Student-directed curriculum

26 Jul

Tropical Rain Forest Ecology, Diversity, and Conservation
Jaboury Ghazoul and Douglas Sheil
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010

A bit from this book’s description crystalized an idea I’ve been mulling over. How do you plan for the information students will want to know to solve a problem? I could see this becoming a disaster, where they get frustrated that they “don’t know/aren’t being told the answer”,  which really is them frustrated because don’t have enough foundational knowledge to start brainstorming. I think this is where the expert serves as guide, helping students to pursue their ideas in useful ways by naming related themes or asking leading questions. The exploration mirrors the field of inquiry, and so may mirror its many directions.

Wouldn’t it be cool to devote a short early portion of the course–a day, week, more–toward a case or problem, finding and mapping out all those directions students are interested. Then these become the curriculum for the course. For example, here’s the bit I mentioned earlier:

“The book starts by introducing the variety of rain forest plants, fungi, microorganisms, and animals, emphasising the spectacular diversity that is the motivation for their conservation. The central chapters describe the origins of rain forest communities, the variety of rain forest formations, and their ecology and dynamics. The challenge of explaining the species richness of rain forest communities lies at the heart of ecological theory, and forms a common theme throughout.”

Take a super cool challenge like tropical diversity. It is new to many students, holds tons of fascinating case studies, and is a subject of contemporary debate for ecologists and evolutionary biologists–maybe others, I don’t know. And, it is a particularly tantalizing problem because there are tons of accessible ideas that seem like they should explain it, but don’t. Exploring these ideas in turn could be the curriculum of topics, with students choosing which to include with guidance from the teacher. What this does is start with an integrated curriculum, which usually only the teacher ever grasps, so that the higher level knowledge skills are constantly applied and call for (motivate) the development of the other levels. Students struggle with conclusions in lab reports, and in drawing valid connections to bigger pictures. Here, the connection to big picture establishes the validity of each topic at the outset. Also, this mirrors the scientific method, both Popperian and Lakostian.  I would love a to be a student in a course like this!

One note is to not simply split up topics for group projects. That would cause everyone’s learning to be contingent on the quality of one group’s learning, which personal experience suggests demotivates everyone. An alternative is to use group projects on every topic, each on a subtopic, where this augments other activities designed to develop foundational knowledge, etc.

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