Who drives your classes?

My recent silence in the blogosphere is a reflection of moving to a new school and attempting to shift my pedagogical mindset.  I will be starting, this fall, at the Episcopal School of Jacksonville, which has a great reputation and many qualities that encourage a great educational experience. It also has several qualities, like easy access to beaches, that made it particularly appealing to me, coming from landlocked Ohio. Among its many appealing qualities is a heavy focus on student-centered education.  My thoughts about teaching had been heading in this direction, but I hadn’t fully headed down this path or thought very deeply about this path until I attended an Institute for New Teachers hosted by the Southern Association of Independent Schools and until I talked to other teachers at ESJ.

During these conversations, that seminar, and my transition from teaching at a university to a middle and high school setting, I have really pondered what the different drivers of a course are and what each looks like. I think it comes down to these:

  • A curriculum- or text-driven course. There are some courses, like math or world languages, that require you to go in a, more or less, specific order. After all, students are not going to translate purpose clauses well if they do not know the subjunctive mood. In these courses, you follow the order of the textbook to a greater extent than English courses where it may not really matter what poem, short story, or novel is read first.
  • A teacher-driven course. These courses rely heavily on the sage-on-stage or lecturing model of teaching, or they are focused very much on the teacher’s interests or research questions. For example, my Roman history course in the spring was focused on the theme of empire. It seems as if these courses are much more common in universities, and they are also more reflective of historiography and good settings for introducing the most helpful theoretical models for answering specific questions (often posed by the professor).
  • A student-driven course. These courses are driven by students’ abilities, interests, and curiosity. Project-based learning and very flexible assignments are great examples of this type of course. For example, students could also choose which texts to read first if it does not matter as much.

This year, I am trying to shift how I structure my courses. I have leaned heavily on the curriculum-driven and teacher-driven styles, but I want to shift away from my interests to my students’ interests. In my Latin 1 and 2 courses, students will choose the next cultural topic that we discuss alongside Wheelock’s grammar curriculum. We will also be going through this curriculum based on my students’ pace. My Latin 4 course is a survey of Latin literature, and many of the texts will be chosen based on genres and topics that my students enjoy. The culture topics will, then, be dictated by the texts that we are reading so that they understand them more.

Who or what drives your courses? Which seems to be best for student learning? Which seems best for your students’ age group?

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3 thoughts on “Who drives your classes?

  1. I think I usually use a combination of all three types… I have specific learning goals and outcomes that really have to be held to, so that necessitates the curriculum- and lecture/demo- based models. But as the semester proceeds I have the freedom to tailor the direction and pace of my main courses to my students in practical ways. Of course, since I teach studio classes that are three hours long each, I have more space to use all sorts of different approaches…

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    1. Yeah, another one of the things that I like about ESJ is that we will have 65 minute periods this year, so I will have a bit more time to use all sorts of different approaches and tailor classes to the students’ interests and abilities more effectively.

      But I don’t think you can really get away from a curriculum-driven aspect in any sort of institutional educational environment. You can adapt it to some extent, so that students are practicing Latin or painting or drawing no matter what, but they really need to be practicing those skills in those classes. And, as you allude to, in a skills-based class, you can’t really get away from a lecture/demo-based model because you need to teach them the skill somehow (even if it is shoving that lecture or demo outside of class with a flipped classroom). I’m just trying to shift the balance away from me to them. So my classroom’s desks are set up to focus their attention on each other, and they will choose a lot of culture topics or texts to read (but not the Latin skills to learn). It will be fun to experiment with all of this and see how the new balance actually plays out. You’re definitely right to point out that all three are present in all classes.

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  2. I agree that all three “courses” (instructional methodologies) are present in most classrooms. What varies from classroom to classroom is the amount of time spent in each mode. In a skill-based classroom (e.g., the language classroom) it is implausible to eliminate entirely direct instruction and rote practice because these are necessary to acquire the knowledge on which proficiency is based; however, this does not necessarily mean that the course needs to be text-driven or even teacher-driven. Of course, the teacher is responsible for identifying the core concepts that all students must learn, but this does not mean it is necessarily a teacher-driven or text-driven course. Giving students voice and choice in how they learn the content and how they demonstrate their learning is one way to achieve a student-driven classroom in a discipline where much of the content to be learned is predetermined.

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