When September Ends…

This seems like the longest shortest summer so far. I’m really not sure what precisely I’ve done and yet I know I’ve done quite a bit. I also know I haven’t done much of what was personally important to me, and a good bit of stuff that wasn’t but that needed to be done.

I’m still thinking of Variety a few weeks ago. I really enjoyed both workshops I went to – one on lecture flipping and one on publishing pedagogical research. The lecture flipping one (run by the excellent duo: Anna Wood and Ross Galloway) looked at theoretical underpinnings and I really needed a reminder of that stuff. I’ve now encountered it several times but this is the first time that I’ve listened to it and thought ‘ah, now I see the point in this’. Previously it’s all seemed a bit too handwavy-jargon for my taste. This was then reinforced in the publishing workshop (lead by Claire McDonnell, Michael Seery, Derek Raine). It was really well put together and helped me see some of the projects that have been languishing on my desk in a new light. Particularly useful was the discussion (and small group exercise) surrounding defining research questions.

It’s actually the first time in a couple of years I’ve been back at work straight after Variety – normally I head off on holiday. Perhaps this has lead to the persistence of recollections!

I’ve been gearing up for semester though, swimming through the paperwork and thinking about changes to various teaching sessions. I am not going to flip my teaching in the ‘conventional sense’ if such a sense exists – everyone seems to have different variations. With the timetable we operate on, I cannot see my students putting in the time before lectures to engage with substantial stuff. I’m aiming to focus on key concepts and include more development of those concepts during class time. I think this will blur the lines between lecture and workshop but that is no bad thing. It worked pretty well for some second year stuff back in December.

So where are they then? The concepts I mean. Everyone seems to go on about it now, particularly at conferences – develop better understanding of the underpinning concepts etc etc. Cut out content to focus on concepts. OK, fine, I see that. I see that it’s better to conceptually understand how to prepare vegetables with a decent knife than to learn the individual context of preparing chopping each kind of vegetable. Memorisation of different categories of thing versus understanding and applying thing. However, where is the list of key concepts that ought to be covered? I ask this slightly tongue in cheek, but only slightly.  Our courses, textbooks, resources are bloated by contextualisation, examples, rules and their evil cousins – the exceptions to the rules, and it’s very very difficult to find one that can simply boil it down to the essential stuff. I’m not volunteering to rewrite the textbooks but it occurs to me that we could take a lot more shortcuts if there were some lists somewhere of core concepts for specific topics.

I can see some of you gesturing dismissively – what do you mean she doesn’t know what the concepts are? And she calls herself a teacher? Well quite. Firstly I’d like some tried and true list of concepts because there is a limit to the extent to which I would be able to identify personally held misconceptions. I root out a few every year but I know that I do not have the time to really get in there and exorcise them all. Secondly, why should I reinvent the wheel? I’ve been pouring through various journals, particularly those articles focusing on concept inventories, or innovative teaching surrounding concepts and they are pretty darn cagey about the whole thing. Whole paragraphs of discussion, tables and figures, charts and quotes, all discussing conceptual understanding and rarely disclosing the full set of survey questions. It’s like the equivalent of writing a synthesis paper and omitting the full methodology but discussing the characterisation data in full!

Unlike some aspects of teaching , concepts strike me as being more robust to individual circumstances. I’ve never understood people who feel they can take a teaching idea ‘off the shelf’ and deploy it as is, and I’ve understood even less those who simply adapt another person’s lecture notes (and other course materials) without considering whether that style suits their style. But concepts should be irrefutable to a point, incontestable, and fully tagged with a ‘handle with care, mis-use may cause educational catastrophe’. So where are they? Where’s the secret book of chemistry lecturer basic concepts from which we might construct more engaging courses?

So I’ll keep dreaming of such things while I get down to boiling down aspects of some of my courses to their conceptual skeletons and re-dress them with elaborate problems designed to help students piece them together. I’m aware that it sounds somewhat daft to call for a handy guide to concepts at the same time as slating those who wish to use off the shelf teaching methods but it’s the difference between chopping all of those vegetables and using pre-prepared stir fry mix. You know what gives better results in the end.  And I liked like things to be easier this academic year please, without having to resort to convenience.