – but I assure you that it is not. At the WID Spring Institute a couple of years ago, a seasoned English teacher came up to me at the end of the day to say something like, “I am so completely gobsmacked. I’ve been telling my students for years to take the composition process seriously, to think intentionally about the form and content of their arguments, to revise and reconsider critically – and all the while, I have never critically scrutinized the way I design my courses and assignments.” What it often comes down to is that many of us want our students to think critically and to write well – but we design our courses, first and foremost, to cover content and transmit knowledge.
To make this discordance concrete, take a look at the set of 8 principles that Kurfiss (1988) suggests are central to to learning critical thinking (Bean 5). We would likely all endorse these principles as “good things.” At the same time, we might feel challenged to explain how we actually reverse engineer them into our course and assignment design. The idea of reverse designing – of beginning with the desired learning outcomes (or competencies if you like), then developing the learning activities and assignments that will best facilitate that specific learning outcome, then choosing the content that is appropriate for the activity or assignment – is a kind of Copernican revolution. It turns the default course and assignment design process upside down; it turns the course into a student-centred, learning-focused universe versus a teacher-centred, knowledge-focused one. It is easy to talk in the abstract about this kind of shift; it is very challenging to do.
Happily for us, Bean is a truly awesome guru guide to rethinking, in design mode, the way we put together courses and assignments in pursuit of good student writing and thinking. As he notes, research indicates that the relationship between student engagement and the amount and quality of writing in a course is stronger than the relationship between engagement and any other characteristic of the course (Bean 1). Whether the course is in the student’s major, whether the student likes the teacher – all are less significant than the amount and quality of the writing demanded by the course. So, there is an enormous potential for leveraging student engagement simply through better design decisions.
One thing that makes Engaging Ideas so approachable and practical, in my view at least, is its “toolkit” nature. In pages 2-10 of Chapter 1, Bean identifies 8 steps that can lead teachers toward better design decisions. Which one of these steps particularly caught your interest and why?
OK, now some briefer remarks on Chapter 2, “How Writing is Related to Critical Thinking,” starting with a few observations on my own experiences as a university student in different places and at various levels. No one encouraged me to explore ideas in informal writing, or to write a brouillon; no course I took was noticeably designed to introduce “beautiful problems;” if anyone talked about the dialogic nature of academic writing, I missed it; certainly no one taught the rhetorical “moves” of academic writing;” no one required multiple drafts or talked to me beyond superficialities about revision; no one offered rewrites! Various figures did harp on what Bean identifies as a positivist model of the writing process (33), but no class time was allotted to working on this process or discussing its preliminary products. And when it didn’t work for me, there was no discussion of alternative processes. In short, I went to university in the Dark Ages; maybe you did too? The was no explicit writing instruction to accompany the coverage of content. I wrote some “and then” and “all about” and “data dump” papers, but I must have written some good papers too, since intermittently I received brief end comments on my “talent” as a writer. What those talents were, exactly, I couldn’t make out. I had to do some reading and thinking, then, to catch up with the WAC and WID ideas and practices (Bean 19) which hadn’t yet made it through the walls of Western, U of T and McGill in the 1980s – but which are fundamental to the approaches outlined in this book.
My profs had no Bean; happily, we do. Is there anything that you’d like to share or confess about your own formative academic writing experiences? As you think about your own student experiences and/or your own current teaching practices, is there any one of the strategies on pages 29-37 that strike you now as particularly important?
Over to you folks, then. Please have your say, brief or lengthy, before our first meeting on Sept 1.