Scientific Teaching for Life

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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At the beginning of the New Year, we think about our resolutions, our goals – to ponder whether this is the year to implement a new idea or form a new habit.  I’ve oft-avoided making the leap from the pondering phase to officially committing to New Year’s resolutions because I don’t want to feel bad about not following through.  This year I took a different approach, figuring if I broke a resolution into smaller, quarterly goals (and ditched the word “resolution”), it would be more doable.  But goals of any size still need a structure.

I borrowed a philosophy and method from some of the most talented leaders in higher education.  It is a call to action encased in a small book called Scientific Teaching.  It is officially described as a book that “encourages the reader to approach teaching in a way that captures the spirit and rigor of scientific research and to contribute to transforming how students learn science”.  To me it is an elegant and practical primer on teaching and learning, that anyone in any discipline can use to teach better, ultimately resulting in better learning for the student.

I learned about this philosophy during a meeting where it was used to help our authors think about how to write their chapters, but what struck me, as a non-educator, was the practical application beyond the classroom.  A section called Building a Teachable Unit: Backward Design provides a simple but profound framework, using backward design (Wiggins and McTighe 1998), to build teaching materials and activities to meet one's learning goals and outcomes.  I took the table for constructing a teachable unit and adjusted it slightly so it could be to build my personal goals.  (See more on a teachable unit in the book.)

Now I have a space for committing not only to a goal, but which specific actions will get me there and ways to assess whether I achieved it.  What I am learning is that this doesn’t have to be difficult.  Whether one is starting to do something new in the classroom, perhaps trying out in-class activities for the first time, or crafting personal goals, employing a simple framework that asks us to go beyond just stating the goal, to answer the what and the how, makes it doable.

I applied this framework to my goal of writing this blog post:

Table 5.3. A framework for constructing a teachable unit.

Learning Goals




What should students know, understand, and be able to do at the end of the unit?

Do the learning goals represent the nature of science?

How will I determine whether students have met the learning goals?

How will students assess their own learning?

What activities will engage a diverse group of students in learning?

Do the activities and assessments help students achieve the learning goals?

Source: Handelsman, Jo, Sarah Miller and Christine Pfund, Scientific Teaching. (New York: W.H. Freeman, 2007) 89. Print.

Personal Goal

Assessment (i.e. Outcomes)

Activities (i.e. Actions + Decisions)

Alignment (i.e. Gut Check)

What do I want to achieve?

How will I measure my success?

What do I need to do – and when – in order to meet my goal?

Is what I’m doing in alignment with meeting my goal?

Write a blog post for Macmillan

My post will make it to the site and get read

Backward design my post

Write a draft by 1/30

Revise on 2/1

If I watch another episode of Mozart in the Jungle, am I going to miss a deadline?

It's simple, practical, and brilliant. Ask your local Macmillan rep for a copy of Scientific Teaching or request a copy.

How do you approach course design? Share your tips and insights with our community in the comment section below!