Teaching in Dialogue: Content-independent learning

close up of book spines

I was inspired to write this post after reading accounts of content-independent learning by Maha Bali and others. Content-independent learning is promoted in collaborative learning communities where students have a significant input into the topics they study and how they study them. The course organiser does not provide a reading list and there is no canonical body of knowledge to be absorbed. The curriculum is theorised as a dialogue between teacher and the student group.

I was intrigued by this model because most of the courses I work on are either content or skills focused. Some use content to teach skills, such as the Sociology department’s research training course, Designing and Doing Social Research which I organise. Content-independent learning implies a different direction, where students and teachers work from their skills towards content.

Some courses in the School of Social and Political Sciences adopt this model, such as SPS Research in Practice, and Contemporary Issues in Sociology, and many others combine elements of it where students can pursue some of their own ideas in class. To be successful, this model implies a number of features that need to be in place (adapted from Maha Bali):

  • Common purpose and mutual trust between teacher or teachers and students
  • Students who are skilled in finding and filtering material independently
  • Room in the timetable for small group work
  • Students and teachers who are willing to reduce the status difference between them, yielding ‘control’ to the course community rather than any one individual
  • Willingness to engage with the course outside of class time by both students and teacher
  • Flexible learning tools which can record discussion and collaboration
  • Flexible modes of assessment which would adapt to emerging themes

It struck me that most textbooks resist this mode of learning, and as many students go through school learning from textbooks they become used to a content-driven idea of learning and assessment. Many textbooks are weighed down by content and adhere to the ‘huge brick’ model. To some extent the textbook substitutes for the role and authority of the teacher, and teacher and students come to depend on and defer to it. This is not an approach guaranteed to produce students willing to fly without a parachute.

The way in which textbooks cement a particular kind of curriculum came to mind in the context of developing my own textbook, Dead White Men and Other Important People, with Ralph Fevre, which had its second edition published this year. The book introduces students to sociological ideas. When writing the book we wanted to make it relevant to students’ lives, but also to produce a textbook that was context and to some extent content-independent. The reason for this is that content-heavy approaches tend to date and travel badly. Using examples from a British soap opera to illustrate ideas of social class works well in the UK but not in China, for example.

The approach we developed was to write the book as a novel, which follows our character, Mila, and her friends and family through university life. In writing the book we grappled with having the sociology taught through a student’s voice rather than the disembodied voice of academic authority that is often adopted in textbooks. As we wrote it, we introduced several different voices. There is the authoritative voice of Mila’s teachers and textbooks. It is the kind of voice students will come across when they read textbooks and listen to academics.  We also showed other voices that challenge some of these voices – other students, family members, passers-by – with other kinds of knowledge and perspectives on the issues Mila grapples with. The book shows the importance of learning from others, involving intellectual foils and critical friends in students’ development.

Without our intending it the book became about how students create learning communities around themselves and how they understand their position in that community. Content-independent learning puts the course community at its heart. It is also a fact that all teachers must consider. Communities form around our courses both formally and informally, whether we know about them or not. They range from tutorial groups as formal learning communities, to all night student get-togethers around crisis moments such as a looming essay deadline. How you build that community up is a key question for course organisers.

To develop content-independent learning in our own contexts we could do the following:

  1. Encourage students to assess their own skills and expectations at the start of the course.
  2. Allow for different routes to achieve the learning aims of the course.
  3. Have the course community decide some of its aims (e.g. have a competition between groups to formulate essay topics).

Find out more:

Curriculum Theory and Practice on the infed website

Angus Bancroft

Angus is a lecturer in Sociology. He researches cyber-crime, the darknet, illicit markets and illicit drug use.

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