Monday, December 12, 2011

Put the Big Rocks in First

My law school is arguing right now about changing from a 14 week semester to a 13 week one. That sounds like a tempest in a teapot. But it will bring a lot of collateral changes with it. Some will be very good, and some will be very challenging. One of the challenging items will be the need for all of us who teach to think hard about what we cover in our syllabus.

When you have been teaching a course that has 14 leisurely weeks to cover a subject, and then are asked to shave one week off that syllabus, you really should consider whether you are going to cover all the same subjects in all the same detail. It’s going to be a hard question, and I know some people are just going to ignore it and cram the same package into the smaller box.

I had a course design workshop last summer that was very enlightening. It was fun, as well. The first thing that really caught my attention was the image of a video that our moderator used (this is a different version, but equally illustrative)

I have read the parable before. You choose the “big rocks” and put them in the bucket first, and then fit the little pebbles or sand around them and it all fits. In most of our lives, we have all the little pebbles (which stand for the little niggling tasks and distractions in our lives) that fill up our days. We need to choose the big rocks – the important priorities that we really want to devote ourselves to, and prioritize those, and then fit the pebbles around those.

In this course design workshop, the same analogy means a slightly different thing. Our courses have big rocks and little pebbles, too. We have a few big ideas that are really important for our students to remember, we hope, in 5 years. Think about a few of your law or library classes, and try to remember one or two of the big ideas from them.... Can you come up with one? If so, that was a successful professor, who managed to communicate one of the core concepts to you – a “big rock” thought! This course design workshop urged us to really focus and pare down our syllabus until we had a handful of these, and then build the course around those.

It took a good deal of courage and a bit of interior weeping to let go of so much of my long-term syllabus. And it takes a GREAT deal of courage to create a syllabus that is really for my students and not at all for my colleagues. The first (MANY) times I created a syllabus for my courses, I really wrote them with the idea in the back of my mind: “What if one of my colleagues sees this? What will he or she think? What if I don't cover Justinian's Code? Will they think I'm ignorant?”

Instead, we should be creating syllabi focused entirely on student needs, and the shape of our semester. That really does call for courage and a lot of rethinking. What is it I really need a student to remember 5 or 10 years from now about this class? What will still be useful for them to know? In legal research, that’s a particularly tricky question, as so many of the publications and databases change more and more quickly. I have come to the conclusion that the most useful thing I can teach is how to evaluate materials and teach themselves. I still teach resources, but mostly in the context of how to evaluate them and how to learn about an unfamiliar resource.

Will you all think I'm ignorant? Gee... I'm trying not to care.

Image decorating this post is courtesy of

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