The Big Picture and the Drug of Easy Understanding: Part II (Eclectic Boogaloo)

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the desire to place work into some sort of grand scheme, referring to movies and films, and illustrating why it’s hard to guarantee consistency from a sketch of your strategy unless you implement everything before you make it available to people. While building upon previous work is very useful, as I’m doing now, if you want to keep later works short by referring back to a shared context established in a previous work, it does make you susceptible to inconsistency if a later work makes you realise that assumptions in a previous work were actually wrong. As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’m actually writing these posts side by side and scheduling them for later, to ensure that I don’t make any more mistakes than I have to, which I can’t easily correct because the work is already displayed.

Some strategies are easier to imagine than others.

Strategic approaches to the construction of long term and complex works are essential, but a strategic plan needs to be sufficiently detailed in order to guide the works produced from it. You might get away with an abstract strategy if you produce all of the related works at one time and view them together. But, assuming that works are so long term that they can’t be produced in one sitting, you don’t want to have to seriously revise previous productions or, worse, change the strategy. This is particularly damaging when you are working with students because any significant change to the knowledge construction that you’ve been working with is going to cost you a lot of credibility and risk a high level of disengagement. Students will tolerate an amount of honest mistake, assuming that you are honest and that it is a mistake, but they tend to be very judgmental regarding poor time planning and what they perceive as laziness.

And that, in my opinion, is completely fair because we tend not to allow them poor time planning either. Going into an examination with a misunderstanding of the details of the overlying strategy will result in a non-negotiable fail, not extended understanding from the marking groups who are looking at examination performance. For me, this is an issue of professional ethics in that a consistent and fair delivery of teaching materials will facilitate learning, firstly by keeping the knowledge pathways ‘clean’ but also by establishing a relationship that you are working as hard to be fair to the student as you can, hence their effort is not wasted and you establish a bond of trust.

Now while I would love to say that this means that I have written every lecture completely before starting a new course, this would not be the truth. But this does mean that my strategic planning for new works and knowledge is broken down to a fairly fine grain plan before I start the course running. I wrote a new course last semester and the overall course had been broken up by area, sub-area, learning outcome and was built with all practicals, tutorials and activities clearly indicated. I had also spent a long time identifying the design of the overall course and the focus that we would be taking throughout, down to the structure of every lecture. When it came to writing the lectures themselves, I knew which lectures would contain ‘achievement’ items (the drug aspect where students get a buzz from the “A-ha!” moment), I knew where the pivotal points were and I’d also spent some time working out which skills I could expect in this group, and which skills later courses would expect from them.

We do have a big picture for teaching our students, in that they are part of a particular implementation of a degree that will qualify them in such-and-such a discipline. We can see the discipline syllabi, current learning and teaching practices, our local requirements and the resources that we have to carry all of this out. But this is no longer a strategy and, the more I worked with things, the more I realised that I had produced a tactical (or operational) plan for each week of the lectures – and I had to be diligent about this because one third of my lectures were being given by someone who was a new lecturer. So, on top of all the planning, every lecture had to be self-contained and instructionally annotated so that a new lecturer, with some briefing from me, could carry it out. And it all had to fit together so that structurally, semantically and stylistically, it all looked like one smooth flow.

Had I left the strategic planning to one side, in either not pursuing it or in leaving it too late, or had I not looked at all of the strategic elements that I had to consider, then my operational plan for each week would have been ad hoc or non-existent. Worse, it may have been an unattainable plan; a waste of my time and the students’ efforts. We have far less excuse than George Lucas does for pretending that Star Wars was part of some enormous nine movie vision – although, to be fair, it doesn’t mean that this wasn’t somewhere in his head, but it obviously wasn’t sufficiently well plotted to guarantee a required level of consistency to make us really believe that statement.

The Big Picture is a framing that helps certain creative works drag you in and make more money, whereas in other words it is a valid structure that supports and develops consistency within a shared context. Our work as educators fits squarely into the final category. Without a solid plan, we risk making short-sighted decisions that please us or the student with ‘easy’ reward activities or the answers that come to hand at the time.

I’m not saying that certain elements have to be left out of our teaching, or that we have to be rigid in an inflexible structure, but consistency and reliability are two very important aspects of gaining student trust and, if holding it together over six serial instalments is too hard for Stephen King, then trying to achieve this, without some serious and detailed planning, over 36 lectures spanning four months is probably too much for most of us. The Big Picture, for us, is something that I believe we can find and use very effectively to make our teaching even better, effectively reducing our workload throughout the semester because we don’t have to carry out massive revisions or fixes, with a little more investment of time up front.

(Afterthought: I had no idea that Dr Steele has released an album called “Eclectic Boogaloo”. I was riffing on the old “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” thing. In my defence, it was the 80s and we all looked like this:

This is considered one of the worst movies ever made. Yes, even when you take Gigli into account.

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