Tearing Up The Syllabus

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats

It was week two of the spring semester and I’d just confirmed the details for taking a class of college students into the field to visit Redmoon Theater and 1871, both in Chicago.

These emergent opportunities meant I needed to change the order of the syllabus I’d given out to my students at the beginning of the semester. Walking into class a week later, I asked all the students in the room to take out the printed syllabus I had given them during week one of class. When it was visible on the desk in front of them I asked them to “tear it up”. What happened next surprised me.

Everyone hesitated and looked at each other and then at me with a look of uncertainty across their faces. No one wanted to tear up the 4-page syllabus. It was like it was gold or the holy grail. It was their lifeline as to what I expected of them. It was their only link to what we were going to cover each week and what readings they had to do, whether they read them or not. More importantly, it had etched into it in bold black ink the deadlines of when their assignments were due.

“You want us to tear it up?” One student asked from the back of the room.

“Yes,” I replied. “Everyone, tear it up. Tear it into as many pieces you can.”

“But what if I don’t want to.” Asked another student.

“It’s okay,” I replied. “I am not just giving you permission to, I am asking you to.”

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.


Remembering the scene from Dead Poets Society, with Robin Williams, I proceeded to encourage them. It wasn’t pages from a published book; it was a 4-page syllabus, a learning schedule designed with the words, “This syllabus is subject to change. Students will be notified of any changes” written on the last page. There was a spate of nervous laughs as the tearing started. Slowly they began to rip the stapled pages of paper into two, three and four pieces. Like dominoes, the tearing and nervous laughter spread throughout the room. One, two, then three, students started tearing. Then everyone did.

“Why are we doing this?” Asked another student.

“I have made some changes to it, I’ve added some field trips we’ll be taking in the coming weeks,” I replied. “It is okay, I have a new syllabus for you.”

A wave of relief passed over their faces at hearing these last words. The new syllabus was handed out, moving from student to student. Again, they had the security of a syllabus in their hands. Something they could cling to, file in their folders and refer back to weekly or just before something was due.

In that brief moment when they were tearing the pages, I saw a glimpse of freedom in their faces. The look of doing something uncertain and unexpected.

Change is the end result of all true learning.

Leo Buscaglia

As I walked out of the first class, then the second and third that week, I couldn’t help but wonder ~ what if I didn’t teach to a syllabus, if they didn’t learn to one? What if every week we didn’t follow the syllabus? Would the students embrace it? Would it seem odd to my colleagues especially as this was a document that was required? Did it really need to be?

We had to produce one for each of our classes, to be filed with the administration and used if the institution was seeking accreditation or we were being evaluated. More importantly, however, to my students, the syllabus was a learning contract. It framed what I expected of them, and influenced what they expected of me.

I was curious, what would REALLY happen to the learning experience if we didn’t have a syllabus and if I really tore it up? If what we were going to learn and share each week wasn’t set down in paper, codified in tables arranged by weeks and themes with chapter readings scheduled weeks and months before we were to discuss them. Would my students have a better or freer learning experience? Or is the thought of uncertainty in what is expected of us in learning too difficult to design for in today’s highly scheduled, highly planned and risk-adverse world of higher education.

Uncertainty and change is a constant in every other part of our worlds, why not in learning? Why not in higher education? Are we doing young people a disservice by planning and scheduling the learning experience so much? How can we help young people learn to adapt to change, if the learning experience itself is so scheduled, so planned and unwelcoming of change that even the thought of tearing a piece of paper it is written on is faced with hesitation and perhaps, fear?

Education must not simply teach work ~ it must teach Life.

W. E. B. Du Bois

The industry workshops I facilitate outside of Higher Education we don’t use a syllabus. The Leadership Retreat I led with Hedwig Dances last month, or a Visual Learning workshop with colleagues at the Centre for Innovation in Teaching Excellence at Columbia just last week, are not the same. They didn’t have a syllabus. I have a workshop guide, but many of the participants don’t see this and sometimes it is just in my head. As the session progress, I read the room as to what emerge, and what the group might need to do next.

Recently I participated in an annual 2-day retreat called Act Otherwise, designed by Europe’s leading interactive arts organization, Blast Theory. There was no schedule, no timed list of presentations, just a theme for the entire two days. 40 people turned up and it was live-streamed. If you wanted to speak, you let one of the organizers know and at some point in the 2-days you were introduced, you stood up, Skyped in and you started talking. These experiences are designed more for what emerges from the discussion, than with a pre-determined view of what one or a few people think should be covered.

At these events, as both a facilitator and participant you adapt and change in the moment dependent on what is needed or where the group is going. And it is beautiful. Adapting is perhaps one of the most exciting practices of learning, and something that many formal learning experiences don’t design for.

In comparing what is expected of me in how I design industry workshops and retreats, to what is expected in the formal learning experiences, I wonder … why as educators do we sometimes resist the social and emergent models of learning design? 

I wonder. If we planned to learn less and learned in the moment more, what would the learning experience in higher education truly come to feel like?