Too Much Coverage

As we gear up for a new semester, teachers and students alike hope that this will be the best semester ever. We’ve got some work to do, or we will find ourselves in the same place as last semester: busy working without learning, stressed, firefighting, just trying to survive.

In my last post I discussed 6 sources of burnout: three for teachers to work on, and three for students. Here I’ll address one for teachers. Students: you should know this too.

Teachers: Coverage is the Enemy of Learning

When we teachers sit down to plan a course, we start by imagining a successful student. “What will this person know and be able to do after my course? What new life skills, perspectives, or attitudes will she develop?” Then we picture someone who has mastered the subject we teach. We list out all of the “critical” concepts, the one’s that “if you don’t know x, then you haven’t learned this subject at all.

Here’s a partial list of topics that a teacher told me were absolutely critical (and that I promptly forgot after the exam):

  • the Magna Carta (an historical documents, I couldn’t write a paragraph about to save my life)
  • U-Substitution (a calculus method, I couldn’t tell you when to use it or how)
  • Macbeth (a Shakespeare play, I couldn’t even summarize the plot)
  • The function of TRNA (something to do with cellular biology)
  • the list continues, but its quite challenging to make a list of things you’ve forgotten!

I was tested on all of these. I use calculus, science, and English on a daily basis. Yet these “fundamental” concepts elude me. Hint: If I need them, I know where to look.

We picture ourselves, and (with good intentions) imagine our students becoming just as expert. Only one problem: we didn’t become experts in one semester.

Unfortunately, grades, test scores, and material coverage in courses have very little to do with what we actually learn. We learn as we explore, and we explore where we (1) have space and time, and (2) have such enthusiasm that we can’t be stopped.

Lewis and Clark didn’t cross the continent because they kinda sorta thought it might be worthwhile. They certainly didn’t do it because it was going to be on a test.

Teachers: write a schedule of material for each day this semester. Then delete half. Ask this question instead:

Is this class/lecture/program/task/test/policy designed to help our students do the old thing [memorize facts and repeat them, become compliant direction-following factory workers] a little more efficiently, or are we opening a new do to enable our students to do something that’s new and different?

Seth Godin: Stop Stealing Dreams

[Expansion added my me]

The internet has destroyed the need to memorize. Even more importantly, it has destroyed the need for “material coverage.” Students need now to learn how to find information, digest it, and make something new with it, on demand.

Teach that.

The job of a teacher is not to cover material, it is to uncover it.

Richard Felder, Teaching and Learning STEM

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