Framing the Problem

When I think about writing a syllabus, and how I want to structure a class, I tend to formulate it around questions. For example, I have taught a class where the overarching question was, “What does it mean to be literate?” and another where it was, “What counts as knowledge?” I then use these larger questions to identify smaller, usually weekly, questions that help us explore the overarching one.

This approach is totally fine. I like it a whole lot better than setting specific course objectives. Students come to class on Day One, we explore the overarching question, and I get insight into where they stand with it all. It’s good stuff.

But recently I read something – and I am sorry but I cannot recall what I was reading or where – and it inspired me to think a bit differently about how I frame my courses. Rather than set objectives, or framing it through questions, what if I instead asked my students to consider what problem or problems they wanted to use the course to work on solving.

This approach may not work well for undergraduates, but it could work well in masters and possibly doctoral level courses. In a masters course, particularly those that are designed for working professionals, students come into the class with questions and issues related to their work. They can then use the course as a space to work on those problems.

Of course the dance here is that this is a class and not an independent study. I am not suggesting that we should craft numerous independent studies for each student. Part of the reason (I assume) you take courses is to interact with people who have knowledge and experiences different from your own and who can push and challenge you in different ways. Not everything in a course has to align with a problem a student wishes to address. Rather there should be space inside the course for students to tackle several small issues or one large one.

The goal, as I see it, is not about solving the problem but making progress in understanding and responding to it. If we return to the dual pathways idea, we can see that this kind of design gives us the opportunity to frame a course in this manner. On the one hand, maybe somebody who comes into my course sees their problem as simply not knowing much about the topics we are examining. Maybe they consider themselves a novice. That’s fine. Their goal is to simply gain more information and become better informed. In the dual pathway approach, this person can stick to the agenda I have crafted for them.

But maybe somebody else has some experience and knowledge about the course and has specific questions and issues they want to examine. I still design my course. It still has readings and assignments, and so on…but because I set it up as a dual pathway it can easily allow for students to frame the course around a problem they want to solve.

In the past, I’ve always tried to have at least one assignment where students can frame it around something of interest to them. However, what I am suggesting in this post is a bit different. I’m suggesting that students frame the entire course around a problem they want to address. They then get on the pathway and make decisions about what they want to do based on that problem. Again, the problems would range in complexity.

It’s an interesting approach, and one that can give a lot of power (and hopefully meaning) to students as they experience a course. It’s an idea I’m twirling around in my head right now and thinking about implementing for the upcoming academic year. If it sounds a bit messy right now, that’s because it is messy in my mind.

But I’m ok with that.

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