The inspiring syllabus challenge, revisited
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.
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.
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.