The importance of why

December 2006

I don't suppose it'll appeal to most educational types because, well it's so precise, and it focuses on traditional lecturing, but I quite enjoyed Des Traynor's 12 step Guide to Better Lecturing. Checklists can be really useful because of their concreteness provided you realise that rules are meant to be broken sometimes. And of course, lecturing is still definitely alive and kicking so we may as well try and make it as good as we can.

The point I really like from the list is the first one 'Do you explain to your students why they are taking this module?'. I think this is one of the things that gets forgotten about far too often by people teaching and can make a critical difference.

The idea of each course having a set of learning outcomes is quite widespread nowdays as a way to force teachers to think about what they are actually teaching and assessing (and to give students some idea what's in store for them). I think there are issues with the idea of learning outcomes in that they tend to encourage a focus on left-brain thinking, but overall the exercise is probably more useful than not in most cases.

The thing that has always frustrated with the exercise of specifiying learning outcomes however, is that I feel that each one really should be accompanied by a brief description of why the learning outcome is in fact desirable. It's far too common for tradition to dictate that certain things should be learned or for over-familiarity to make a teacher forget to communicate to their students the point of it all.

I think this applies especially to mathematics because it's so easy to forget the big picture and get wrapped up in the joy of proving things. So that means that if you're teaching group theory say, one of the first things you should be trying to do is explaining why we're interested in these things called groups. If you're proving that a continuous curve that start one side of a straight line and finishes the other has to cross the line, then you need to explain why that's something worth proving.

It's quite difficult sometimes as to what counts as a valid reason for learning something. I was once involved in doing some curriculum redesign for a course on mathematics for electrical engineers and ruthlessly got rid of everything that nobody could give me a good electrical engineering application for. There was still more than enough left, but you do worry that you're accidentally leaving out things that might be vital for people later for some reason that you haven't forseen and you've deprived them of the one opportunity to learn some pieces of mathematics.