Stories, not containers: What is a course?

We think of courses as containers; containers for the outcomes, content and assessments related to a topic. Students move through the course – from one concept to another – until they get to the assessment at the end, which signals the end of the course. The course is bound in time; it has a definite beginning and end and it requires us to map out the course structure long before we meet the participants. How then, can this structure recognise the unique characteristics of individuals? Courses as containers are formalised, and standardised and ultimately, far more about compliance and conformity than creativity, ingenuity, innovation, or even mastery. There may be some administrative benefits to thinking of courses in this way but there are few benefits that are pedagogical. In other words, the course as container metaphor doesn’t enhance learning in any way.

If we want a student-centred, inquiry-based course we must disregard the course as container and come up with another way to think about courses. Lately I’ve been wondering if the course could be structured as a user-generated story; an unscripted narrative that integrates participant experience with course concepts leading to unpredictable and delightful outcomes. Instead of thinking of the course as a container – closed and inflexible – what if it was a stage upon which the process of learning could be enacted in order to tell stories? What if the course was an open space that enabled personal learning to progress in directions that we cannot anticipate. The course framework could include some things that participants would need to tell their version of the story – provocations, an audience, collaborators, basic structure – while also allowing for them to bring in their own elements – experience, knowledge, beliefs, etc.

What if a course began like a great story; with an opening scene that grabbed your attention? What if we started with a provocative context that generated a “Whoa!” moment; a cascade of questions that threatened someone’s core beliefs. This opening scene could establish a learning context where every participant realises that their understanding and practices are going to be questioned. It becomes clear that this course will not have a neat and tidy resolution, and that this is going to require a confrontation with the messiness and uncertainty of the world. Participants know, from the beginning, that this course is not for the faint of heart.

After the opening scene the course begins to unfold, allowing each participant to take a different direction. The structure of the course not only acknowledges every participants’ unique context and history, but actually aims to embrace and use it. There is an unfolding sequence of action and reflection where each participant chooses which “storyline” to follow. One might watch the embedded video while another is caught up in the patient scenario. Other participants are drawn to the poems and art section where course concepts are explored with multimedia artifacts. Yet others choose to read the research paper or the book review. Depending on where they see “the evidence” residing, participants make choices about how they wish to explore the topic.

There is therefore both controlled and uncontrolled content where the (un)structure of the course enables participants to engage with different perspectives, right from the start. Content is negotiated by the participants within the context of the course and decisions made about what is important to include. This enables the course to be built – as it unfolds – around the critical examination of concepts, hierarchies and assumptions that exist at the centre.

As participants engage with the course concepts via different media, questions are triggered which lead to the development of research queries that aim to provide information that participants need in order to build their story. These resources then become a course “reading” list (it could include videos and art) generated by participants during the course. Course content is therefore created in the moment as participants write their own stories using personal experience, concepts from the course, group conversations and the additional resources generated by other participants. They aggregate resources from multiple sources, remix these in various ways, adapt and repurpose them to suit their own needs, and then share them. The content is therefore created as it is needed. It will also be different every time the course is enacted because different participants will take the narrative in different directions, leading to different outcomes.

The course also provides the time and space for participants to step back and reflect. To “put down the book” and step outside. We need a moment where, before we can move on with the story we must first come to terms with what we’ve just learned. There are some ideas that are too big to take in at once and we need to step away to think about what they mean for us. Sometimes – when the ideas are big enough and uncomfortable enough – we need to think about whether or not we even want to to continue with the story. We need courses that are cognisant of the need to “step back” and that give participants the space they need to work with difficult ideas.

While the course itself is bound with beginning and end points (we can’t have facilitators and participants forever enrolled), the interactions and community that develop during the course could continue when it ends. The course is designed to outgrow itself and to leave space for community engagement and response that extends beyond the boundaries set for each iteration of the course. Just like stories can stay with you long after you finish the last page, so the thinking and reflections generated in the course as story continue long after the final task is completed. In fact, completing the final task doesn’t signal the end of something; instead it highlights that this is the beginning of a change in how you think about the world.

At the begining of the course as story, it is the group who collectively decide what “success” looks like and how it will be assessed at the end. Perhaps they decide that a short book will be the final product, where each participant takes the lead in developing a collaboratively created chapter, where each chapter is a topic in the course. Maybe “success” for another cohort is a website where they describe their process, including reflections, drawings, photos, video diaries and audio recordings. Maybe someone in the group composed a song that they all perform and that gets published. Maybe “success” is an exhibition at a gallery. We must remember that there are few limitations to what should be attempted in the pursuit of sustained, meaningful learning. The total number of possible ways that “success” can be determined is much higher than performance on a test, or submission of an essay. Thinking of the course as an unscripted story without a predetermined outcome helps us get to the point where it’s easier to see what those other descriptions of success might look like.

The best stories aren’t the ones that take you down a predictable and narrowly focused path. The best stories open you up to the possibility that everything you thought about something is being questioned. The best stories don’t answer all the questions and aren’t neatly wrapped up at the end. The best stories are starting points that leave you asking, “What next?”. Shouldn’t our courses do the same?