Pedagogy Menus

For many years, I have been considering how to give students more options in what kind of assignments they use to satisfy the objectives in my classes. Each time I think of something, I pull back, realizing it would be a record-keeping nightmare. Particularly when the foundation of my class is based on certain skills (thesis development, primary source evidence) that I need them to practice all the time. They can’t just do something else instead of this – it’s foundational.

Last week, I saw this post in Twitter:


and I began thinking about the food menu motif. In keeping with my MOOC triad idea, I’ve worked out a three-way analogy instead.

At the one end of the spectrum is the Prix Fixe. At a restaurant with a prix fixe menu, you order dinner, and what you will eat is pre-determined by the chef. You are served what they have listed, with no substitutions. Elements of a prix-fixe course design would be:

  • read pp. 18-36 of your textbook
  • using only the sources you’ve been given, do these questions/problems/quizzes
  • post twice in the forum this week about this topic or reading, and reply at least once to a colleague
  • complete all items in this course for the grade
  • collect lots of grades to get the final grade
  • “discuss”
  • learning = fulfilling the standards

Next would be the Limited Menu course design. Here there is a menu of items to choose from, but not too large a selection, kind of like the corner coffee shop with one guy back in the kitchen. Elements of a Limited Menu course design might be:

  • go over the context reading on this subject at Wikipedia
  • use any source to do these questions/problems/quizzes
  • find this type of thing on the web and post/discuss on the board
  • explore your own interests in context
  • choose one activity of each type/skill
  • reflect on your learning
  • engage in collaborative or cooperative work
  • learning = increasing understanding in a predetermined subject

Then there’s the Buffet style. A buffet is somewhat limited, but has many types of items. Elements of a Buffet course design could include:

  • find out about x
  • gather some resources about it and share
  • post whatever you want about this week’s subject
  • explore only your own interests
  • stay engaged
  • self-assess your work based on a rubric
  • learning= increasing understanding on an area of your interest

My question to brainysmurf1234 was “what if they only choose dessert?” In other words, I am not a proponent of the Buffet style for first-year collegiate academic subjects necessary for general education. But neither am I completely comfortable with the Prix Fixe approach.

My designation of Content-Based MOOCs are rather like the Prix Fixe design, since all the topics are designated and testing takes place on only those resources assigned. The Task-Based MOOC is more like the Limited Menu, with some choices. And the Community-Based MOOC is like the Buffet, where it is easy to eat too much and get overwhelmed.

So I am leaning more toward a Limited Menu. The basis of my classes has become the construction of theses and essays based on the student’s choice of primary sources. These sources are limited to those posted by the students and their classmates each week. Thus they are doing the choosing, but from a limited menu (primary sources only from the Late Middle Ages, for example). The form of what they do with these sources is pre-determined (five-paragraph mini-essay) but the content is chosen by them.

I do love buffets, but I have to face it – I’m the one guy back in the kitchen. This must be manageable.

With my limited menu, perhaps, they won’t feel they have no choice in what they’ve ordered, but they won’t fill up on watermelon and 16 different kinds of cake either.

5 comments to Pedagogy Menus

  • Hello Lisa, really good explanation!!! I would choose the Buffet libre to explore but a limited Menu to go deeper in a topic or subject. All depends on what are the meaning goals you need to reach with a certain course….

  • I love a tasty metaphor…

    I’d have to say for ds106 that we offer our students the Limited menu, but variably expand some of the options to a few trips to the buffet line– we provide a weekly set of required activities but allows a fair bit of flexibility. Unlike most other restaurants in the are, our open participants are on different eating plan than our registered students, and that is likely more buffet.

    And there are differences between buffets and food troughs.

    There are some pitfalls with these metaphors. Our reasons for eating are to satisfy a physiological need, and there are realt limits and consequences for what we consume, so the diet of cake desert only will likely manifest itself in something like indigestion.

    To me, the real buffet is the open, unstructured internet- all courses to some degree, establish a menu that has some prescribed parts (not sure limited sits well).

    • I guess to follow this idea I’d have to say that the whole internet is more like the grocery store than a buffet – open, unstructured, brimming with possibility of you know how to cook.

      There is a psychological need met indeed in doing the “fun” parts of a class but not the rest. If we say you can either write a paper or create a video, how do the paper-writers get video skills and the video-makers get writing skills? To me, the point of the limited menu is to make sure the student is exposed to variety without letting them only cater to their strengths.

  • This reminds me of the High Scope early years curriculum – where nursery age children (4 and 5 years olds) on coming into school in the morning would take their planning board (a laminated board and a set of pictures of a sandtray, water tray, building blocks etc) and mark the activities they wanted to do that morning, i.e. they would plan their own curriculum.

    The teacher’s responsibility was to monitor the choices made and if the child only ever chose to play in the sand, try and persuade the child to choose a different activity from time to time.

    The interesting thing is that in some schools, Montessori for example, the child would be allowed (if my understanding of that system is correct)to play in the sand for much longer (pretty much until he had got it out of his system) than in a regular state school.

    So the questions for us are how much choice is appropriate, to what extent do we encourage students to follow their own lines of enquiry and how do we ensure that they get a balanced diet? I don’t think there are any straightforward answers. It’s all relative?

    • Interesting! Perfect for nursery school, but I wonder at the wisdom of offering too much choice in later years. I’m a proponent of General Education because I believe that people should work in as wide a variety of subjects as possible – we can’t really choose what we like until we’ve done that.

      Your comment also got me thinking about the role of teacher personality. I would not be good at individually tracking large numbers of students, sure I could catch when they were taking too much dessert, as it were.