A Game of Chess

A Game of Chess

       I have never been very proficient at the art of chess.  The one time that I tried to remedy this lack by reading a work on the subject the most immediate result was a bizarrely symmetrical game with a friend who I later found out had learned from the same book.  But in retrospect I can see that the book had a major influence on how I think about teaching.  At the center of the author’s understanding of the game was the notion that one must always act strategically. The number of moves in a game is quite limited, and every one of them must be carefully and consciously chosen to make a positive outcome more likely.  Moreover, it is rarely sufficient to have a single reason for the repositioning of a piece.  A move should simultaneously serve to dominate a particular region of the board, to protect one or more of one’s own pieces, and to threaten those of one’s opponent.

            Teaching is not very different.  The number of contact hours in a typical course is not great. Even when one adds in work outside the class, the opportunities to effect a real change in students’ thinking are quite limited.  Moreover, as instructors, we do not have unlimited time and energy to invest in our students’ learning.  We must always balance what we do as teachers with the other obligations and opportunities in our lives.

      Therefore, the effective teacher, like the expert chess player, must constantly think strategically.  A course should not be seen simply as a string of topics to be checked off a list.  Each move in the game of teaching must be consciously shaped for serve multiple purposes, and each decision must be made in terms of a central set of overarching goals.

      Decoding the Disciplines is essentially a strategic framework for making strategic decisions in our courses, and, as such, it can be enormously useful in maximizing the impact of the limited time and opportunities that are available to us. The emphasis on specific bottlenecks to learning serves to keep one’s attention on those problems that most need to be addressed. Making explicit what actions students must master to get past the bottleneck reveals what one must concentrate on in a course.  The modeling, practice, emotional, and assessment functions all provide reminders of what must be included in one’s strategic decisions.  All of this can transform a course from a drunkard’s walk into a focus, strategic endeavor that maximizes the impact of one’s actions on student learning.

      But, if this approach is to have its full potential impact, it is essential that all of the elements of Decoding be united in a single, focused effort.  Early on in the development of Decoding, the seven steps were seen primarily as a series of discrete activities.  Instructors identified a bottleneck.  Then they made the mental operations explicit.  Then they provided practice, etc.

      By contrast, in The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm, I have argued that seeing the process as a series of independent steps is not strategic.  It is, of course, important to keep these seven functions separate in one’s mind.  But in practice we can often be fulfilling more than one function at a time.  An assignment can be consciously modeled to also reinforce the modeling of a particular operation, and it can be structured so that it also serves as an assessment.  An effort to help students overcome an emotional obstacle can sometimes reinforce cognitive learning, and any of these activities can be linked to strengthening students understanding of crucial content.

     All of this is rather abstract.  So let us look at a particular example of a “move” in the “game” I was “playing” in one of my courses, and consider all the different strategic goals I was trying to further in this one exercise.  My central goal was to give students practice at using evidence to support a position, and I decided that an on-line Just-in-Time Teaching assignment would provide the most efficient means to achieve this. But, in crafting this task, I consciously thought about what other objectives I could simultaneously further.  (See the assignment.) The result was an assignment that seemed relatively simple, but, in fact, served all these purposes:

  • Mastery of Content – This exercise focused students’ attention on one of the crucial issues that I want them to consider when doing the reading, and it required them to go over the material before class.
  • Over coming emotional bottlenecks – The assignment deals with emotional issues in three ways:
    • It breaks the task down into smaller pieces that students can more easily imagine succeeding at.
    • It provides a concrete motivation (i.e. a graded assignment) for keeping up with the reading.
    • The final link to an example of what a good assignment looks like serves both to make success seem more attainable and to position me as a supportive coach, rather than as a hostile judge.
  • Helping students recognize the nature of historical argumentation – Many of my students have an image of history from their high school classes as a matter of the memorization of facts. The form of this assignment supports the contrary view that the discipline is about considering alternative possible interpretations.
  • Helping students recognize the inherent ambiguity of history – The possibility that students might see reasonable arguments on both sides is recognized and legitimized.
  • Identifying evidence – The role of finding evidence in historical argumentation is modeled, students get practice at this skill, and their response to this provides an assessment of their mastery of this part of the historical process.
  • Identifying sources – The need to always indicate one’s sources is modeled, at the same time that students get practice at doing so.
  • Explaining evidence – A common bottleneck in history courses is that students frequently provide evidence, but do not clearly and explicitly link that evidence to the interpretation they are defending. This exercise models that process, gives students practice at doing so, and provides me with evidence about how effective they are at explaining the relevance of evidence.

It is important to notice that completing the exercise is not very time consuming for the student – assuming that they have already done the reading.  Nor does grading it require a great deal of time for the instructor.  But it has simultaneously contributed to the achievement of a number of the central goals that I have set out for the class.  A succession of such exercises can generate a pedagogical space in which it is natural for students to absorb the ways of operating needed to succeed in the course.

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