Building by Proxy
© 21 Aug 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Conflicting goals in selecting material to present in class.


For the sake of this post, let us accept an analogy I hear from time to time: teaching is like building something in someone else’s head.

Using this analogy, there are a few kinds of goals that I, as a teacher, might have at any given moment. Let’s examine just four: I might want them to create a new kind of brick to work with; I might want them to put two bricks together in a particular way; I might want to give them a vision of what they are working toward; or I might want them to stress-test their structure and show me what we need to fix. None of these is particularly satisfying.

Brick making can seem tedious, pointless, or like busy-work. It begs every child’s favorite question: “‍why?‍” Did any of us appreciate learning our times tables? We may have had fun, but how could we know that a day would come when being able to multiply in our heads would allow us to estimate how many gallons of ice cream we could afford with the cash in our pockets? We either enjoyed playing with the red clay of numbers or we didn’t. The virtues of bricks didn’t enter into it.

Bricklaying has a similar problem of lacking context. I was going to wax eloquent about its differences from brick making, but those differences don’t really seem germane anymore.

Architecture does answer the why. It’s the big picture. It’s what faculty think (or perhaps just dream) is the most important part of their syllabi. Course goals, learning outcomes, that kind of thing. But, with few exceptions, if people were capable of understanding what the teacher is trying to have them build they wouldn’t need to take the class. My friend Seth Reichelson once defined a syllabus as “‍just a list of words the student’s don’t understand.‍” Trying to give the big picture is like trying to describe the Eiffel Tower to blind people living in caves.

And that leaves inspections. Almost no one likes inspections when they happen. If the holes we find in your mental models are small enough, you might find them amusing literally amusing: most jokes are based on this but otherwise we are basically stuck on the scale from tedious (if we find no holes) to terrifying (if we throw out the whole thing).

So what’s a teacher to do?

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