By Treva Clark
As educators, we all crave those days when the wisdom we have to impart is greeted with an open willingness to learn … to understand … to grasp the fullness of exposure to a world beyond these campus walls and to, in turn, light some spark in our students. That spark, I believe, is curiosity and its elusiveness is something I struggle with regularly as I aspire to craft classroom experiences filled not with the dissemination of information but the achievement of genuine learning.
I have a quotation posted on my office bulletin board from the American journalist, philosopher and social critic Margaret Fuller which states, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it” (1852). I’m inspired by this quotation, primarily because too often my approach can drift to one whereby I attempt to (figuratively, thank goodness!) set my students on fire with a blow-torch rather than trust them to come toward the ‘light’ in their own time and in their own way, to light their candles intentionally and in meaningful ways. Pedagogically speaking, perhaps the spark of curiosity which moves our students forward into seeking understanding can best be ignited with deliberate relevance and the mutual answering of the “So What” question that can plague educators of all disciplines.
I recently had the opportunity to put this pedagogical approach into practice with my International Business Management students. Responding to a report from the National Geographic Society (2012) that young Americans (ages 18-24) demonstrate a “limited understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders, and they place insufficient importance on the basic geographic skills that might enhance their knowledge” (p. 6), I requested approval from the NGS to have my students take the basic geographic literacy quiz used to inform the survey results, and to compare my students’ performance with those collected in the study. While I hoped for better, I found my students (remember, these are INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS students) near the survey norm in “Basic Geographic Skills”, yet well below average in “Knowledge About the World”, with a distressing 31% responding it is “not at all important” to know where countries in the news are located. My task, as I accept it with the findings of this limited assessment, is to lead this group of students who are clearly disengaged from what’s happening “out there” to not only an understanding of current events shaping our world, but to apply why it is relevant and important to them and what they hope to achieve in life after LVC.
Instead of presenting information to fills gaps of what they don’t know, I’ve re-worked the course material to first emphasize why a particular event or location or region or alliance is important to understand, what businesses in our region are affected by it, and who stands to gain or lose by particular outcomes. In developing the concept of exports, for example, as a method of market entry used by many business for international expansion, instead of focusing on the impact of exports on balance of trade data I am instead focusing on individual local businesses who export, plotting and mapping the locations of their export partners, and calculating the per capita contribution of export revenues to populations in local counties or the state … in other words, presenting the data from a perspective of relevance rather than concept definition.
Perhaps the biggest challenge I faced and needed to overcome in my attempt to apply this modified pedagogy was how best to efficiently and effectively cover all necessary fundamental and principles inherent to an understanding of International Business Management practices while, at the same time, incorporating the above noted specific points of relevance. Candidly, some topics lend easily to relevance application, and others do not. I have taken the initial approach to convert some, but not all, assignments, discussion topics, and assessment tools to incorporate the practical application of relevance in those topical areas where it makes the most sense; to, in essence, fix the ‘most broken’ wheel first and learn from those experiences where and how to make the next set of assignment modifications. One rather immediate outcome from this shift to focused relevance has been a determination that the textbook I had been using for several years simply did not incorporate the kind of experiential learning to my classroom that I felt was possible and necessary, so I’ve taken the steps to utilize a customized textbook with the assistance of a publisher more keen to adaptive instructional resource development. The time I invest now in this adjustment to more applicable and easily adapted instructional support materials will, in the end, reflect in higher levels of student engagement and improved performance on future assessments in this course.
I intend, at the end of the semester, to have students complete another survey providing me with both pre- and post-instructional data to begin tracking the effectiveness of this modified approach, albeit with somewhat limited evidence and an admittedly small sample size. NGS has agreed to allow me to use their model survey in order to maintain consistency with the national study, and the post-data will reflect current issues and timely events realized during the course of this term of study. I can say at this point, empirically speaking, that students seem more engaged and the level of unstructured conversation has improved in this particular class. While it’s too early to claim victory, early evidence appears to suggest the results are worth the effort.
In Parker Palmer’s classic text The Courage to Teach (2007), he urges educators to not be afraid to try something new. Palmer reminds us “Each time I walk into a classroom, I can choose the place within myself from which my teaching will come, just as I can choose the place within my students toward which my teaching will be aimed. I need not teach from a fearful place: I can teach from curiosity or hope to empathy or honesty, places that are just as real” (p. 58). I am working to teach from relevance, in a deliberate effort to find that place of curiosity in my students. We will all be better for it in the end.