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Research Methodology

My Research Methodology class.

I’m struggling at the moment to build / rebuild my curriculum for Research Methodology. I have been teaching Research Methodology for the past three years to MTh/MPhil level students (and sometimes DMin and PhD) at SAIACS, the theological institution where I work. The course, like in many other institutions, is mandatory and all students have to take it at the beginning of their programme.

I was initially happy for the opportunity to work with this subject, mainly because it gave me to the opportunity to impact students who had just joined the college… give them a good start, so to speak. I was also given a lot of freedom to devise the course as I wished. During my course planning, I was also exposed to expectational teacher-training material, particularly action and objective based learning, where the goal for the students was more the focus than the goal for the teacher.

I planned a really good course, I made it exciting and practical (I thought), and it turned out to be one of the best courses I had ever taught. However, a few weeks later, after my course, about 6 of my students were caught plagiarising, and they confessed to their teachers that they still did not understand the rules (I had taught them the rules). Then, a few months later, when I began to work with a few students from my class (within my specialisation), for building their thesis research proposals, I found that none of them remembered my rules/methods of research. All those exciting classes were as if they did not even exist. I had to start from scratch, helping students understand many basic elements of research and even had to go through the rules of plagiarism and formatting again. At that point I really felt like a failure. I couldn’t believe that after so much hard work, there was so little positive to show for it. I couldn’t help but think that something was wrong… in my teaching methodology, in the students, but also perhaps in the course itself.

After much reflection, and as I redesign the Research Methodology course yet again (I will be teaching it in June), I have at least identified a few problems.

A few of my struggles with the Research Methodology course are as follows:

i) The pace is too fast. In my own experience, I learned research by doing research through my long academic journey as a student. My Research Methodolgy course was not where I learned Research Methods, but over a period of several courses and years of trial and error. Research Methodology thus comes too soon, and attempts too much, in a short period of time. Many ideas of research are actually (in the developing world setting) fundamentally new for students (let alone some weakness in English), and I envisage that it could take more than a few courses/months to correct primary academic/thinking flaws.

ii) Spiritual vs academic. Research methodology is also a terrible “first” course for students entering seminary/theological colleges, because many of us come to such places with a “spiritual” goal, but the first course is as “non” spiritual as it gets. It’s hard to bring in theology consistently while teaching formatting rules, style guides, categorisations, argument construction etc.

iii) The institutional expectations tend to be unrealistic. Students, after doing this one-month course, are held accountable for understanding not just the Institutional rules (like footnote styles / formatting etc), but also, critical thinking skills, general research methodology skills, and sometimes most importantly, the ability to break a life-long habit of plagiarism. In my experience, most students, me too, learned most of these skills over time… but having a month, at the beginning of the academic year, with the students mostly just getting adjusted to the institution, its expectations and its ethos, there is just not enough time to achieve all this.

iv) The students are just not able to learn theory before practice. While I have tried making my class “practical” with lot of discussion, practical assignments… etc… there is no way I can prepare a student for what she/he will actually face in their first assignment and beyond. Learning the skills in abstract, separated from the real-life scenarios that the student will face (not just assignments, but departmental teacher-expectations), is actually no learning at all. Students are able to grasp the concepts in the month I teach, but they find themselves having to learn entirely new methodologies, ways of writing, researching, when the teachers gave courses. Ultimately, students adopt a practical methodology, a way of writing papers that is often completely different (even opposite) to the “theory” of research that I have been teaching. And naturally so. How much better would it be to work WITH students whlie they do their courses… while they do their assignments. In fact, focus on different aspects of research methodology for different courses/assignments. (perhaps within this is the natural problem of higher education where we teaching theories/theologies outside the real-life context of the world/church… as a result, here too students are faced with a dichotomy between theory and practice).

v) Large classes. Again, I think I did a good job putting people in smaller groups, getting discussions and activities within a smaller unit of the large classes. Yet, it was still evident that different students were learning at different paces, and especially the weaker students were getting left behind. (The stronger students, ironically, did not even need the research methodology course because they intuitively seemed to get everything).

vi) It’s not as much fun as actual research. As much as I try to make the students “do” research in the class, I find that the focus of learning skills is less exciting than actually going out and asking/answering questions. In a sense, what else is research methods but the learning to ask the right questions and finding the right way to answer those questions. And yet, the course focuses on meta issues, and addresses the needs/lacks that the institution finds in the students, rather than emerging as a need that the students themselves have, and thus want to find ways to solve/find help in.

