“Begin with the end in mind.”
(The quote is from Stephen Covey’s well-known book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. A version of this post originally appeared on the Hyde School blog.)
“Begin with the end in mind” is an often-repeated mantra in leadership seminars and courses, but also appears in many other fields. We give it as advice to students in physics and mathematics courses – what should your answer look like? Are you expecting a number, several numbers, or an expression? Authors bring it up when discussing the show Lost and its writers’ admissions that they had no real idea where they were going early on. There are whole cans of worms that discuss this concept in relation to political and military ventures, but we can walk past such cans without choosing to open them today. The idea behind “begin with the end in mind” is clear, powerful, and particularly applicable to today’s topic, course design.
Course design is part of a teacher’s job, but for me it’s also a hobby. I’m not content with the classes I teach unless there’s at least one that I really get to put my stamp on. I love thinking about ideas and concepts, the different ways that they fit together, ways to present them, ways to explore them, and how to get students to know and appreciate them. I see it as a challenge somewhere between creative writing, computer programming, and putting a puzzle together.
To begin properly, we must know: what sort of end are we interested in? Different ends require different approaches – you don’t train in scuba to climb a mountain.
My last physics course had a very content-oriented goal in mind: quantum physics. Most physics courses point at quantum and relativity from afar, saying, “there lie dragons,” and move on. I knew that if I could bring my love and fascination for the topic to the students, they would get to see some of the most fascinating work of the 20th century. However, getting there meant that the course had to be pointed directly toward quantum physics from the first day. The course was ruthlessly pruned – either topics fit, or they didn’t, and we spent little time on areas that wouldn’t help build towards our goal. We still built model rockets and talked about the latest NASA space telescope results, but not just because they are fun. We did it because trajectories and wavelengths of light are important ideas in quantum physics. The “end in mind” was a particular topic, and enough time and knowledge to appreciate it.
In the past I taught a precalculus course with a different sort of end in mind. People talk about content goals vs. process goals; in this case the very idea of “process” was the goal. Rather than saying, “Here is a particular function, the logarithm. This month we will learn all about the logarithm. Next month will be trigonometry,” we said, “We are going to learn to graph functions. We will graph trig functions, logarithms, exponents, polynomials, everything. Next month we’ll work on solving equations.” The students did the same homework problems, and still had to be ready for calculus the next year, but the order of presentation changed the emphasis of the course from a set of topics to a set of processes.
There is a caveat in “Begin with the end in mind”: sometimes you must be willing to change your desired end. A course that a colleague and I developed focused on project-based learning. The original goal was to allow students to explore different science-oriented topics. As the course went on, it became clear that this goal was not yet attainable. We had the scuba gear all ready to go, and the lake we wanted to dive in was halfway up a mountain. We needed to focus on something else first: teaching students how to explore science. Their own curiosity would take care of the rest. At the Hyde School, where I used to work, we’d call that a character goal: to instill in students the level of academic rigor and intellectual courage that such explorations require.
Too often we design courses with only a single type of goal. If we focus solely on content, our students will miss out on process and character, not to mention analysis, synthesis, ingenuity, and innovation. If our students’ world has variety, they will learn flexibility. If it does not, they may miss out, and their loss is ultimately ours as well.
There is a certain amount of fear that comes with deploying a new course. Every good teacher wants to know that he or she will be successful, and it is easier to rest next to that lake in the mountains and say, “this is pretty good.” Like our students, we must take a leap of faith. This is our own character goal: let us not settle for “pretty good,” but strive to see where else we can go and what we can do there.