Monday, March 1, 2010

Building Curricula Backwards

Reading back over the curling post from the other day, I'm reminded why it's not a good idea to try to write in a place where other people are having conversations. Not that it is impossible, but it does lead to a certain wanderlust in the writing style which comes across as somewhat elementary-schoolish.

Anyway, in the midst of the end of an exceptionally busy quarter - even busier than last, I believe - I wanted to talk a little about the great fun I've been having building curricula. I'm enrolled in, as I've mentioned, a Curriculum Construction class with Dr. Pope, and in addition to the class's final project (a curriculum), I'm writing two curricula of my own for summer workshops I'm planning on teaching in June.

The curriculum for class I'm writing is a group project. Or was. While there are some finishing touches to apply, we're just about finished. In comparison to my own curricula, our progress was quite rapid, I suspect because we could divide the busy-work parts of the process amongst ourselves. The curriculum is a web-search module for a larger journalism curriculum, with a focus on teaching searching tools and strategies through the lens of assessing bias and credibility in the debate on copyright. Everything in the curriculum is built around addressing one of those three issues (that is, search skills, credibility and bias of sources, and copyright issues), and most activities address more than one (or all three).

In true "backwards design" form, we began with a key goal, then built our three lesser goals, then built a final assessment, and then built the actual lesson plans. Working backwards like this was pioneered by Wiggins and McTighe (first names, I suppose, no longer necessary), the former of whom is a graduate of St. John's, Annapolis. I find it fitting that modern curriculum construction theory was devised and propagated by Johnnie.

Anyway, for our final assessment (or "anchor task"), we're asking students to role-play a hearing on copyright law, after doing group research. The research portion covers the searching and credibility assessment goals, and the content is, of course, the copyright portion. What's more, our anchor task is much richer than a test or quiz, and should therefore encourage more buy-in from students. Granted, even the best of lessons can be ruined by class dynamics (and vice versa; poor lessons can be turned to everyone's benefit by resourceful students and teachers), but we feel we've given implementing teachers every chance to succeed.

As for whether our curriculum actually gets implemented anywhere, we'll see. There are, in fact, a few schools we've made contact with - private and public - who are interested, so it's entirely possible that our work was not merely theoretical.

I should say, one of the key issues with our curriculum is standards. Because web-search is a technology issue, it is covered in the most ancillary of ways by current standards. What's more, standards-based instruction would scoff at our "authentic assessment" model, where we try to get students engaged instead of beating them into the ground with multiple choice tests. But I digress into a subject of a future post (or posts).

My own curricula are quite different, not only from our web-search curriculum, but from each other. Anyone who knows me won't be surprised to hear that, of course, nor will they be surprised to discover what the topics of each curriculum are. The first, and more serious of the two, is a poetry curriculum. The second a sabermetrics curriculum. Since both of these will be elective summer workshops that I'll get to teach in June, it occurs to me that one will likely be mostly (or all) girls and the other mostly (or all) boys.

The poetry curriculum places strong emphasis on writing and discussion. The anchor task is an original piece of poetry, not just written, but read aloud and recorded. Along the way, fortunately, students will get to read a collection of excellent poems that I am even now agonizingly selecting. Authors will range from Whitman (of course) to Gabriela Mistral to, in a touch of Paul, Schiller and Beethoven. In preparation it is likely that I'll get into depth about some of the works in my curriculum in this space in the coming months, so be forewarned.

The sabermetrics curriculum is going to be inquiry-based, and will hopefully introduce students to the radically fast-moving world of baseball statistics research. As a student at in a graduate program, I'm actually in a research community, and it is not hard to tell that the current sabermetrics world is much faster moving, more creative, and more vibrant than the education research world. Call me young and naive, but I suspect it has something to do with the essentially non-existent barriers to entry. Baseball research is not centralized in any institution, so any intelligent and hardworking person can "publish" something meaningful (and potentially get hired by a real MLB team, as has happened frequently of late). The result has been an explosion in our understanding of how baseball works and what truly makes a player valuable.

The point of my curriculum is essentially for the students to have fun and maybe covertly learn some math along the way.* But there will undoubtedly be an undercurrent of my patented contrarianism. In other words, the point isn't just to inculcate students to a new way of thinking, but rather to encourage them to think critically about conclusions they hear anywhere.

*And to help them obliterate their foes in their fantasy leagues, of course.

Which is also the point of the search curriculum and, on some level, the poetry curriculum. I would argue that, maybe, that's the point - or at least one of the points - of education. I asked one of my TAs in Dr. Pope's curriculum class this quarter "how far backwards" backwards design really goes. That's a rhetorical question; it goes all the way back if you let it.

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