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Advice for Content-Independent Teaching

glass house

I’m going to share here my personal view of what makes it possible to teach a course in a content-independent manner. These may not be the same as what and why other people do it, but it’s why and how I do it.

What Do I Mean by Content-Independent?

My students read for my course. So it’s not that there is zero content. But I mean that my courses (and also sometimes workshops) are not organized around a canonical body of content. I’m not just saying no textbook. I’m saying no assigned readings. For the past couple of semesters, my course (well, half-course) did not have an assigned body of reading, but students read a lot. This is slightly inspired by Dave Cormier’s rhizomatic learning with “community as curriculum” but not exactly the same (also see Kate Bowles’ “Content, It’s Us”), because my students are freshmen and I structure it a little. Instead of assigning them readings, I encourage them to ask important questions about the course, then work together to find sources to help them answer those questions, crowdsource a set of links (from Google or Twitter) onto a shared document, and then choose a number of those articles to read and blog about. Students end up reading different things and learning different things, so when they sit and work in their groups for the final course project, each one of them brings something different to the table. Sure, they don’t always find the most credible sources (and that could be a gateway to discussing information literacy), but they usually find sources I hadn’t thought of, and occasionally also teach me something I did not know. Which is pretty awesome.

Why Teach Content-Independent?

I could get really philosophical here and explain why I think content should not be the center of any curriculum, that content choices are arbitrary, and that they are expressions of power (Who gets to choose the content and why? Which content is excluded, and what does that mean? Who wrote the particular content chosen, and what does that imply?). You’ll find more about that in this curriculum theory article.

But the reasons I do it in my course are also simpler and practical:

  1. I believe that students can find answers to some questions on their own, and so they can Google these and read them. For the more reflective and contemplative parts of the course, we can use class discussion

  2. I believe in the value of students not all necessarily reading the exact same thing

  3. I believe that students are capable of finding good content without too much guidance from me

And if none of the above meets my belief in practice, then I need to see how I can improve students’ ability to find appropriate readings and benefit from having read different articles. Because that skill of asking the right question to yourself, then asking it well on Google, then selecting which reading to pursue? Those are lifelong skills they need beyond my class. Life does not tell you which newspaper to read or where to get your knowledge from. Those are choices you make about what and how to seek knowledge.

Secrets Behind Content-Independent Teaching

Here are the things I believe make content-independent teaching work:

  1. The course topic is conceived of as more process or skills based (I wouldn’t do this in a basic science course, though it could work for some parts of it, I guess – let me know if I’m wrong)

  2. Teacher has enough background knowledge, experience and confidence to be able to fill any gaps if needed, or to expand on things. Or, really, has enough confidence to tell students, “I’ll search and get back to you”. This works in courses. In workshops, sometimes asking someone else in the room works!

  3. Teacher trusts students to construct knowledge together

  4. Students have internet access and know how to search the internet

  5. Students have some degree of digital literacy

  6. Students work in small groups

  7. The internet actually has a lot of good quality information on the topic (the internet is like having a classroom made of glass where students can look outside easily – but outside needs to be rich enough for that exercise to be useful).

I’ve done this several times in my classes, and sometimes to make workshops I facilitate more flexible and responsive to the audience, and I have always been pleasantly surprised by how well learners manage, and what I learn in the process.

Have you tried content-independent teaching? What’s your secret? Tell us in the comments!

flickr photo by seier+seier https://flickr.com/photos/seier/1244185274 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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