So that’s just a brief list. In my more negative days, this list is longer. And I must admit that I have considered quiting teaching this subject. But I do feel that while some problems cannot be changed (like the course timing), perhaps the last point (vi), where I make this subject really something that students feel they need help in… to help students identify their own problems so that they seek out the solutions… could actually bring more lasting impact/change/help in them.

 

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Today was a focus on change; especially how institutions deal with large-scale changes, especially keeping in mind the political nature of curriculum formation. The session then concluded with a period of questions and assessment.

The concept of change was taught through the perspective of Salerno and Brock’s The Change Cycle. Keeping in mind, feelings, thoughts, and behaviour that are affected during the change process, we went through several tasks that was geared to help institutions identify significant potential change events occurring in the near future (for SAIACS it was the Mysore accreditation of MTh programme).  Using the primary change, we identified factors of fear/discontent during the change process, and we identified several strategies we could use to help address the change-factors.

This session was quite good, especially in view of the tasks. Of course more time could have helped… but it was much better to focus on tasks rather than simply lectures to deal with aspects/problems of change.

When we moved to the assessment section, it was good to have plenty of time for review. That was commendable. Personally I would have preferred a learning task as a proof that we have indeed learned something. For instance, we could each institution identify questions/comments about curriculum… and other seminaries look to provide a comment/assistance to those questions… that would help us to prove that we indeed learned something.

This public assessment was then moved to a private (without GATE facilitators) assessment… that helped raise specific critique of the workshop.

An important point was the lack of contextual analysis… an intentional attempt to see the relation to Indian context. It’s not enough to say that “you” do the context and we do content. That’s a fundamental error of education if it is not defined by context… and importantly we need to improve in modelling contextual learning.

Summary: it was a week that was well-worth the effort, though with room for improvement. Definitely, such initiatives help institutions, such as SAIACS, improve, to be better effective to do their mission.

Today’s session at the GATE workshop left me with mixed feelings. The structure, especially the early part… allowed for a lot of institutional engagement. For the first time, it actually felt like a workshop. However, it was a process that could have been significantly improved.

The morning began with each seminary working on a description of the ideal graduate for their respective seminary degree programmes. In particular, they were to identify the character and skill goals (expectations). These were developed in conjunction with one of the facilitators.We spent close to 2 hours… working on this.

So what was the problem? We had already done it the previous year, and yet there was no mention of the previous exercise… no relation to the difference between the past and present activity. Worse… many seminaries / participants didn’t even remember that they had done it. So in effect, neither the facilitators nor the participants added to the knowledge gained from the previous year. It was almost as if the last year didn’t need to happen.

Only after this concern was raised… the relation between past and present was addressed (late in the evening, last session). Which already suggested that within the context of adult learning… determining prior knowledge is of crucial importance.

Similarly, by the afternoon session, the input sessions dominated and once again there was no time for tasks… nor the workshop method. So the gains of the morning could not be extended.

Finally, however, right at the end, the SAIACS group had the opportunity to work through a “curriculum matrix” an interesting diagnostic tool. The activity engaged our table and also was quite significant in helping us related the “Theory” of curriculum to our actual application. Such activities, I feel, should have been the focus rather than just an add-on.

Nevertheless… some positive gains today. But tiredness and some disappointment has set in. Is it even possible to achieve the ideals of good education, good teaching?

Today we made the transition, from Year 3 to Year 4. Which is to say: we shifted our focus from “Leadership and Transformation in Education,” to “Curriculum Development.” For some of the participants, this was about time… as we all felt that we were supposed to be focussing on education all along. Personally, while I could understand the importance of leadership and governance issues for education, the facilitators did not make the education application/implications overt enough.

