Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Reflection on Novak's "On the politics of teaching reform"

David Koetje reflects on Gregor Novak's essay and his own experiences with changes in the biology curriculum at Calvin College.

A little over a year ago when my department started taking a good look at our curriculum, we assigned each faculty member to a small group. Each group was assigned to complete a SWOT analysis of an area of our curriculum: cellular & molecular biology, organismal & developmental biology, and ecology. These analyses then became the basis of a departmental retreat. The group reports highlighted some common concerns with the introductory courses in our major. Namely, in our rush to cover the material, students were not fully grasping the concepts nor retaining them as well as we hoped. Presentations at the retreat next focused on recent pedagogical innovations and curricular reforms based on new understandings of cognition. This was the first time our department had really taken a hard look at our curriculum in light of the trends Gregor Novak discusses in his article On the Politics of Teaching Reform.

As Novak points out from his experience, faculty members in our department responded to the challenge in different ways. Some were enthusiastic to get going on changing everything right away. Others were interested, but a bit wary of changing too much too quickly. Others were quite skeptical. Nevertheless, with the department’s blessing a group of faculty more positively disposed to reform began to sketch out a blueprint for curricular reform in the ensuing months.

We also agreed to meet each month for a departmental colloquium at which time we would discuss the changes in today’s college student population, How People Learn, and pedagogical innovations. The wisdom of this approach is that it engaged everyone in the reform process - including those whose job it was to ask the tough questions, keeping the blueprint grounded in reality. Eventually, nearly everyone in the department came on board with the new blueprint. More importantly, faculty were trying out a few changes here and there in their courses and sharing experiences that worked well and even those that did not work so well. In fact, the latter generated a greater sense of shared commitment in working out the bumps. The semester ended with a colloquium in which we invited selected students from across the department to share with faculty their honest opinions and experiences about what is and isn’t working. That colloquium became the highlight of the year for faculty - each taking from it some words of encouragement and some ideas to reinvigorate our teaching.