Challenging Assumptions about Content Knowledge

Recently, I started one of my classes  with a simple question, “Should general education courses be required”.  It was a strategy to get my students actively engaged in a discussion about the value and merit of general education courses.  It was my alternative to the traditional introduction to the course which in many general education courses goes something like: 1. Welcome to XXXX  2.  The purpose of the course is XXXX  3.  It is important because XXXX.

The discussion was a success!  Students were actively engaged in the discussion about the merits of general education and were able to argue, at  a very shallow level, about why general education was/was beneficial.  But, I was horrified at one of the very serious justifications from one student.  “No, general education should not be required because everything I need to know I can learn from my cell phone.”

Right then and there I started working to revise many of the assignments in my class.  It wasn’t about revising the course’s content.  It was about revising the course to get my students to actively engage and think about the content.  I was further inspired by the fact that I was in a learning community that was discussing  Brookfield, S. (2012).  Teaching for critical thinking. San Francisco, CA ISBN-13: 978-0470889343/ISBN-10: 0470889349.

Brookfield spends some time talking about assumptions. So, let me challenge three assumptions I see in the idea that content isn’t addressed in the RSD framework:

  1.  There is an implied assumption that the RSD framework is responsible for content acquisition.  I suggest that it is the instructor’s responsibility to provide a minimal amount of content upon which students can then expand upon and integrate. Can learners do research without any content knowledge?
  2. Is the RSD really about content acquisition?  In the U.S. there is a big push for “21st century skills”.  This includes problem solving, team work, analysis, and so forth.  Is the RSD designed for content acquisition or for addressing “21st Century Skills”.
  3. Are we reaching a point in education where we are using tried and true techniques of pedagogical approaches that no longer apply to learning?  The traditional education paradigm is that professors and teachers are “gatekeepers” with access to knowledge that they can disseminate as their expertise warrants.  However, today’s learners are on the Internet learning from videos, articles, wikis, blogs, one another, by-passing us as experts.  Do pedagogical principles still apply to today’s learners or should we start to look at including some andragogical (adult learning) principles to today’s learners?

I look forward to hearing your responses relative to the Research Skill Development framework.


3 thoughts on “Challenging Assumptions about Content Knowledge”

  1. Hi Sylvia,

    I feel a bit intimidated responding to your post but I’m going to be brave & reveal to the world all kinds of things that I don’t know (but, I guess I’m used to that :-)) The cell phone comment doesn’t surprise me one little bit – I’m a librarian (mostly working with engineering students & teachers) & that understanding of the world features prominently in my every day. I have a related experience. It took me a while to figure out that many of the students (with whom I work) don’t distinguish between common knowledge & discipline knowledge. So, that’s where I start my early level information literacy work with students – Is this common knowledge that I (the librarian) can pick up or is there special knowledge & thinking that engineers do? I get “yes” responses to both but the discussion soon gets everyone agreeing that engineers do have special ways of thinking & so have special knowledge which end up affecting the questions that they ask & the information/literature they seek out to answer those questions.

    I don’t think that content acquisition is the place of the RSDF & in Australia the 21st century skills/thinking “movement” is also very big. Certainly, where I work, the focus is on adult learning principles as the majority of our students are not the traditional school leaver cohort. I think that many of us probably also see adult learning further divided into students who are unfamiliar with university & perhaps not terribly confident in an academic sense, & those students who are more comfortable in the academic environment. Certainly many of us a constantly pondering & discussing these things.

    I suspect that pedagogical principles do still apply but perhaps, generally speaking, they haven’t been commonly applied in the past because it has not been required of teachers in higher education. I think that we would get a lot of value from developing an understanding of our personal pedagogies & then begin an ongoing process of critically reflecting on them. For me, using the RSDF demands an understanding of my personal pedagogy & a willingness to challenge it. Perhaps people are looking for a more content-driven framework because they haven’t had the opportunity to look at their personal pedagogy & so it is (in a very practical sense) a different kind of tool for them?

