Monday, May 23, 2005

What would we want in a really good CMS? Part 2

Not too long ago I borrowed a copy of Steve Landsburg's Intermediate Microeconomics text from a colleague in the department to see if it read as well as some of the reviews I saw for it at Landsburg is a well known author of The Armchair Economist and a columnist for Slate Magazine. Landsburg is known for writing provocative pieces that are good for students because they challenge the students on what they know and what they think they know.

I looked through the first couple of chapters of the book, which starts off with Supply and Demand. To be sure, some of the examples are unusual (focusing on crime) and show that economics can be applied to situations that would seemingly be of interest to a sociologist, not an economist. Otherwise, however, the presentation was quite standard. In particular, first the theory was developed, then examples were given to demonstrate the theory. And at the end of the chapters there are problems for students to work. This is the tried and true method and just about every intermediate text on the market is written this way.

There's only one problem. This is not the best way to teach the stuff. It is much better to first situate the students in an example, one that has meaning for them, one they can work their way through. Lead with the example and then generalize from that to the theory. This is much closer to the way people actually reason. So that is the way we should teach, from example to general concept, not vice versa. We should also, upon occasion, show the pitfalls in going that direction (sometimes the generalizing principle isn't). But that one occasionally guesses at hypotheses that are untrue based on a limited set of examples doesn't mean that we should revert to the traditional approach.

The traditional approach (really theory for theory's sake) is fine for the faculty who as students were destined to become faculty. Most of the students we teach, however, are destined to get a job outside academe and hardly touch on theory after they graduate. If the lessons of the course are to stick with them in some way after they have completed it (and a good economics course can fundamentally affect a person's world view for life) then we must emphasize the primacy of illustrative examples.

How will it happen that instructors who have had traditional training in their doctoral studies become non-traditional (and more effective) as teachers by taking an approach that is outside their own realm of experience? This is a good (and tough) question. One answer I propose is that this change is encouraged by the software the instructors use to make their course content. In other words, the CMS might be the deliverer of specific teaching approaches, including some that are alien to novice faculty.

On this campus, we have some faculty who are strong proponents of "inquiry based learning" in the spirit of John Dewey. Consider this chain, which is similar though not exactly the methodology they have developed.
1. Interesting Question (from instructor, to initiate the activity).
2. Initial Experiment Design (perhaps a synthesis by the students and the instructor), to address the question in #1.
3. Implementation of Experiment and Observation of Results.
4. First Conclusions
5. Reflection and either a recycling to some earlier stage or moving on to a different question.

Now let's start with the interesting question(s) that I'll leave to the next post to address. Can a CMS be designed to promote this type of pedagogy? Can the course materials that the instructor makes reflect this type of an approach? (And, for the worry warts in the crowd) Can this type of an approach be used and still cover the same amount of course content as the instructor was covering with the more traditional approach?

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