Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Teaching by questions
A few months ago, we had a vigorous debate on this blog about "uncoverage," the method of teaching that doesn't try to cover everything in the textbook but instead picks a few topics or event and dissects them deeply. The theory is that students won't and don't remember everything they are asked to understand in a broadly covered survey, but will, maybe, with some luck, remember things they are asked to investigate deeply.
In that debate, I expressed some doubts about how that method would work in a large lecture class, doubts I still have. But I am convinced that with smaller classes there is something to the method.
Toward that end, this semester I've divided my syllabus into five three-week sections, each of which will focus on answering a single question. The sections will proceed forward chronologically, although I will take a lecture at the end of each section to teach about the subsequent history of the debate.
For instance, my first questions is: "Was the United States founded as a Christian country?" Certainly that's a hot topic today, and one that's perhaps not even historical (see John Fea's book). But the question-method does three things for me: (1) it allows me to begin at the beginning, and carry forward to the Revolution, then the Market Revolution, then the Civil War, etc.; (2) it keeps the lectures focused on a single question--I'll always begin and end with the question, so students will receive information that they will immediately find useful; and (3) it will allow the student to leave the class with a working historical knowledge of a current hotly debated question.
I get to cheat a little, because this class is focused on religion and because it's smaller than most of my surveys (40 versus 120). At the same time, it's already been fun to write the lectures about the questions, because I find them fascinating myself.
Has anyone else tried this?