A look at the instructional design of a syllabus

This week, I chose to look at the instructional design of a syllabus from a high school culinary arts course. (Isn’t it cool that they offer this? It’s a year-long, two-period course.)

First of all, it is worth saying that high school syllabi are typically MUCH different from what people are used to seeing at the university level. Any teacher who is organized enough to lay out course activities/objectives for 180 days is 1) insane and 2) not as good of a teacher as they claim to be because they don’t leave flexibility for responding to formative assessments–like when kids need to be retaught something or to be taught in a different way. That said, I did once work with a middle school science teacher who had her outfits laid out from Christmas through Spring Break. She was 1) hilarious and 2) amazing, so I wouldn’t put it past her to pull off what I just declared impossible. She may have evolved since the outfit planning days. (I sort of hope she sees my shout-out to her here.)

While I appreciate having all of the information up front in a university course, where I’m planning out work schedules and other class demands, in a high school, I think it’s probably not the greatest idea. Kids aren’t usually comforted by information overload; they are stressed. So, if you want to deal with perpetually fielding multiple, individual complaints of “I don’t get it,” try giving all of the information at once. This goes for scaffolding a project just as much as a detailed syllabus. Also, if you want kids to be responsible for the information in the syllabus, you have to go over it with them, and when they sit through that 6-7 other times during the first week of a course, short and sweet is usually good advice. The five pages in my sample syllabus is pushing it, though the “meat” really consists of two pages.

The syllabus I looked at was divided into these sections:

  • course description
  • texts and resources
  • behavior/discipline
  • class units for 1st and 2nd semester (12 in all)
  • standards-based instruction explanation
  • assessment strategies
  • field trip policies
  • contact info

Our school is big on standards-based reporting, assessment and instruction. This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how RARE true standards-based reporting and assessment is after elementary school. Elementary schools actually do. Think about your report cards with different skills listed and all the Es, VGs, Ss and Us (or whatever your school called them)–this is standards-based reporting.

How do I know that secondary ed (and higher ed) don’t really do this? Because parents and students continue to be fixated on their percent and letter grade. Also the computerized grading tools out there (PowerSchool, Skyward, Infinite Campus, etc.) don’t really support standards-based reporting yet–though they are very good of showing a list of assignments with a percentage and letter grade. I also see a lot of tests in my role as a support teacher. There are also a lot of teachers out there still giving tests with one grade at the end–not several grades broken down by the standards-based skills.

That said, I believe that our school is ahead of the curve when it comes to standards-based assessment (though standards-based instruction is different–we are still a work in progress there). What I liked in this syllabus is that the standards were listed in the description for each unit, instead of a large list for the whole course (which is sort of what I do :/ for my own syllabi). Raising awareness to the foci of each unit as the unit begins is a great way to plan instruction, because students can reflection on their learning process (metacognition!)

The section on assessment strategies, though brief, was good too, since students want to know how they will be graded and held accountable. The contents of the explanation are pretty predictable, but sometimes students might be surprised by and hostile toward the appearance of an oral presentation or something if they haven’t been warned.

The discipline section is also very important for a high school course. This one refers to the school and district guidelines in the Student Handbook. While this is a sound and clear-cut approach, I think it might also be useful to reference some of the kitchen-specific safety rules in effect in this classroom. However, perhaps the signage in the room and orientation by the teacher to the facility is sufficient.

I already had a lot of respect for the caliber of instructor and the culinary program at this school and was pleasantly surprised by the design of the syllabus and course. If I had to give a “grade,” I’d say that this one’s an A, Exceeds Expectations!