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Content in the Classroom

I am about a quarter of the way through Weimer’s “Learner-Centered Teaching.” As I said in a previous post, this book is changing the way I think about teaching. Weimer presents her ideas about teaching and learning in five different areas. She devotes a chapter to each. The first of these areas is the “balance of power? (between learners and instructor) in the classroom. The second, which is the chapter I just finished, is entitled, “The Function of Content.?

Weimer’s contention is that we need to sacrifice some amount of course content in order to teach our students how to learn. But the drive to “cover content? prevents us from making room for building other learning skills in class:

At the end of a course, most of us readily admit that we have way too much jammed into the ten or fifteen weeks, but when the time comes to get the syllabus ready for next semester, it is only after great agony that we decide to leave anything out (p. 46).

As Weimer points out, sometimes the need to cover content isn’t just internally driven. We may teach courses that are prerequisites to other courses. Or accreditation standards may push us to include more content. Or our colleagues may expect us to cover a certain volume of material in particular courses.

You might ask, so what? Aren’t students supposed to come out of a class knowing more than when they went in? Or more significantly, what would the content be replaced with? Weimer addresses this is some detail. Suffice it to say that instead of teaching “the facts,? we need to teach how to learn the facts.

If you think about it, this makes sense. I can’t possibly teach students everything they need to know about Computer Science, but I can teach them how to learn what they need to know.

As an example, consider the case of programming languages. A question I always field from parents of prospective students (at, say, an Open House), is “what languages do you teach?? Answer: we teach Java. Along the way, they get a smattering of C and maybe some Assembly, but Java is the foundation for most of our courses. If we tried to teach several different languages, we’d end up having to cut something else from our curriculum. So, we have a course where we teach the principles underlying most programming languages (most CS programs have such a course). This provides students a basis for which they can pick up another language pretty quickly.

As I consider the courses I teach, sacrificing content presents different challenges, depending on the course. Our second course in the CS major, which I have taught for the past year, is the main prerequisite for just about every other course in our major. I’ll have to think carefully about what I can trim and still leave students prepared for the remainder of the curriculum. I have a bit more freedom with some of my other courses.

As you can probably tell, I think Weimer is on target with regard to course content and its place in the classroom. I think many institutions have moved too far away from fundamentals and preparing students for life instead of just for their first job. This is the old “training versus education? debate. Overemphasis on content and lack of regard for lifelong learning skills has moved us uncomfortably close to the training end of the spectrum.

Cutting content will probably be a liberating experience, but I want to be careful that I don’t sacrifice the content that students do need when they leave the university. Nonetheless, providing them with the means for improving their computer science skills and knowledge is probably a more worthwhile undertaking.

2 Responses to “Content in the Classroom”

  1. Robert Says:

    My colleagues in CS here are fond of telling students that the language that they’ll use to program in their jobs, hasn’t been invented yet. Our alumni also tell us that a routine part of any project they take on as CS professionals involves learning some highly specialized niche language that hardly anybody uses and which they’ve never seen before.

    In math, as you know from my POGIL-related posts on my blog, content is a big, big deal and constitutes a huge problem for teaching process skills. It’s a problem because not only do we have to deal with the CURRENT course’s content, we also have to deal with major deficiencies in the content from PREVIOUS math courses that are prerequisites but which the students have largely forgotten. So even if I make sacrifices in the stuff I cover in, say, a Calculus class, the time that frees up almost has to be spent shoring up problems with algebra. (We were doing the QUotient Rule the other day and got hung up for five minutes because the students couldn’t figure out how 1 + x^2 - 2x^2 turned into 1 - x^2.)

    I’ve never heard anybody talk about the problem of teaching students to learn (as opposed to merely teaching content) in the context of a class where *prior* content knowledge is critical and in short supply.

  2. brightMystery Says:

    The process vs. content question

    I blogged earlier that David over at Ticklish Ears is blogging his way through Maryellen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching. He has a new post here about the role of content in a classroom — something I have had a lot of…

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