    I was interested in your use of “androgogy”. When I was first introduced to Knowles’ work, I asked an academic whey academics didn’t use the term but used “pedagogy” instead. The response was that “pedagogy” isn’t for children these days – that’s it’s used rather than “androgogy” because assessment is a cornerstone of university learning & pedagogy is a word more suited to that environment. The person who responded this way was a lead teacher in a program for mature aged former nurses coming back to uni to update their qualifications & regain their registration to practice. Everything that this academic did (as a teacher & administrator) was about adult learning.

    A few years ago, when I was studying in a postgrad education course, we had to read a paper (I can’t remember the author) that proposed that “good teaching is good teaching” whether we are teaching online or teaching f2f – as a learner & a teacher, I agreed. And, I can’t help that think “good teaching is good teaching” in whichever decade we teach & learn – the good teaching is the thing that drives us to use all manner of resources, pedagogies, etc because we are driven to provide the kind of learning opportunities that allow good learning.

    Thank-you for such a thought provoking post 🙂 I hope that I haven’t misunderstood & raved. If I have, thank-you for getting to the end of my replay 🙂 Sandra

    1. Hi Sandra,
      Thank you for being brave! Thank you for the thoughtful reply. Many of the points you bring up in your response are discussions we are having here at UW-Stout. There are a number of faculty participating in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and examining our teaching practices. It is interesting to see all of us question our methodology, struggle with assessment and get students to think critically in our courses. Your comment about instructors not visiting their own practices and thus were looking at the RSD as a content-driven framework rang true for me. It took our group at Stout a number of iterations of implementing the RSD framework to really appreciate our teaching practices and changes we needed to make. It is amazing what one learns about your own teaching when you start to study it. Our librarians have been working with us to help us understand our teaching practices and assumptions we make. You librarians are an amazing group of people with lots of insight!! I too have seen an article about “good teaching” and how the principles remain the same whether you are speaking about younger or adult learners. You have motivated me to go do some more searching relative to terminology related to pedagogy and andragogy. I look forward to hearing more from you!

  2. Hi again Sylvia,

    I’m going to check our your library & librarians – sounds like I could learn a lot from their work & that I’ll enjoy that learning:-)

    Your reply made me remember two experiences with the RSDF ‘translated’ for two different students.

    The first I created last year when a first year student came to see me because he was great with engineering content (he was a tradie upgrading his quals to a Bachelor of Engineering) but really struggling with scholarly processes – understanding why they are important & understanding what he should actually do to meet the scholarly requirements of his assessment. As we were talking, I began thinking that if I could harness the RSDF for his learning experience, I could probably help him make the links he needed to make. I didn’t expect him to make the links immediately but I thought that he was the kind of student who would persist with them &, after the remainder of this semester & the next, he’d be doing really well. I also thought that I might not be able to translate it well enough for him at my first attempt so encouraged him to keep in touch. It didn’t take that long at all – he got it immediately & was so happy with his understanding that he raced back to his tutor’s office to share his new insights. It was so lovely to see this stressed out man his thirties enlived like a child with the enthusiasm he now had for the learning possibilities.

    My second experience was this semester with a third level student doing project-based assessments who just couldn’t see a big picture that let her bring together her developing content knowledge with the problem solving processes & information literacy learning. We did some ‘quick and dirty’ searching together (we were talking on the phone) so we could talk about the different types of information she was going to need & talk from her perspective. But, she said that, although she now understood about the different kinds of engineering information she might draw on & what they would give her, she still couldn’t see how everything fitted together. I thought that she was an insightful learner – she contacted me before she worked through the online information literacy support that I’d provided because she couldn’t get herself the big picture that she recognised that she needed before she could make appropriate use of the resources. I drew her attention to the student-friendly RSDF that I translated for the course & her response was, “Oh, I see – & that’s the process”. Process – how many times have we wished that a student might use that word?

    As I write this reply, I am wondering if both of these students are rather global (rather than sequential) in their thinking style. Perhaps people who are more global in their thinking find it so much easier to identify a useful process/framework that can guide them? And, perhaps people more sequential in their thinking style need the RSDF grounded in content to start to see how they can use it? Although they wouldn’t think of it using these words, perhaps it appears as a behaviourist approach to them & they can’t figure out what they are being “told” to do? And, if they do see it in behaviourist terms, it makes sense that they’d be looking for content? Sandra

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