Nevertheless, it was a breath of fresh air, with the sessions being more engaging and diverse.

The input session of conflict management (morning session) had some interesting thoughts. I felt it could have been done better, especially, as I have said earlier, kept “tasks” as more central to the process than teaching. We were dealing with so many biblical models of reconciliation… but we could have spent more time in seeing how to improve conflict resolution practices personally or corporately (in the seminary context). Nevertheless some of the ideas were actually helpful: for eg, Duane Elmer’s ideas of cross cultural conflict resolution (like keeping the preservation of relationship as the paramount focus of any confrontation).

An important education lesson occurred as soon as the facilitator finished his session and began the next topic. We were dealing with heavy issues of conflict and reconciliation, and then, when that session ended, we moved immediately to curriculum development. Suddenly the facilitator stopped and admitted that transition was too soon, and he paused for prayer.. and gave us a break… and then re=began the new session on curriculum development. A good example of a teacher admitting mistake and recovering.

The afternoon session continued the discussion method… and the focus was also on curriculum development; this time on the assumptions that were evident (or needed to be explicit) in the development of curriculum. Now here, as expected, there were excellent pedagogical models. For instance, for a case-study discussion, the facilitator split the groups (shook comfort zones) and made us discuss. Also, every group’s results were given equal attention (and not hastily summarised). Then, the facilitator affirmed the group by showing that his own observations about assumptions were less than the whole assumptions noted by the groups. While most of us were critical of the central character in the case-study, then the facilitor urged us to think differently by identifying positives. Another helpful exercise.

However, here is when it fell away… when back in our college groups, we ran out of time… and were not able to have enough time to apply the lessons of assumptions on our own curriculum. In fact, even before we identified all our assumptions (no time to critique/evaluate them)… we had to move to the next topic.  Once again, the importance of keeping the main-thing, the main-thing was felt. I felt that the exercise of discussion is really good… however, the cost is time. So perhaps the discussions should be reserved to what really needs to be discussed… like how organisations see themselves… and we can rush the setup. (but this can have other sides… so it’s more a personal feeling).

The session concluded with another “input” session where developing curriculum was the focus. Again, the weakness of the input method was made explicit, even by the facilitator, but he pressed on. To his credit, there was the freedom to ask questions at anytime (in fact all input sessions allowed good question opportunities). However the predominant Input method just made questions feel like interruptions rather than the genuine addition to collective wisdom.

Anyway… I had a much better time today… and felt there were helpful ideas related to teaching/education to watch out for or incorporate.

Today’s workshop (focussing upon Governance/leadership that impacted implicit curriculum) was divided in two halves… through two methodologies. The morning was all input, with a few tasks. The afternoon was mostly discussion (participation), with some input.

It was surprising how engaging the afternoon session was (despite afternoon sessions being traditionally weak), and how difficult to participate in input session in the morning (despite “alert” morning time).

And once again, it showed (for me) how for adult learning, input through lecture is the worst, or at least an ineffective way, to communicate.

It was also interesting to see our education facilitators make certain mistakes… which taught not just by good example, but also bad.

For instance, the professor who used the lecture input method… put a lot of content in his session and ran out of time to do the tasks effectively. We rushed through tasks… and also the theoretical discussions could have been done so differently.

Similarly in the input session, the facilitator kept using his own example as a positive example… which (unintentionally?) put him as the teacher-authority. Alternatively, he could have spent more time in tasks, getting discussion over what he wanted to talk about. I’m sure that would have resulted in better (contextual) answers… without drawing attention to the examples that could arise from the institution faculty/leaders. That (according to what we were taught last year) would have given us participants more ownership on the content.

In the afternoon session, again focussing on leadership patterns that would affect implicit curriculum… the session was almost entirely discussion oriented.  Exciting and engaging. Yet two mistakes (according to me) here. The first discussion was based on two biblical case studies. However, because the texts were slightly controversial (or the method of deriving principles from Acts being controversial), it was easy for our group to get distracted from the main point of the discussion. Relatedly, it was the sum-up (the relation between leadership and curriculum) was not made explicit. And could have been the central focus of the discussion. So, rather than focus on the biblical passage and the principles… think about our own instition and see how we could do things differently by “learning from” these biblical examples.

