Monday, October 19, 2015

What's the Big Idea?

The 1980′s SNL character Father Guido Sarducci had a routine about his idea for the “five minute university,” which would teach people what the average college graduate remembers five years after leaving school.  College, the chain smoking Vatican gossip columnist observed, amounts to rote memorization for short-term regurgitation and very little retention.  In recent strategic planning discussions here at Fontbonne we have talked about student outcomes and asked, "What should our graduates learn?" I can’t help wondering what our students will remember five years from now.

I did my own share of rote memorization and memory dumping in college, particularly in subjects for which I did not see the immediate relevance.  Worst were those classes that seemed crammed full of facts without context, where I just could not see “the point.”  I hate thinking of students reacting the same way to my classes.  Once a student asked me, as she was handing in her mid-term exam, whether the final exam would be comprehensive.  I replied that I had not decided yet and asked why she was wanting to know then.  She replied, “I’m organizing my files and want to know if I need to keep my notes from the first half of the semester.”  Talk about information having a short shelf life.

The truth is that the more I focus on teaching information the less impact I am likely to have.  What captures students’ imaginations, and what gives information relevance, are the big ideas.  Beyond the information, what is our teaching about?  What are the important questions, problems, and insights that give rise to our search for knowledge?  Pick up any textbook and you can find more than enough data to fill a few lectures and exams, but learning depends on engaging our students in the big ideas.

Big ideas are sustaining.  They feed our questioning and development for years.  Big ideas are what drew each of us into our disciplines and into lives of teaching and scholarship.  The big ideas I encountered as a student continue to drive my curiosity today, and I am indebted to those teachers who helped me to see and think beyond what was on the tests.

For me, one of the big ideas is that communication is constitutive of our realities, not merely a vehicle for transmission.  This is not a straightforward declaration of fact, though I can easily enough phrase it as a true/false quiz item.  It is a big idea that implies a hundred other big ideas and makes every act of communication interesting and consequential.  It reminds me that what I teach is important, even on days when I manage to make it uninteresting to my students or forget myself.

The typical public speaking course, for example, includes topics like delivery, organization, supporting materials, tests of reasoning, and I aim for students to improve their skills in these areas.  But the big idea is that each time they speak they are building the world around them.

The world is full of big ideas (how’s that for a big idea?), and by “big” I don’t mean necessarily True.  I mean big, encompassing, generative, inspiring, explanatory.  We are educators because we feel compelled to play with ideas, to hold them up to the light, turn them over, imagine what they can do.  I know sometimes I lose sight of that.

I wonder what would happen if I put in big letters at the top of each syllabus, THE BIG IDEA OF THIS CLASS, before the course objectives, list of assignments, and grading scale.  Maybe that would be ham-handed, but it might help me remember that there is a big idea behind all the work.  Or it might make me rethink what the big ideas are.

If our students are to engage in a truly liberal education, they must be willing and able to engage big ideas as well as technical knowledge and skills.  These days we talk a lot about learning outcomes and assessment and we worry about documenting what our students know, but we don’t talk nearly enough about whether they are captivated by big ideas.  What big ideas have inspired you?