Syllabi and Epistemologies

You remember syllabi don’t you? Those handouts you get the first day of class. The very first thing you always look for is “how many papers do I have to write?” and “how long do they have to be?” And, “is the final exam cumulative?” Once those questions are answered you really don’t care about anything else on the syllabus. Well, holidays and other days off are kind of important too.

All this week I have been busy writing syllabi for my fall courses. Of the several required components, I have to include “Course Goals” and “Student Learning Outcomes.” (I always have a visceral response to such pseudo-scientific educational jargon.)

It is self-evident that a teacher must have a purpose in mind when teaching a course. However, you may not realize that many educators routinely revise goals, objectives and desired “learning outcomes.” This essay explores why the annual practice of generating goals and outcomes may not be as benign as it seems.

This practice should actually strike you as a little strange. We’re not talking about adopting a new textbook or assigning a shorter term paper to save time on grading. Goals and outcomes have to do with the essence of what the course is about. They answer the questions of “why am I teaching this course?” and “what do I want students to know that they don’t already know?”

It should seem odd that teachers have to keep revisiting those questions. It would be like a carpenter repeatedly asking himself, “why do people live in houses?” and “what does a house look like anyway?” Seems like knowing those answers should be a prerequisite to calling yourself a carpenter.

Some revisions in syllabi are appropriate: new discoveries are made in science, new historical documents come to light, the instructor lands on a better question to get at the heart of the course.

However, in my experience in the Humanities, the fact that revisions to “goals” and “outcomes” are expected (and sometimes required) is rooted more in the philosophical assumptions of progressive education than in actual advances in knowledge. What do I mean by this?

First, education is no longer about passing on knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. It is about “constructing” knowledge — coming up with new truths — and passing those on. Of course, scholars and educational bureaucrats are the experts so they get to construct the knowledge they think students need to learn. An amazing number of students actually accept this premise.

Second, it is assumed that human nature is essentially unstable. Since each class of students represents a new version of humanity, we have to keep changing our goals and outcomes to fit the new breeds. Each generation is treated as an alien species whose language teachers must learn and whose culture teachers must learn to negotiate. The classroom is, as Dewey envisioned, a laboratory in which teachers conduct endless pedagogical experiments. Nothing ever works for very long because the object of the experiment (the student) keeps morphing into something different.

There may also be a bit of an idolization of childhood and adolescence here. After all, does it not seem odd that the default assumption is that instructors accommodate to the “learning styles” and the “modes of thinking” of children and teenagers? Since antiquity, adults have known that “folly is bound up in the heart of a child.” Isn’t the purpose of education to enable children to think like adults rather than require adult instructors to think like their immature students? If we teach to their squirrely brains, when do we actually model for them how to think like an adult? I’m trying to tip over some sacred cows here, I know, but it is some food for thought.

Third, educational priorities by definition mirror the political priorities of progressivism. These priorities include such things as diversity, globalism, global freezing warming change, gender, equality, you get the idea. While some priorities are stock in trade for progressive educators, the hot topics are always in flux. Hence, new issue of the day means new goals and student outcomes. By the way, if I had to guess, I’d say that “animal rights” is going to be a popular issue du jour for the next few years. It is already showing up as a stand-alone course at App State. (In a future blog I want to think out loud about where progressive ethics come from and why so many people accept them as normative without evaluating their philosophical integrity — but that will be another post.)

Having exposed what is often behind the veil of those who endlessly revise their goals and student outcomes, let me add a couple of qualifications.

First, it is not a bad idea, even for a carpenter, occasionally to ask fundamental questions of one’s trade.  This is how ideological breakthroughs often occur. In fact, it was by asking such questions that I realized how philosophically unsatisfying the progressive educational approach is.

Second, as a human being I am prone to err and stray. A periodic evaluation of whether or not I am teaching what my principles require is a healthy practice. However, this sort of self-check assumes, unlike the progressive model, that the goals and objectives of educating the next generation are not riddles that need to be untangled every new school year. Instead, they are established waypoints. It’s the instructor that is prone to get off course, not the course that needs to be re-routed.

So, the lowly syllabus can be a small window through which we can see into the epistemology of the instructor. If your teacher has not changed the syllabus in several years, it may mean he is in a rut. Or it may mean he actually believes that what was true years ago is still true today. That’s just the way truth works.

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