Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fretting 2.0

I try to be super sustainable and not print out blog posts, but the exceptional Barbara Sawhill provokes too many thoughts for one sitting. In fact, I have been carrying around for many months her January 31 2009 piece about struggling with the syllabus and being anxious about the students’ reaction to her approach.

It all began with the spring semester 2009 Curriculum Design class. I tried to start out with some perspective by putting on the Moodle links to both Barbara’s blog post ( and to Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk about pasta sauce, psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz and the principle of horizontal segmentation (see September 19 post).

The intention was to set up what I am thinking of as the two central human principles of syllabus design, namely
(1) you are not doing your job properly if you do not experience at least some degree of syllabus panic shortly before the beginning of a new term or progamme;
(2) the more relevant and effective we want our syllabus to be, the more we have to help students identify their specific needs and goals and thence develop appropriate choices for them.

As Barbara unpacks the being “awash in panic” in that January post, she mentions addressing her students’ needs and describes her role as, in part, “to nudge, push, prod them towards their goals.” These relatively gentle contacts replace the tightly scheduled forced march of the traditional language syllabus (“if this is Tuesday then this must be the preterite” is Barbara’s characterization”), but she has concerns is about removing a detailed structure and replacing it with training in the use of on-line tools to explore and connect with the Spanish-speaking world (the course in question is a Spanish conversation class) followed by the challenge to create a maintain a blog in the target language . The concerns are about “scaring them off” and unnerving them by asking participants to contribute significantly in defining the class and creating a meaningful learning community.

For me (and, I suspect, for Barbara too, as the post is tagged “fear2.0”), this panic, this “plotting, fretting, and hoping” replaces the old fears that the splendidly detailed and exact syllabus one had created was relevant and feasible. That panic 1.0 was accompanied by the related anupholsteryphobia, Stanlee Brimberg’s splendid term for the fear of not covering all the material. Which means, as I recollect, that syllabus panic 1.0 never went away; to the contrary, it could actually spiral into ever-increasing nervousness as the end of the term approached. Fretting 2.0, in contrast, is gradually relieved as the students become comfortable with their role, relish the flexibility and take the course in expected directions.

Consider this from Barbara’s post, a definition of designing a syllabus: the instructor should “weave [the students’] wants and desires together and craft a schedule of events that will give them the time, the space, the support they need to make their personal learning outcomes happen.” Beautifully put: it should be clear by now, I hope, why I have been carrying this post around for a year.

In other words, as the schedule is crafted (or co-crafted perhaps), the learning community is founded, the space is defined, and the journey begins, then Panic 2.0 subsides and the joy of the shared adventure takes over.

Now it is late January 2010 and I am in the same place again, still determined, in Barbara’s terms, to avoid “snorkeling through the content” and focus on “deep water scuba diving in the sharktank of learning.”

Thanks again, Barbara. We, about to panic, salute you.

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