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The Tyranny of Content

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Stuff – that’s what we teach – stuff. Stuff and more stuff.

We live in the information age, where information (and good quality information at that) is widely and freely available to more and more of us. Certainly the availability of information to university students is at unprecedented levels. And yet, our teaching models are still largely based on presenting information.

I have colleagues who complain about how full their modules are, how they can’t do anything different than straight lecture or they won’t cover the material, feel overwhelmed  by new material that needs to be incorporated because there is just so much old material that the students need to know. I call this the tyranny of content.

In HE, we decide the content. As professionals and experts in our respective fields, we decide what is important and what is not. We put together a syllabus, we assemble the learning objectives and declare the learning outcomes. We decide the content. If someone else is doing that for us, we become trainers rather than professionals.

Given the amount of information that is available to teach, we can never hope to design a programme that would cover it all. So why are we trying so hard to do just that?

We need to remember that the ‘H’ in Higher Education stands for higher order skills (critical thinking, critical analysis, synthesis etc.). How can cramming more stuff into a syllabus help students gain higher order thinking skills? I know that there are a few enlightened lecturers out there who focus on the higher order skills, but most of the faculty at HE institutions are focused on stuff.

There are simple reasons why this has happened. Stuff is easier to teach and assess. Stuff is what the students demand – they want a drip feed of facts that they can spew forth on demand. Stuff easily fits into the measurable metrics administrators demand. Stuff rules! We are slaves to the tyranny of content.

Higher order skills are incredibly difficult to teach (or can be). They are very hard to assess when the paucity of lower order skills gets in the way of evaluating what the students are trying to say. Students find higher order skills meaningless and boring (or think they do). As my last post indicated, we are shaped by the systemic expectations and reinforcers that surround us – and these rarely include higher order skills.

When someone succeeds in teaching and assessing higher order skills, we gaze on in admiration, awe-struck by their accomplishment, and envious of their success – shaking our collective heads and wishing we could do something like that before turning back to our stuff.

I every field of knowledge there is expertise. An expert knows a lot of stuff, but more importantly, they approach problems both within and outside of their area of expertise in a different way than a novice would. It is how they look at the problem, how they approach the problem, how they organise the problem that confirms to you that they are an expert in some related field. This critical examination of the problem, the organisation of the information, and then careful approach to addressing the problem is what we really need our students to learn. It is how we study the problem, not the problem itself that is important, and yet, we focus, almost exclusively, on the information around the problem, the right answer, the solution.

We need to somehow rethink what we do in HE so that we can shake off the tyranny of content. Our students have access to as much information as we have, and yet we often insist on repackaging and presenting it in our our own image. We need to refocus on the higher part of higher education.

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