Readers of Faculty Focus are probably already familiar with backward design. Most readily connected with such researchers as Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Dee Fink, this approach to course construction asks faculty to initially ignore the specific content of a class. Rather, the designer begins the process by identifying desired learning goals, and then devising optimal instruments to measure and assess them. Only thereafter does course-specific content come into play—and even then, it is brought in not for the sake of “covering” it, but as a means to achieve the previously identified learning objectives. Courses designed this way put learning first, often transcend the traditional skillset boundaries of their discipline, and usually aim to achieve more ambitious cognitive development than do classes that begin—and often end —with content mastery as the primary focus. Although the advantages of backward design are manifest, it’s probably still the exception to, rather than the rule of, course planning.
Much has been written, both in Faculty Focus and elsewhere, about cell phones in the classroom. Such pieces typically break into two categories: whether to ban or not to ban, and techniques for using devices productively for educational purposes. As helpful as those discussions are, conspicuously absent most of the time are students’ views. Do they even want their phones available in class, or are the devices simply attractive nuisances? Is a classroom without cell phones desirable from their standpoint—and if so, what would it take to achieve such an environment? Last spring, I decided to find out.
A recent experience in class left me a bit rattled, and made me wonder if I’ve long been trying to teach an impossible skill. It confronted me with a fundamental question: What’s teachable, and what do students simply have to figure out on their own with the passage of time?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of running a faculty development program on teaching is seeing first-hand how much our various disciplines intersect when it comes to teaching and learning. Whereas it can be hard, if not impossible, to speak about disciplinary research with colleagues outside our fields, the common teaching problems we face allow for readily understandable dialog, no matter how far apart the discussants’ fields of expertise.