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The inspiring syllabus challenge, revisited

July 27, 2011

Today during an Apple Distinguished Educator Webinar on Math teaching, Dan Meyer rocked the house by talking how how we as teacher sell math. Here’s the analogy he used, paraphrased by me:

If a knife salesman comes to your door and says “these knives are really sharp and super useful,” and you say “great, here’s an old tennis shoe, show me how it can cut through it,” the salesman can’t respond with, let me show you this picture of how well the knife cuts through shoes.

I think it’s interesting to think about my job as a salesman of physics, and how as Dan says, if I look at it one way, my job is easy. Every student at my school is forced to take physics, and since they all want a good grade, they put on a pretty good show of trying to like it. But what if things were different? What if, this afternoon, I had to go to the local theme park and recruit 16 students to take my class simply for the joy of learning? Could I do it? I’m skeptical.

I want to push Dan’s salesman metaphor a bit to revisit the inspiring syllabus challenge I wrote about back in November. Using his metaphor, your syllabus is like the knife salesmen’s brochure. It’s often the first document related to your class the student sees. I would argue that just like a college viewbook mailed to a prospective student, it should paint a picture of your class, and it should make students want to take the class. Of course, a brochure alone isn’t enough, but I can think of plenty of times when I’ve been sent a crappy brochure some sort of product or service and dismissed it out of hand simply because of the unappealing design and content of the brochure.

I think we are too often caught up into trying to turn the syllabus into some sort of air-tight legal document that spells out an exhaustive list of consequences for every bad action, and in the effort to infuse our documents with authority and legalese, we drain them of personality and engagement.

Here’s one of my earliest efforts. I don’t think this document could sell young Richard Feynman on the joys of taking physics.

View this document on Scribd

And here’s what I came up with last year, after trying to hold everything to one page and put the focus squarely on communicating the big idea as I see it: that physics changes how you see the world.

View this document on Scribd

I think this document can be improved further, so I’m putting it out there for suggestions and edits, and I want to challenge you to share your syllabus and think about how well it could sell students on taking your course, without any external incentives or requirements.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011 2:02 am

    What a great idea!! I thought my syllabus was well, okay, but your’s is inspiring! I want to play too, I’ll work on it and share later. You set the bar really high.

  2. July 27, 2011 9:35 am

    The second syllabus is much more refreshing!

    I’m sure there is some kind of school rule about grades — but since there is no such thing as C+ or B+ then I don’t see a reason for C- or B- … it is just so demotivating to only have the option of a minus with no option for plus… BUT if plus and minus are removed then the grading scale could be simplified – which would be great because the current descriptions make my head spin:

    F= Core Skills not Mastered
    C = Core Skills Mastered
    B = Intermediate Concepts/Content Mastered
    A = Advanced Concepts/Content Mastered

    If there is a school rule that minuses must be then, well, a girl can at least dream for simplicity anyway.

    • July 27, 2011 11:48 am

      Yes—the grading section is getting completely retooled (it wouldn’t be a proper school year if I didn’t tweak my grading system somehow), and the scale was confusing and unhelpful. Stay tuned…

  3. Agnes permalink
    July 27, 2011 11:13 am

    Pretty good!!!!
    I was wondering/pondering how I could use a QR generator to increase student engagement into my syllabus. All suggestions welcome 🙂

    • July 27, 2011 11:47 am

      Agnes, check out this super creative use of QR codes that I think might actually make for a really interesting activity in a foreign language class. What if your syllabus were simply a photo of you, and the QR code lined to a video file explaining what your class is all about. Might be a bit too extreme, but it would be pushing the envelope of syllabus design.

      • Agnes permalink
        July 29, 2011 11:16 am

        FABULOUS idea 🙂 Better get to work! I will be playing around with a few different options. I like this.

  4. Robert Bell permalink
    July 27, 2011 1:00 pm

    Well done John!
    If we believe Physics is an inspiring subject, which I’m sure we do, then let’s inspire. I have no doubt that this approach will provide a good deal of stimulus for us all.

    Keep up the good work.

    • July 28, 2011 10:32 pm

      great idea, this is going to be one of my many projects in the upcoming weeks. my to do list keeps getting longer! thanks for the inspiration.

  5. July 29, 2011 1:06 am

    Wow, I really like the first page. I might add in a little more on what exactly the course will cover, but I would feel pretty good having that be the first thing I give my students. I’m working on my first syllabus (, but I think I’m going to try to retool it a little more in the line of what you’re doing.

    • July 30, 2011 11:23 am

      Thanks—kelly’s right in her blog post that is linked above. This isn’t really a syllabus, it’s more of a course description. I need to really work on the syllabus that explains the topics the course will cover as well.


  1. Honors Physics Course Information Handout « Physics! Blog!
  2. Inspirational Syllabus Challenge | Pedagogue Padawan
  3. Response to John’s Challenge: My syllabus « Acceleration Due To Gravity
  4. DT Approach to an Inspiring Syllabus Challenge « Planting T's
  5. It’s not about the syllabus… « Quantum Progress
  6. Some quick thoughts | Non-Inertial Teaching
  7. Syllabus Revision | Finding the Process

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