#PLENK2010 The Tyranny of Teaching Content

A few days ago I made a post about the place of content in teaching and learning, which prompted this response from Chris Jobling

As a lecturer looking to be released from ‘the tyranny of delivering content’, I’d be interested in hearing more about that! But I appreciate that you’d have to charge me 😉

I have interpreted this as a ‘throwing down of the gauntlet’ – which I will now pick up with the return of a wink to Chris 😉

I’ll get the lesser point out of the way first. Chris has said ‘But I appreciate that you’d have to charge me’.  As an independent consultant – ‘Yes, I do charge’ – I have to eat, pay the mortgage etc. like everyone else – but ‘No, I don’t have to charge’. That is the joy of being independent. I can choose whether or not to charge and sometimes I do work for free, particularly on research – but I don’t think I have ever lost out in working for free  – I always gain through the learning I do, and I usually find that there are very worthwhile spin-offs for me.

The second point about releasing lecturers from the ‘tyranny of delivering content’ is a much more difficult topic to discuss, and I have picked up Chris’ gauntlet as I feel I should ‘put my money where my mouth is’ 🙂 – so I have tried to think through the strategies that I myself use. I think teaching is a very personal process, so I can say what works for me, and suggest what might work for others, but I could never stipulate what would work in general terms. It is very context dependent.

My own background is teaching in schools and then teacher training in Higher Education where my subject was science. I mention this as science has a heavily content laden curriculum; the school curriculum is also heavily content laden – so I have come up against the tyranny of teaching content.

In thinking this through, I have realised that release from the tyranny of teaching content is very dependent on attitude and belief. Of course there will always be content in any teaching, but what is it, how much of it is there, who controls it, where is it located, how is knowledge of it assessed – etc. You can probably throw more of these sorts of questions into the mix. A teacher’s answers to them will tell us a lot about the teacher’s attitude to content and belief in its centrality or otherwise to the teaching process.

My personal view is that:

There is so much information out there, which is developing and changing so fast, that I can’t possibly keep up with it, never mind hold it all in my head. The trick is to work out what knowledge/facts I must always have at my finger tips and what I don’t need to hold in my head because I can search for the information on the internet. I also have to believe that it is not essential to commit vast amounts of information to memory and that I am no less of a teacher if I don’t always have the answer to a student’s question.

Advances in technology mean that it is relatively easy to upload the content that students need to a website, where they can access it for themselves. Our role as teachers is to filter the information for them – just as on this PLENK course, we have been given a filtered list of readings. This is how we give students the benefit of our knowledge; this will save them time and allow them space to develop their own lines of inquiry. Although we might upload content, we do not necessarily need to go over all this content with them when we meet them face-to-face, in a lecture theatre, or even in an online course. We can trust that they will access it for themselves. If we are not so trusting or we believe that leaving students to access the content for themselves will not be in their best interests, we can build in plenty of self-assessment tasks and progress indicators so that students are made well aware of the content they have to cover and it is always accessible to them. This provision of content ‘at a distance’ so to speak, means teachers can be released from teaching the curriculum content piece by piece (which for students in universities often means ‘death by PowerPoint’, or in schools the teacher ‘talking too much’) and focus on learning to learn, thinking skills, problem solving, application of content etc. i.e. learning processes, rather than learning facts.

But this approach does require that teachers/lecturers no longer see themselves as central to the students’ learning. This is particularly difficult for teachers whose reputation has been built on their ‘performances’ and whose enjoyment of teaching comes from being at centre stage with all eyes focussed on them. But even this type of teacher can make a ‘performance’ of learning process rather than content. Students more often than not need to learn how to ‘use’ content, rather than learn the content itself.

Finally, teachers need a different attitude towards assessment and feedback. What kind of assessment is needed to promote deep-seated learning, a love of learning and the type of learning where students will know for themselves the essential content that they need? How do we prevent the type of assessment which measures content coverage and memory of facts on one day, only for it to be forgotten on the next day?

Chris was right to throw down the gauntlet. Freeing oneself from the tyranny of teaching content is no easy task. Not only do we come up against traditional academic policies and procedures which appear to obstruct any changes we might wish to make – but we often come up against the students themselves. ‘Just tell me what to do’ they say. In other words, ‘Please don’t make me think’. But as I said in my last post, I think it is possible, little by little to subvert the system. Take a risk, try out new approaches, do things slightly differently, be prepared for things to go wrong. But most of all keep asking the question – Do I really need to teach this content and if so why?

9 thoughts on “#PLENK2010 The Tyranny of Teaching Content

  1. Chris Jobling November 2, 2010 / 5:01 pm

    Hi Jenny

    Thanks for picking up the gauntlet! Lots for me to think about here and hopefully I’ll be able to shake off some of the tyranny this coming year. Especially now that I’ve been exposed to this form of learning and have a better idea about how it might work. Subverting the system one contact period at a time — makes me feel like a revolutionary.


  2. jennymackness November 2, 2010 / 5:29 pm

    Hi Chris – no – thank you for making me think it through. And ‘Yes’ – I think feeling like a revolutionary describes it very well 🙂


  3. Mary November 2, 2010 / 7:29 pm

    What do we mean by content?
    On which content shall we reflect? Since you are interested in blogging, take a look at this post on Blogging and Mass Politics by Michael Keren on Project MUSE (Volumen 33(1), winter 2010. DOI: 10.1353/bio.0.0148.). The piece is content full, and the argument is subversive in its own right.

  4. jennymackness November 3, 2010 / 7:58 pm

    Hi Mary – thank you for visiting my blog and for the link to the article which I will try and access through my library. I can only get the abstract from your link. It sounds interesting.

    I realise that I was using content in a very specific way – in relation to the curriculum in teaching and learning.

    I’ll look forward to reading the article you recommend.


  5. sdixon November 17, 2010 / 3:06 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    Thank you for this post. It has polished, for me, the outcome of PLENK for me and what and how I have learned throughout the course. More than an understanding of PLE/N’s, I have some clarification of how something like PLENK can develop a mind. As you put it, learn to learn and problem solve and develop critical thinking skills. I read a great deal, but I think my experience in PLENK and some of the discussions on topics I have had with other learners has provided me greater insight to these issues and as a result for me, a deeper learning experience.

  6. jennymackness November 17, 2010 / 8:35 pm

    @sdixon – thank you for visiting my blog and fo your comment.

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