Making Space for the Learning that Matters Most

rutherford book sculptureIn fall of 2013, and again in winter term, 2014 Rutherford Galleria displayed fascinating sculptures  composed entirely of discarded books. As discussed in this Curious Arts feature about these student art projects, the sight of tattered books, destroyed in acts of creation, “evoked discomfort in exhibit goers.” Some artists themselves had to take a few deep breaths before deconstructing their media. Instructor Royden Mills, who orchestrated students’ efforts, mused about “books…that once earned so much respect and a particular place on the shelves of important libraries, now could not defend the space that they take up on library shelves.”

It is not difficult to extend the metaphor of “too many books” to consider the broader problem of how we contend with “too much knowledge.”

The volume and pace of knowledge production poses self-evident challenges to the academic writing and publishing, but it also poses serious provocations for curriculum and pedagogy, understood from the perspective of “traditional” primarily lecture-based teaching. [1] Provocation occurs because the contents and histories of long-established disciplines are as cherished among their stewards as the physical books we tend to fetishize and hoard in our offices. And, like the art works on display at Rutherford, disciplines are subject to the same forces of creative destruction that can evoke an array of emotions — from squeamishness to curiosity to fear for what may be lost.

The problem of “too much knowledge,” from a teaching perspective, is that it is more and more difficult to stay on top of it all ourselves, let alone pass along increasingly contested curricular canons to students. I would argue that the default response is just to pile on “more knowing.” And I’m speaking from my own experience here. I’m as guilty as the next academic for trying to learn more than I reasonably can, and, in an if-nothing-else-at-least-consistent-fashion, to expect my students to learn more than they reasonably can. It’s forgivable; even if the boat is filling up faster than you can bail, you still bail, right?

Turning to Processes

There is an alternative to the compulsion to pile on more content, but it is counter-intuitive enough to inspire the same instinctive resistance that we might feel toward the destruction of books. The alternative is to craft one’s teaching, and by natural extension students’ learning, around learning processes rather than content. This requires nothing short of a leap of faith – that is, faith that we can relinquish some of what is taught to make time and space in the classroom for activities that constitute deep learning in a given discipline.

We can poke around and ask, kind of phenomenologically, what is going on when students “don’t get it.” This allows for a fine-tuned focus on classroom activities that target very specific barriers to grasping disciplinary ways of thinking. This is the central premise of “Decoding the Disciplines,” a (2004) volume featuring teaching strategies from multiple disciplinary perspectives. It is no “tips and tricks” manual though; in each case, the focus of classroom activities emerges from a careful process of uncovering core learning processes that are not transparent to students, and sometimes not even to the professor him or herself! As editors Middendorf and Pace (2004) discuss, professionals – in our case professional scholars – have difficulty articulating how they approach, consider, and solve problems in their fields. Much of our own knowledge is tacit, experiential and taken-for-granted, making it difficult to share with students.

The chapter authors in Decoding the Disciplines thus typically describe the challenges and surprises of coming to metacognitive understandings about their own thinking. Pace (2004), for example, had to drill down to recognize how exactly he, as a professional historian, went about the critical work of distinguishing essential and non-essential details in his reading – something his students consistently struggled with. Biology professor Roger Innes realized that unlike himself, his students did not routinely use active visualization of biological processes.

In these cases and others, once the professors were able to clearly identify their own expert thinking processes and break these down into steps, they were then able to use class time to model these processes, and provide students with carefully crafted activities to practice them. Several authors emphasize that activities in the classroom amounted to “showing students how” where earlier strategies of “telling students how” had failed.

What’s the catch? Modelling and practicing in class take time: time in class that cannot be spent introducing more content, or re-explaining the readings that students didn’t do on their own, or didn’t “get” on their own. A short passage of text, a five minute film, a single newspaper article, or a case study can become the focus of an entire class worth of activity. That’s not much content, right? But something has to give.

What would you have to drop from your curriculum to make space in your class for students to practice what you really want them to learn? If this question makes your head hurt, or your heart lurch, you won’t be alone. In my experience, prioritizing and relinquishing content is one of the most difficult tasks in teaching. Shifting the content/process ratio can be as jarring as books in a recycling bin. It feels like we’re throwing out perfectly good knowledge, right? But what if something deeper and more enduring can be gained?

Now sit back a moment. Imagine that your students have learned to learn a bit as you learn when you open the book, solve the problem, create the project, or write the poem. Imagine that some of your students even feel enthused and empowered by the experience of “getting it.” As a class, you share the pleasure of the “ah-ha moment.” Specialists are excited to continue in your discipline, and your non-specializing students — those for who most of that content you teach evaporates moments after the final exam — they’ll leave with the best gift you can give them: all the sense of possibility that comes when they realize they can learn new ways of thinking.


[1] The causes and consequences of information overload for academia are discussed in this 2009 essay by Canadian scholar Ken Coates. Now imagine how much further things have changed in the past six years!



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