kitchen table math, the sequel: chemprof on college curriculum

Friday, April 29, 2011

chemprof on college curriculum

on the subject of college professors writing curriculum:
[F]aculty in the sciences do develop curriculum in that they set the topic order and that they often ignore the textbook's order (I think the order in most Gen Chem books is awful, as an example).

However, for a lot of classes, there is a national curriculum or at least a consensus in the field. Someone who taught a class called general chemistry who decided to skip stoichiometry or gas laws would be doing his/her students a serious disservice, as would someone who decided to skip kinematics in physics. That may not be as true in upper division classes, though, where there is often less agreement about exactly what needs to be taught.


Anonymous said...

Of the 6 classes I taught this year (all to college seniors or grad students) only 2 had required texts, and only 1 had the students actually assigned specific readings in the text. There were some recommended books for reference in other classes, but for the most part we rely on the original literature (in journals) and students are often expected to find the interesting papers themselves (4 of the classes had training sessions from a science librarian in advanced search techniques).

I have created the curriculum for almost all the classes I have ever taught. The ones where I was handed a textbook to follow were among the worst classes I've taught. But I only teach subjects that I know very well (or at least think that I know well)---and that is the big difference between college and K-8 teaching.

Allison said...

I wrote this on the other thread, but since Catherine pulled it out, I'll repost here.


This gets back to the problem of standards vs curricula.

YES, in college science, eng, and math courses, there is, at least for the freshman level courses, consensus on what should be covered.

This consensus is over THE STANDARDS. The standards are not curriculum. The standards are the set of requirements of what should be taught. But standards don't implement requirements. Curricula does that, and there is much less consensus on the design of a course, or the "how a course" is taught.

Standards are requirements. Requirements express individual elements that a design of a product or system must satisfy. Building codes are requirements: they specify that a house must withstand 75 mph straight line winds without falling down; that the electrical system contains ground wires; that every room of the house contains a smoke detector. They don't dictate how you go about building the house though. They don't dictate if it's wood or brick, nor if it's 1000 sq ft or 3000, nor 1 bathroom or 3. They don't dictate the features of the house at all.

Likewise, consider the requirements of a cell phone: they must speak various protocols like 3G, must all talk to cell towers and tell them the Sim card ID in that exchange; must all broadcast emergency location information. None of that dictates whether or not you have an iphone or an android or a cheap disposable. A maker might have customer driven reqs, like "be less than 8 ounces, be smaller than 3/4 inch in depth", but again, that doesn't tell you about the feature set or how well it's designed.

The same is true in courses and texts. Standards do not implement themselves. Curricula implements the standards. But the notion of HOW those requirements are met is open to the prof in most cases, and to the department, but no one bigger than that is telling someone what to say in their course. The standards of academic freedom at most schools would never consider intervening to tell a prof what they can't teach. They fulfill the standards because profs believe in them, and are steeped in their discipline's ideas of standards. Over time, those change, but academics are pretty clear on this separation of standards vs curricula.

So, yes, a freshman physics course needs to teach kinematics; a chem course stoichiometry. These ideas are the standards for courses. But it leaves open both the design of the course--how much lecture/recitation/lab/homework/onlineness and the implementation--how do you actually teach that material, how do you organize it, what comes first, etc., what problems are given as examples and what are done by student in problem sets, etc.

Professors in the sciences design their own curricula based on the acceptable standards in their field and in their department.

Now, I am also not sure what Catherine was getting at by "college textbooks are peer reviewed" . I mean, the American Mathematical Society will publish any book that a member in good standing submits, basically, and the only person whose responsible for the content is the author. Sure, they may insist on some actual editing but these books are not peer reviewed other than in the sense that colleagues are asked to provide input informally, and the nature of colleagues is that they respond reciprocally.

K-12 textbooks are peer reviewed all the time. the problem is who is considered a peer.

Bonnie said...

In computer science, we absolutely design our own curricula. At the departmental level, we have a curriculum committee that chooses which courses we will offer. If you look at various CS departments, you will see that the courses are all over the place as a result. Usually, the curriculum committee approves a hazy list of topics or outcomes for each course, but how the course is taught, which textbook (if any - there aren't textbooks for a lot of advanced courses), which tools we will use, how we will assess students - it is all up to us.

In computer science, the ACM publishes standards for CS programs, but it is really just a jumbled list of topics that could be offered in any order. And many schools treat the ACM standards as advisory only. The more important factors in deciding what to teach are
1. do we have a faculty member who could teach that course? (and that is a BIG issue in computer science - many small departments are filled with mathematicians rather than computer science folks)
2. Could our students possibly pass that course?
3. Are there enough students to actually run that course?
4. and finally - does this course make any sense for our program?

I go to enough CS education conferences to have become convinced that there ARE no standards in CS education.

Catherine Johnson said...

Bonnie - That's really interesting.

I know essentially nothing about computer science as a field --- is it a 'field' at this point?

I'm not asking that right....I guess I'm asking whether computer science is a 'discipline,' in the way that history and math and chemistry are disciplines.

I'm assuming that it may still be too new to have cohered into a discipline ---- ?

Bonnie said...

We computer scientists consider it to be a field!! I think most universities consider it to be a field, since we usually get our own department.

It is a discipline too, although there is a lot of discussion on what constitutes computer science as a discipline. Right now, the buzzword is "computational thinking". Jeanette Wing from CMU first coined this term, and it has been widely adopted since. I have some real issues with the idea that computer science is exactly the same as computational thinking, since I believe that computer science lies firmly with the engineering disciplines. However, I think the idea of computational thinking is important, and may be especially important for what it says about what we should be teaching in K12 math.

Computational thinking links