Backward is Forward

Dr. McDaniel teaches history at Rice University, which is just a few miles down the road from where I live in the south suburbs of Houston. This semester he is teaching a survey course in American History (I can see some of you are already falling asleep. Wake up!), but he does not want this to be a traditional survey course. Dr. McDaniel is going to teach this survey course starting in the present and going backwards into the past.

This is not an entirely new concept, as McDaniel points out in a very well reasoned argument about why a survey in history especially benefits from starting at the end. While the idea itself is compelling, it is the methodology of the course he envisions that strikes my imagination.

Dr. McDaniel wants the course to be question driven. Questioning the material and facts is a level of learning that students never achieve simply listening to lectures. It forces students to understand what they are learning and create new avenues of thought based on those new facts.

Students will read and review primary sources and then investigate some aspect of that source, an unfamiliar name or event mentioned in the source, for example. Based on their investigation, the students will then create a list of questions.

In class, the questions and issues the students have generated will be discussed as a group. The class, as a group, decides the top questions they wish to explore further. On the next class day, Dr. McDaniel will give a lecture that addresses the questions the class has identified as the most important.

This backwards, participatory approach not only forces the students to be engaged in their own learning process, it gives them the ability to control the direction of the class. It is mob rule learning at its finest.

As Dr. McDaniel points out, this process will also develop information literacy in his students. He says,

“Focusing my efforts on “historical thinking” will, I hope, better prepare students to critically analyze the history and pseudo-history they will encounter throughout their lives, whether at the movies, on cable news, or in written form.”

Dr. McDaniel has developed a course that teaches students how to navigate and evaluate information they will encounter in the real world, not just memorize facts on a timeline. I hope Dr. McDaniel updates us on the progress of his class over the semester and at its conclusion. His new approach has all the hallmarks of a course in which the students will be engaged and aggressively seeking a new understanding of their world. Bravo, I say, bravo!

–Jane, thanks to my friend Andromeda for sending this my way