Teacher Becomes Student: An Adventure in Online Summer Learning: Part 1, Initial Thoughts

This summer, I am taking three online courses: introduction to macroeconomics, intermediate economics, and introduction to prose forms (an English literature course). The motive for this came from the job hunt; I want to expand the courses I am qualified to teach, to broaden the choices for jobs I can apply for. To do that, I need to take qualification courses such as these from Western University or this one from Queen’s University. To do that, if you took a peek at those prerequisites, I need more undergraduate credits.

So, here I am, a student again.

This is an opportunity, beyond the practical career considerations. I have learned a lot about teaching from the past two years, from, well, being a teacher, but also from the reading I’ve been doing: books such as this and this, blogs such as this and this. Experiencing learning from a student perspective can help consolidate and expand some of what I’ve learned about teaching.

At this point, I don’t have too much to say, having just started the courses, beyond a few initial thoughts and observations.

I am grateful for what lingers in my long-term memory. As you can see, one of the courses I am taking is intermediate microeconomics. Which means I took the introduction course at some point, which was (quickly counts) seven years ago. Is 25 too young to feel old? I obviously need to remember the important concepts from that, as this current course will assume that I have that foundational knowledge. I do remember, some. I also find myself stretching back to my high school math classes, which I am much more conscious of doing, mainly because I am struggling to recall. Some stuff comes back to me. Formula for slope. Cross-multiply-and-divide. Not easily or automatically, but it does. Other things don’t. Can I just subtract one equation from another? (Yes, I think.)

The point is, learning happens when there is change in long-term memory. This information, these skills, serve me much better if I can recall them from my brain rather than looking them online or in lower-level textbooks. I can jump into this more difficult material more quickly and confidently if I start from standing on a stable base.

Background knowledge is important for reading. The first short story assigned for the English literature course was “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” by Ernest Hemingway. Both the course notes and the anthology provided background on the Lost Generation, which is important for understanding the central theme of the story. But that’s fine. The teacher provided the information necessary. But what if all the necessary cultural context can’t be provided? The Wars, by Timothy Findley, is a novel assigned for later in the course. It is a contemporary Canadian novel, written in 1977, so it is not from a foreign country and ladened with archaic language. However, an understanding of World War I, Canada during WWI, and even geographic locations in Canada, help in understanding the novel. That stuff is obviously useful. Are there more subtle examples of the importance of background knowledge? Here are a couple quotes; can you spot what background knowledge they lean on?

“One hundred yards,’ said Taffler. He gestured at the remaining bottle. It was green and had a tall, thin neck. ‘All you get in this war,’ he said, ‘is one little David against another.’ Then he threw – and broke the tall, thin neck clean off. ‘Like that. Just a bunch of stone throwers.’

-pg. 32


The only building shared in common with the present was a General Store then run by a man called Oscar Dreyfus. But Dreyfus was a name that had fallen into bad repute, so the sign read OSCAR’S DRYGOODS. There were even people who called him that. ‘Hallo, Mister Drygoods!’ they would call out…Mrs Drygoods was the madam of the house next door. Her name was Maria – but she firmly adhered to the Dreyfus. Maria Dreyfus could read- and she had read ‘J’Accuse!’ Her name was something of which she was very proud.

-pg. 34

Now, I haven’t read the course notes for the novel yet, so maybe explanation of this is provided. Or maybe the instructor will assume the students possess a certain amount of cultural capital.

Learning is hard. Honestly, my head hurts. Well, not quite hurts, but that strange straining feeling. Especially when it comes to the math. I’m not bad at math, just out of practice.

More thoughts to come, as I work my way through the courses.


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