Backward Design: From Course to Class

Steve Volk, February 27, 2017

Backward Design“We think the best way to protest this guy [a political operative who had been invited speak on campus] is by refusing to let him speak. Once he sits down, we’ll engage the audience in a discussion of our ideas.” That was the message of a group of students who had come to my office some years ago seeking my input on their plan. OK, so they were eliciting my support, not my input.  “Hmmm. Interesting,” I replied, then asked what they hoped to accomplish by this protest, and what they thought actually would happen in Finney (our largest gathering place) when they put their plan into motion. After a fair amount of discussion, they realized that their desired outcome – a discussion of the speaker’s ideas – would not come about by essentially shouting him down. In the end, they planned an alternative assembly in a nearby space and encouraged those entering Finney to attend that meeting instead. What the students and I took part in was a lesson in “backward design.”

In the simplest form, “backward design” asks that the planning process begin at the end by identifying the outcomes one seeks, figuring out how one will know if the goals have been achieved, and then planning the activities most likely to achieve the desired ends. It has been an important strategy in instructional design since an influential article by Robert Barr and John Tagg appeared in Change in 1995. Barr and Tagg challenged the way that most faculty thought about their main purpose within the university. The old paradigm, that “a college is an institution that exists to provide instruction,” they wrote, has shifted to a new one: “a college is an institution that exists to produce learning.” Colleges, they suggested, had been caught in a “means/ends” confusion. To say that the purpose of college was to provide instruction was the equivalent of insisting that the purpose of an auto company was to provide an assembly line. What had gone wrong in higher education was that the means (instruction) had become the ends, whereas its real end point was learning. Continue reading

The Sounds of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening

Steve Volk, February 20, 2017

cage_4-33As long as we’re talking about Frank Zappa…

In 1993, Zappa recorded John Cage’s 4’33” as part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute [Koch International Classics]. You might remember 4’33” as a recording of silence, or better put, as a composition scored for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the performers don’t play for the prescribed amount of time. It’s not, in fact, a composition intended to produce silence since, in performance, listeners hear the environmental noise that they normally ignore at a concert (except, of course, for the continual hacking and rustling that goes on). “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, recalling the première of the work. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Kyle Gann [No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s ‘4′ 33″’  (Yale, 2011)] described Cage’s composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” In other words, 4’33” explores how the absence of the expected, in this case “music,” can act to heighten our awareness of things that otherwise might have eluded our attention.

I have been thinking about the role of silence in the classroom, somewhat peculiarly in the part it can play in supporting discussions, dialogues, or any other non-monologic teaching. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about whether silence can help students hear. As with Cage’s composition, the relationship between talking and silence in the classroom is not a binary, both are part of a singular process.  Silence can be employed to encourage hearing as well as talking. (I’m reminded of an anecdote recalled by Catherine Blyth in The Art of Conversation. When Solon, he of ancient Athens, in a test of wits was asked to remove the best and worst bits of a sacrificed animal, he selected just one item: the tongue.) Continue reading

Listening to Smart People

Steve Volk, February 6, 2017

When the inarticulate blathering radiating out of Washington becomes too much to bear, I think about turning to really smart people as a kind of lime-scale remover for the brain, dental floss for the mind, if you will. Smart people help me reconnect my moorings with reality and build my confidence that we actually can rise to higher levels, think clear thoughts, and do the work of education.

With that in mind, I recently returned to the composer John Luther Adams. I have been mesmerized by his work for some time, and wrote about him in this space a few years ago. To refresh your memories, let’s not confuse John Luther Adam’s with John Coolidge Adams, the composer of the opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” among other master works, and certainly not with John Quincy Adams, whose greatest hit was the Monroe Doctrine, the prelude to a long suite on U.S. expansionism. The music of John Luther Adams is deeply bound to the natural world; some have called it “sonic geography.” So, stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll soon get to some lessons that this smart person offers to teachers.

As a kid, Adams played drums in a number of rock bands, one of which, Pocket Fuzz, opened for the Beach Boys at a local New Jersey gig. Like many of us of a certain age, he was drawn to Frank Zappa, and it was through Zappa’s music – or, actually, because of a quote (“The present-day composers refuse to die”) in the liner notes of one of Zappa’s LP’s, that Adams stumbled upon Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, a 20th century French avant garde composer. As I wrote in an earlier post, the music of Varèse was not easy going; Adams couldn’t figure out how to make sense of what the composer was doing. “It all sounds…just like a bunch of noise to me,” he lamented. Which wasn’t too far from the mark since Varèse once observed that music was, in essence, “organized noise.” Continue reading