Myths of Teaching and Learning -2

Another myth of Teaching and Learning, and actually one upon which we founded many of our curricula is embedded in the quasi-logic of the following:

This course teaches topic X, which is so badly needed by our new XXI century students. Thus, we are compelled to introduce it in the curriculum. Indeed we would make students a disservice by not including it.

The rationale may change, but not the conclusion. We may so justify any kind of course with this line of reasoning. Worse still, this logic can be used in a backward chain, which produces chains of pre-requisite courses for any given course.

The problem happens mostly in the so-called liberal arts universities where general education curricula eat up a lot of credits. These curricula are based upon this fallacious logic: In order to understand this, you must first study that. Dance people say it’s not at all obvious, instead -just to produce a counterexample- that a modern dance performer needs a classical dance background. If you study chinese medicine, you do not need to understand first our western medicine at all.

But what is exactly the problem? Up to now, it seems nothing is really wrong!
The problem, lies in the fallacy of the quasi-logic. In fact, it can easily be shown that whatever topic/course can be considered as essential for any other one, or for a full curriculum.

Take this example from The New York Times (A Course Load for the Game of Life) of a course in Economics, and the suggestion of another in Psychology or Finance. All may well be essential in a general education curriculum, and with very good reasons! Should I continue? Why not Latin? Comparative religion? Aztec mythology?

You see? We have a classic regression ad infinitum. Whatever the curriculum, I can find an infinity of courses which are needed for it. Again, what’s the problem with this? Well, first, we cannot put **all courses we wish** in a curriculum. Sometimes, we have institutions following this strange logic and their students end with… too many credits in their curricula!

Secondly, this logic shifts our attention from the real issue, which should be: How do we build a good curriculum?

A good curriculum for what? For whom? Where?

Our schools, departments and ministries do not like to answer these fundamental questions, and prefer to follow ideas which were set forth in the XIX century, or even before. The bourgeois idea of liberal arts education in fact is exactly that, bourgeois, meaning it leaves out all those who need to study to get access to a profession in the medium or short time. Culture is great, if you don’t need to work!  Neil Postman addressed this concept in his work, and proposed a curricular renovation to be built around a few possible models which address first the big question: What is our curriculum for, and for whom?

  1. The community model: we teach those subjects our community deems essential for the well-being of our students. History, for instance, is taught according to the cultural principles and beliefs of the community, with the goal to produce citizens and persons well versed in the political agendas of their own community. The big problem of this model is that, if your community does not understand other communities as well, it will be endangered of extinction.
  2. The Great Books metaphor. Civilization (including science, maths, literature) is studied through the great original works of mankind. A very nice metaphor, one that is actually used in many colleges, and which makes happy all those, including myself, who love “great books”. But those who do not like reading? Are they worth less? {This is a real question, not a rhetoric one.}

Generally, I stand by the principle that students need to be exposed to things which they wouldn’t get elsewhere. I’ll talk about this and the related “content issue” in a next post of this series. Also, this issue is very much related to the problem of the “level” of education, or grade. It is clear, in fact, that methods and curricula depend heavily on the cognitive level of students. Why then, methods, ideas and research results are continuously taken from elementary levels and get applied to higher ed?

Creating a curriculum should not be a light process, but neither should it be based on faulty logic.

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About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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