UW News

March 6, 2008

Class Notes: Learning by teaching, writing and service

Class titles: What We Know and How We Know it; Teaching What We Know and Serving Others with What We Know — a three-term sequence in Undergraduate Honors, taught by Frances McCue, writer in residence in the Undergraduate Honors Program and part-time lecturer in the College of Education.

Description: Being an expert is one thing, but learning how to transmit knowledge to others is quite another. In an era when content is overwhelming us, with new “expertise” being dropped into cyberspace and expanding knowledge minute by minute, our culture needs good teachers and strong writers. This series of courses begins in the fall term with “What We Know and How We Know It,” an exploration of six disciplines through writing, dialogue and lectures by guest speakers. A philosopher, social anthropologist, mathematician, cultural theorist, scientist and ethicist visit the course and students try their hands at different writing styles used in these fields, learning the different rules of evidence and styles of inquiry prevalent in each one. Then, in the second term, students may embark on “Teaching What We Know,” an experiential workshop that studies educational theory and practice. In the class, students teach each other, critiquing methods for reaching different learners. For the third term, in conjunction with The Pipeline Project, each student is placed into underserved schools and/or nonprofit organizations for a teaching practicum.

Instructor says: “In our complex, fast moving world, the qualities of a good teacher are essential. Learning how we learn is crucial to our ability to work in teams, to mentor others and to transmit knowledge. Writing for different audiences is a crucial skill for educated citizens. Students of all fields should be able to write clear, opinionated op eds, succinct memoranda to colleagues, sophisticated academic research papers, lab reports, engaging essays, poems and proposals. We try our hands at all of these as we learn different theories of knowledge and teaching. I think of this class as a gateway into the honors program.”

Unexpected experiences: McCue says she’s surprised by how versatile the students’ writing is and by the depth of self-knowledge they bring into their teaching. “Professor Gene Edgar and I began this as a pilot program last year and I’m surprised by how much the students were craving more writing and teaching opportunities.”

Student views: “I signed up for Frances’ class because the one she taught in the fall was so fantastic,” wrote student Sean Clancey. “Her style draws out the creativity, interests and perspectives of the other students. The resulting exchange of ideas has been refreshing. We read theory on all kinds of things; through writing and other activities, we synthesized the theories into our own methodologies for exchanging knowledge with others.”

Clancey added, “Even if I don’t go into education, it feels like the kind of thing that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

Student Nicolle Perisho wrote, “Frances defies teaching norms through her methods. She assigns open-ended papers that allow exploration of a particular topic, yet keep the ability to focus on individual interests. We have in-class writing exercises, such as writing proverbs about teaching, inspired by slides of abstract art. Seemingly strange activities end up uncovering our own insights on a topic. She treats us as peers, learning from each of our contributions. Her enthusiasm and encouraging support is unwavering. Her classes are amazing and truly inspire me to continue writing and learning.”

Reading list: Twenty Years at Hull House by Jane Addams; Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. Also, excerpts from: To Teach: The Journey of A Teacher by William Ayers; Embracing Contraries, by Peter Elbow; On Teaching by Herbert Kohl; Flow by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi; Horace’s Compromise, by Theodore Sizer; The Having of Wonderful Ideas by Eleanor Duckworth, A Piaget Primer: How a Child Thinks, by Dorothy Singer and Tracey Revenson. Also, “The Arts and Civic Space: An Experiment in Community Education” by Frances McCue from Teachers College Record; “Making Things and Making Things Better” by Frances McCue in Seattle Journal For Social Justice. Vol. 2 Issue 2; and “Gene’s Theory of Teaching and Learning,” an unpublished paper by the UW College of Education’s Eugene Edgar;

Assignments: “In addition to reading and extensive classroom discussions, students also perform writing exercises that trigger new ideas. They write character sketches and speculative fictions to develop their teaching “personas,” McCue said.

Class Notes is a periodic column describing interesting or unusual class at the UW.