The second error was structural… in the sense that the facilitator, interacting with our table (that talked a lot), spent a lot of time talking to “us”… with his back turned against another group that was not talking much. That I think sent the wrong signal… and made me feel a little uncomfortable with our participation… and also perhaps feeling a little bad for the other group who may (or may not) have felt ignored. Perhaps in large groups… every comment should be brought to the group… rather than limit to the group that asked the question. That would have allowed the other participants to feel more involved.

I also reacted strongly against what was called “S1 model of leadership,” by Blanchard?). It was interesting… but the problems were highlighted when “directive leadership” was thought to be appropriate in certain cases. While I did relent (especially where directive leadership is helpful in cases of counselling in extreme cases). But I really felt that in cases of teaching… no student (especially adult) is in need for directive teaching. But some seminaries actually felt that for the BTh level it was necessary. Which I really felt sad to hear. Do we not respect our students to participate in their learning… help them think for themselves… guide them (ie. more participatory) rather than telling them to learn something in a particular manner or else. This over-directive method of learning is a problem of education in India… and sadly we tend to justify it. I hope I can continue to fight against this malice… in myself… as well as in the systems that think it is appropriate.

Anyway… that’s my view for today. I really want to focus on education… so let’s see what’s in store tomorrow.

 

UNDERSTANDING CURRICULUM
(a diagram of processes and relationships of LEARNING OUTCOMES within educational institutions)

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A curriculum is usually more than just a listing of courses taught by an institution, but includes the intended learning outcomes/objectives of the overall program. This involves both classroom and outside-classroom activities; thus the overall experience of the learning within the institution.  However, this diagram shows that there is more at play in learning outcomes than just the intended outcomes of an institutional program.  Apart from a, b, c, d, there are also Hidden Curriculum (e) and Negative Outcomes (f) to consider. However, these spaces are not fixed and each institution can strive to get as much of its experience within the a, b, c (specified and controlled) spheres as possible.

A. EXPECTED LEARNING OUTCOMES DIRECTLY FROM COURSE CONTENT (CLASSROOM GOALS)
Content, Activities and Instruction specifically intended to achieve overall curriculum goals.  This would include all academic skills and knowledge-acquisitions intended by the college as well as modelling and mentoring by classroom teacher.

B. EXPECTED OUTCOMES THROUGH INDIRECT ELEMENTS
The institutional “hopes” for campus relationships, Chapel attendance, general library browsing, inspiration from wall-hanging, campus etc anything out of the direct
control of the institution

C. EXPECTED LEARNING OUTCOMES DIRECTLY FROM COLLEGE ACTIVITIES OUTSIDE CLASSROOM (CO-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES)
This includes activities like Cell Groups, Sports, Prayer Days, Mission Conferences etc. which are college activities pre-designed to achieve overall curriculum goals. This could include certain knowledge/skills acquisition, but is usually non-academic in nature, and yet part of the transformative experience intended by the institution

D. UNEXPECTED LEARNING OUTCOMES DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY GAINED FROM COURSE CONTENT, OR CO-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES THAT AID IN FULFILFILLING CURRICULAR GOALS
This includes anything positive is known or unknown, that unintentionally helps fulfil institutional goals. For instance, a selfless (and un-conscious) act of kindness by a faculty that helps a student become more positive in life and mission etc

E. HIDDEN CURRICULUM
Goals and purposes that are “evidently” important for the institution but not specified anywhere. This is sometimes seen through unwritten rules and dispositions passed on through the institutional traditions. Simplistically, any institutional goal that is not overtly specified to learners and educators and is still a “hidden” curriculum

F. NEGATIVE OUTCOMES
When usually unintentional messages are given to students that are entirely contradictory to the overall curriculum goals of the institution.  For instance the curricular goal of equality/egalitarianism but a teacher tends to put down women students, or some one discriminates against maintenance staff.

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