One of the common themes in the comments was related to the teaching strategies that I’ve been posting on the blog. In different ways, respondents said that while the strategies were helpful, they would like more guidance about how to select and combine them for courses and specific class sessions. To help with that challenge, this is the first in a series of posts on an open-ended strategy to help you think through, select, and combine the strategies into powerful learning experiences for your students.
In the series, I’ll cover the typical steps in planning for teaching: crafting learning goals, selecting teaching strategies, and selecting assessments. Additionally, I’ll also explore getting to know your students and their needs and helping them to build skills they can leverage across courses and in their life going forward. To start off, I’ll explore the bigger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish in our teaching. What are the big ideas, the keys that you want your students to take with them beyond your course?
So, what’s the big idea?
Previously on the blog, I’ve written about the importance of starting with your why. What I meant by this was to consider the kind of experience you want to create based on what you think is most important about your course. Only you can determine what the most important ideas of the course are, the essential concepts students need to understand, the key experiences students should have to approach those big ideas, and the kind of overall experience you hope that they’ll have.
All of these considerations are highly contextual and dependent on your particular approach to the content, the course’s place in the program, and the relative experience of the students with the content. In the course I’m teaching in our teacher preparation program, I’ve designed the experiences in a way that help them to leverage content the students are learning in their other courses with their field experiences in public schools as a means to address the ongoing challenge between the “two worlds” of the university and public school classrooms that is such a persistent challenge for teacher education programs. In my doctoral level course on Media Literacies, I’ve structured the course more in an inquiry format, as students bring considerable knowledge and experience to the course and have varied professional learning goals.
Mitigating the Curse of Knowledge
All college and university faculty are afflicted with the same challenge when it comes to planning for teaching – the curse of knowledge. Ludvig Sunstrom explains the curse of knowledge this way:
“You are suffering from the curse of knowledge when you know things that the other person does not and you have forgotten what it’s like to not have this knowledge. This makes it harder for you to identify with the other person’s situation and explain things in a manner that is easily understandable to someone who is a novice. When you suffer from the curse of knowledge you assume that other people know the things that you do, and this cognitive bias causes you to believe that people understand you a lot better than they really do.”
It can be very difficult to consider the content for a course, or even a single class session with a “beginner’s mind.” Even for advanced students in your discipline, the mental schema that you use to organize and make sense of the relationships between concepts in your discipline is far more sophisticated than their own. Consequently, it can be difficult for us to consider the content from the perspective of one without these sophisticated ways of understanding your discipline. How then to counteract this “affliction?”
For a given class session there can be a vast number of interesting ideas to explore, examples to share, and points to consider. For one class session, I listed an entire page’s worth of things I could include in a fifty-minute class. Could I have “covered” all these? Possibly. Would my students have even begun to really grasp them? Doubtful. A more effective approach is to zero in on the 1-3 most essential concepts or ideas to cover in a class session. Then cut yourself off. Seriously – don’t be tempted to sneak in an additional idea (or six).
- Break it down
For a complex concept, relationship, or process, it’s critical to break it down into digestible “chunks” to help students better understand. With the curse of knowledge, we often intuitively skip over steps or make indirect connections. This will be difficult, if not impossible for your students to follow. One strategy I use to make sure I’m not glossing over any important steps or connections is to first explain it to a colleague in a different field or an unwitting parent at my kids’ soccer or tennis practice. These folks are more likely to experience the concept from a similar perspective to my students and help me to identify any big gaps in my thinking.
Even when we try to put into practice the first two ideas above, our enthusiasm for the content will often encourage us to slip in additional interesting, but not critical examples, stories, etc. into our plans. While they may be fascinating, they can often be a little too complex for our students to grasp and can consequently actually put up a barrier to understanding. Edit them out. Be ruthless. It’s hard, but with practice, it becomes easier. You can always save those stories and examples for the especially eager students who come to office hours.
There are many things to consider when designing learning experiences for your students. We’ll get into designing effective learning goals, selecting and sequencing learning activities, developing assessments, and all the rest. Without avoiding the curse of knowledge, though, the best laid plans…
How do you try to mitigate the curse of knowledge in your planning?
Please post your comments below.