Saturday, August 15, 2009

Controlling Syllabus

Siobhan Curious, a Twitterer, pointed me to an article, entitled, “Death to the Syllabus!”  As you can guess from the title, the essay is a critique of excessive, oppressive planning by teachers.  The author, Mano Singham, writes:

There is a vast research literature on the topic of motivation to learn, and one finding screams out loud and clear: controlling environments have been shown consistently to reduce people’s interest in whatever they are doing, even when they are doing things that would be highly motivating in other contexts.

I am always sceptical when someone states that there is “vast research literature” supporting their assertion.  From personal experience, though, I can attest to this particular idea.  Nothing extinguishes my motivation to do something faster than when I am made to feel like I must do it, or else!  There is an anti-authoritarian component to my personality that I suspect many folks in this society, especially teenagers, share.

That being said, there is also a universal human need for authority, structure and safety.  As always, wisdom prescribes balance.

Singham writes:

To test this, I abandoned the controlling syllabus. I now go to the first class with only a tentative timeline of readings and writing assignments.

It is interesting that Singham refers to this strategy as a test.  For my part, my contemplations on planning, and my intensive efforts at planning over the last two months, have led me to the conclusion that I have very little choice but to approach my assignment at a new school with a “tentative timeline”.  Logic dictates that I must first meet the students, and ascertain their academic levels and personal interests before I can fully develop appropriate lessons.  I could prepare reading comprehension assignments now, but at what level are their reading abilities?  And how diverse are their abilities?  I anticipate that there will be students with differing abilities who will require differentiated instruction.  What about math?  Should I prepare lessons based on the provincial curriculum prescribed for their grade level?  I wonder, what’s the point?  If they already know how to do long division, then why should I waste our time teaching it?  I need to assess the students first before I specify the instructional material.

It would be much more reassuring, and probably easier, if I had a book telling me what to teach for each day of the year.   But I don’t.  And I shouldn’t.  That is not the nature of teaching.  Teaching needs to be student-centered; teaching needs to evolve during the course of the year in order to adjust to the developing needs, interests and abilities of the students.

Siobhan also directed me to this interesting blog post, which is a reaction to the “Death to the Syllabus!” article.

Photo by ganesh_rrv.


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