Although I have a million things to say about the conversation around large lecture courses that erupted last night in class, I have the energy right now to focus on one particular piece of it rather than a more global response: So this particular blog entry is about one piece of the discussion: core knowledge.
In the discussion last night regarding the possibility of there being such a thing as an effective large lecture course, I used the phrase - "core knowledge" - to push the conversation further than whether or not large lecture courses are good or bad. I used the term "core knowledge" because I know Mr. Hirsch's phrase is incendiary in some circles and I think it goes to the core of some of the criticisms that people have of more didactic approaches to education such as the large lecture.
I assume that all educators define learning as something beyond rote memorization, something that includes the facts as well as the whys of the facts. Why is the formula for the area of a triangle 1/2bh, not just that it is. In my gut, I think (and - as Antonio Damasio's research shows - being able to reason depends as much on your gut as it does on your cerebral cortex) learning depends greatly on working with, playing with, practicing, constructing ideas. And, I know with that same guttural instinct, that learning also requires patient, methodical, rote, persistence in absorbing the dry facts that make up the current episteme. Mr Hirsch discusses the importance of and tensions between the hard discipline of getting down the facts and concepts and the romanticism of articulating them, undoing them, combining them anew to create revolutions in thought.
Core knowledge is essential and students deserve a thorough, well-rehearsed, thought provoking introduction to the core knowledge of their fields when they begin college. They deserve to be told what the current practitioners consider to be the essential facts, the important methods, the salient studies, the meaningful points in history. And I think large lectures can do this very well - and efficiently which is fodder for another post. It may not be the only way but I think it is a very, very good way.
One of the main themes that runs through Psych 1001 is how psychologists in the myriad subfields practice the scientific method. Students are introduced to the essential information that is necessary for them to understand why psychologists are asking the questions they are and what they are learning in their research. This "core knowledge of the discipline" includes lectures on research methods, the biology of human behavior and consciousness, learning, human development and memory, as well as lectures on behavioral genetics and absnormal psychology. The lectures are given by senior faculty in the field and they explicitly refer to real tensions between various researchers and how these tensions play out in how research is conducted.
One of the primary ways in which faculty lectures are structured is a review of the major studies in the field which have contributed to the current state of the discipline - what has gone into the creation of "the core knowledge" - so, in a sense, the lectures are discursive in that students are being required to learn not only what the core knowledge is at this time but also how such knowledge has been produced.
The point of Psych 1001 is to introuduce students to the field of psychology as currently practiced and to the core knowledge as it is currently understood. I consider the lecture format in which some of the major players in the discipline today stand up and talk for a couple of hours on the most fundamental points of their field of research and how their field has become what it is today is an excellent means of introducing a student to the field of psychology and how it is currently practiced.
These lectures are the stuff of "core knowledge" that the students will need to know and understand as they take up questions of their own in their time at the U and beyond.