Sunday, September 13, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 17

When developing a course which you will be teaching, you should always consider who you will be teaching.  There is a difference in how different groups of people learn. Many older learners will have to unlearn what they think they know and that involves challenging assumptions and beliefs. This is difficult to do so instructors must plan to take longer in the beginning of the class and develop the lessons so that older learners have a chance to break down those assumptions and begin to develop new thinking patterns. Younger students have been in formal education for a long time and are accustomed to following the lead of the instructors. 

Since I teach primarily first year students in one of the history survey courses, I have to tailor the class for students who may or may not be older, as well as students who are not history majors. In fact, I have to prepare to teach students who for the most part have had little positive interaction with history. They tend to look warily at the survey class with a lack of enthusiasm because they expect to sit through long lectures each class period. Right there I can feel the existence of barriers which must be overcome to transfer knowledge to the students. 

Barriers are major obstacles which exist in many different ways in teaching. For the purpose of this post, let us look at the barriers presented by the students themselves. Age, learning styles, attitudes, and previous learning experiences figure prominently as major barriers on the very first day of class. Setting up a class that addresses these barriers is not easy, but the interactive model or active constructionist model serves as good examples of how to overcome these barriers. To do that one has to anticipate the students as belonging to both groups. Allowing for more time in the first few weeks allows for them to make the transformation process which I think all college students experience in their first year of school. 

One of the key things I find important is to create the course within the Transformative Learning Theory. I will go into this more in depth in another post as I want to concentrate on students in this one. Another key thing that is important is approach the development of the survey courses as the only history course a student will ever take. Consider that less than half the colleges in the United States require a history course in order to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and you begin to understand some of the problems with civics people in this country seem to have lately. I am grateful to work for a school that does require a history course for graduation and I want to make sure we as an institution of higher learning maintain that requirement.

To do that, I have to step up to the plate as a history teacher and deliver a course with the idea that it is the single most important history course a student will ever take because it may very well be the only history course these students ever take in their college education. I have one shot at delivering a meaningful course that transforms their perceptions of history. Whatever I do, it has to count for something. The key is not about their grades, but to change their perceptions of history. It is not about ideology, but about the way they view history. We as instructors need to instill in the students the ability to appreciate history and to look for facts when encountering history. 

Will students remember what we teach them in one course five years later? The odds do not favor that unless the student is majoring in that field or using the information multiple times. Instead, they will forget many of the details, but remember some of the general ideas or themes from the course. That is where we need to focus the student learning. Not detail oriented, but theme oriented. Teach them to understand the themes and how to look up information when they encounter something they need to learn about. Get them to appreciate history and you may very well see them in another class because they appreciate you as an instructor. To get a non-history major to take two or three history classes is a major achievement. To do that, you have to begin by considering the types of students who will be in your classes and developing classes that challenge them, interest them, and educate them.

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