Academic journal article Sociological Focus

North Central Sociological Association 2014 Teaching Address: The John F. Schnabel Lecture-Sociology's Special Pedagogical Challenge

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

North Central Sociological Association 2014 Teaching Address: The John F. Schnabel Lecture-Sociology's Special Pedagogical Challenge

Article excerpt

Instructors and students must overcome a course's special pedagogical challenge in order for meaningful and important learning to occur. While some suggest that the special pedagogical problem varies by course, I contend that the special pedagogical problem is likely to be shared across a discipline's curriculum, rather than being unique to each course. After reviewing a three-part typology of learning outcomes for sociology, I argue that the development of students' sociological imaginations is sociology's special pedagogical challenge; I then offer some general guidelines for teaching strategies to enhance the students' success in developing a sociological imagination.

In something of a brief aside in his book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2003), L. Dee Fink suggests that every course presents a special pedagogical challenge. According to Fink (2003:72), the special pedagogical challenge is a particular problem that tests the ability of both instructor and students to ensure that "meaningful and important" learning occurs. Fink offers several illustrations of special pedagogical challenges. In statistics courses, the significant pedagogical which must be overcome is fear of statistics. Students often enter a statistics course with the view that math is something they are "just not good at." Therefore, students either fail to put forth the effort necessary to learn statistics because they believe it is hopeless or they become so anxious about their perceived lack of ability that the anxiety undermines their learning in what amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy. In teaching German, Fink suggests the special pedagogical challenge may be Hitler. Students come to German class interested in only the Holocaust, Hitler, and the Nazis. Anything else covered in the course is perceived as a distraction from what students find most interesting. In psychology the special pedagogical challenge may be students' perception that it's all "common sense." If psychology is merely common sense, then students need not study or work hard because they already "know" the material. Each of these special pedagogical challenges amounts to a significant problem which must be overcome in order for learning to occur most effectively in a course.

So what's a professor to do about the special pedagogical problem in his/her course? Fink (2003) points out that one constructive response is to consider the alignment of goals, strategies, and assessments in our courses and curricula in the context of the specific pedagogical challenge. How can we design our courses to overcome the special pedagogical challenge to ensure that meaningful and important learning is occurring? Fink concludes that if an instructor can overcome the significant pedagogical challenge in a course, then the probability of student success is vastly improved.

While Fink's (2003) description of the specific pedagogical challenge focuses on specific courses, it is worth asking, do disciplines have special pedagogical challenges? I believe they do, and, in fact, it may be more beneficial to think of the special pedagogical challenge as commonly shared within a discipline rather than as something unique to each course. In most disciplines the subject matter is similar enough that the special pedagogical challenges are likely to be shared across most courses within a discipline. For example, in sociology, would the special pedagogical challenge in gender be vastly different than in teaching race and ethnicity? Would the special pedagogical challenge in teaching stratification be significantly different than in teaching social theory? Of course, there are exceptions. The specific pedagogical challenge in a sociological statistics course is likely the "fear of math" problem. And it may well be the case that in well-designed curricula where the learning objectives in 300- and 400-level courses build upon learning in 200-level courses which, in turn, are built upon learning outcomes in introductory or gateway courses, the specific pedagogical challenges may differ somewhat by course level- though it is certainly not a given that the curricula in most sociology programs are so carefully structured. …

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