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LSTS 2: What Are You Trying to Achieve?

Last updated on January 30, 2017

(You can read LSTS 1: Best Learning Experiences, Best Teaching Experiences here.)

The third question posed by Neil Haave (see Learning Style, Teaching Style) reads, “What are you trying to achieve in your students in your teaching?” I’m not overly fond of the way the question is articulated; the idea of achieving anything in my students strikes me as very odd. (What instructor, really, has any measure of control over her students’ internal states of being?) However, I think the question at its heart offers an opportunity to reflect on what I hope my students will learn in a given course.

The benefit of having delayed this blog post is that the end of the spring semester has provided greater clarity in terms of my goals for the World Civilizations course I instruct. Students’ exams, their final round of blog posts, and some intriguing Facebook posts to our class group illuminated what students have learned this semester – and what they have not.

I was encouraged to see their collective ability to identify the major themes of the course improve from the first exam. The final blog posts also displayed tighter writing and more diligent citations. And the links, posts, and comments students’ shared on Facebook for extra credit points suggested greater willingness to look for the connections between the past and present. These skills served as neat reflections of some of the course goals stated in my current syllabus, particularly my hope that they become “savvier media consumers” (and producers) through use of the blog and Facebook group.

The exams and posts to both the blog and FB group, however, also revealed two significant areas of concern.

First, most students still struggle with chronology – which is a bit problematic for a history course. Understanding the order of events is essential to comprehending the significance of a given person or event. My guess is that my emphasis on overarching themes and the freewheeling nature of our primary source discussions in class often obscures the order of events – or at least makes chronology seem less important than concepts. My goal for next semester, then, is to strike a greater balance between concepts and chronology. I’m already considering replacing exams with more frequent quizzes (probably multiple choice) to reinforce material, so it should be easy enough to test students’ understanding of chronology within that format.

The second area of concern is more worrisome and undoubtedly requires a more complex solution. In some of the posts on the blog and FB, I noticed a lack of cultural sensitivity – articles or comments that described a particular practice as “weird;” rituals, family ties, or beliefs that were outright condemned. For example, a sticking point this semester was Mongol marriage laws. Within Mongol society in the thirteenth century CE, sons are legally and socially permitted to marry their father’s wives (i.e., their stepmothers of sorts) if the father dies. Students were genuinely puzzled and shocked; this went against their conceptions of who could and should get married and they struggled to understand why this would be allowed. The problem was, they weren’t asking why the practice was allowed within Mongol society at that time; they were considering why it would be allowed anywhere by anyone at all. The context, in other words, was not influencing the questions.

I partly understand their shock, condemnation, and bafflement over the way ancient and medieval people have lived; I have and do experience those emotions myself at times in relation to certain material. And I want to create an environment in which students feel safe and respected enough to grapple with those reactions. I don’t want students to think they all need to share my opinions – or anyone else’s.

However, I do want to encourage them to ask, “Why was it like this?,” before they ask, “Do I agree with this?” There are practical reasons for this. You can disagree with slavery, but that tells you very little about why it was so commonly practiced in the ancient worlds – which in turn leaves you with very little knowledge about why and how to prevent or overturn modern instances of slavery. And, to play the globalization card, learning to respectfully consider the practices and beliefs of past societies is very good practice for respectfully considering the practices and beliefs of present societies in this interconnected, diversified world my students and I inhabit.

Again, I do not want them to agree with everything – but I do want them to understand as much as they can.

The difficulty is figuring out how to foster that particular outcome. I can adjust my material to account for the times when I am insensitive or too quick to condemn and I can be more explicit about that aim on my end. But how best to give my students the opportunity to practice cultural sensitivity? How best to respond to moments, posts, words that lack sensitivity? I suspect I will be wrestling with those questions for years, but it is good, I think, to have these goals.

And for these goals to influence my summer reading list… Would any fellow educators care to recommend good reads about fostering culturally sensitive/compassionate/respectful classrooms and courses?

Next Post:

As I’ve already (at least partly) answered question four, “Why is this important to you?,” in this post, I’ll plan to address question five, “How do you achieve your objectives?” in the LSTS 3 and then I’ll wrap up with the last question, “Why do you use these particular teaching strategies as opposed to others that are available to you?,” in a final post. Ideally the next installment will be up in somewhat less than a month this time…

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