Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Just wandering around

Image of Turtles on Ivy Creek

Story time: A few years ago, I was facilitating a workshop on learning objectives. I had given the workshop a couple of times before, and I think this instance was part of the JMUDesign program (these are probably the slides I used). The precise instance doesn’t really matter, though. What matters to the story was that a colleague of mine, a historian, was among the participants. In the workshop, I provided overviews of Bloom’s revised taxonomy for cognitive learning objectives, the Bloom taxonomy of affective learning objectives, and Fink’s wheel of learning goals (see p.9), and led the participants in working through and refining the learning objectives for a particular class that they were teaching. My historian colleague gave me pushback, though. He argued that learning objectives were basically irrelevant, in fact useless, for his course. Instead of defining ahead of time what students had to learn, he wanted his students to experience the close exploration of original sources and the debate over important historical questions. Clearly defined learning objectives would not reflect this experience.

My response was that maybe my colleague was in fact aiming at Fink’s application (critical and creative thinking), integration (connecting ideas and people), and human dimension (learning about oneself and others) goals. He disagreed. And now that I think of it (or have thought more about it), I tend to agree. True, you can formulate learning goals such as, “I want students to become more curious, open to other people’s thoughts, willing to be surprised by unexpected insights,” and I am sure that a skillful psychologist could device some assessment to capture whether these things are happening, and that there are more or less effective class designs that reach these goals. But what if these learning goals are what you want to discover as an instructor? What if you want to be open to unexpected learning goals, surprised by learning goals uncovered by the students that you had not thought of before?

I think about it like this: When I close my little office after a long day of developing faculty and head to the nearest bar for a cold beer or two (yeah, I wish), I take the quickest way that gets me to my well-deserved pleasure. I try to achieve a well-defined objective and take the most efficient way to get there. On the other hand, if I take a walk in the Ivy Creek Natural Area, I may choose one of the convenient trails, so that I don’t have to decide where to go, but I do not plan to reach a particular destination but wander around, possibly decide to take a different path on a whim if it seems interesting today, and am prepared to be surprised by unexpected discoveries or things that look different today for some reason. I may run into an acquaintance, stop to talk, and learn something that I had not expected along the way. OK, I may also get bitten by a tick.

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