Monday, December 23, 2013

The Mountain and the Compass

I've spent the last three days outlining a process for curriculum design:

  1. Design tasks (performance assessments) that reflect everything that a student should be able to do once he or she has met a standard. Don't hold back.
  2. Break those tasks down into sub-tasks that are either intuitive or build on sub-tasks that students have already mastered. Don't stop breaking down a task until you can honestly say that over 95% of the students should be able to do the sub-tasks.
  3. Design the curriculum with learning experiences and assessments targeting each sub-task. Don't stop refining your learning experiences until you can honestly say that over 95% of the students should be able to do the sub-tasks.
  4. Implement the curriculum and compare actual student performance against your expectations. Rinse and repeat.

Nothing about this process seems particularly earth-shattering, until you realize that we aren't doing any of it. We don't push the tasks we ask students to do; we calibrate them based on what we think they can handle. We don't break tasks down until they are intuitive and build on things that students have already mastered; we look the other way when there are tasks that we know make absolutely no sense to students. We don't base our expectations on detailed analyses of the tasks or the curriculum; we base our expectations on how poorly students have done in the past when saddled with a crappy curriculum. This process reflects a new normal for teaching and curriculum design, a new normal that is designed to create a new normal for student learning.

Creating new normals is hard. It's like jumping from one mountain to another. We are so focused on climbing the mountain in front of us that it is hard to turn back, crossing a deep valley before we can start climbing again on the other side. It is especially hard when you can't see the other mountain, the valley is riddled with impassable terrain and shrouded in fog, and the journey takes many years.

To begin such a journey, you need two things: a distant landmark and a compass. Okay, you probably need more than that, but if you only get two things, those are the two I'd ask for. You may not be able to see the mountain you're heading for, but a distant landmark on the same line will give you a bearing you can set your compass to. You'll need the compass because once you descend into fog, your distant landmark won't be visible anymore. You'll have to rely on your compass to make sure you aren't walking in circles or going in the wrong direction. Fortunately, you'll break out of the fog periodically and be able to check your progress and re-calibrate your bearing against the distant landmark, but it could be months between landmark sightings.

In the curriculum design process, pushing the limits of your tasks and breaking those tasks down into sub-tasks that are intuitive or build on things that students have already mastered are the distant landmarks. You won't arrive at the mountain yet just by doing those two things, but they are way stations in the journey and things that you can see from your current vantage point. Your expectations of student performance is your compass. Low is cold and high is warm. Check your compass constantly and re-calibrate it whenever you temporarily break out of the fog and get the chance to evaluate actual student performance.

So what does the mountain, this new normal, look like? Good question. I'll talk a little bit more about that in future posts, but for now, I've decided to distill the curriculum design process down to these basic elements. For those who know me well, you'll notice that I haven't said anything about immersion or leverage yet. That will come later. These steps are the essential steps and the first steps in your journey. They are essential in the sense that I don't think that you can design a truly effective curriculum without them. I also feel like, if you take on this curriculum design process and apply it with integrity, you will drive yourself to everything you need to know. You'll arrive at those other destinations, and eventually the mountain, once you've designed your tasks and broken those tasks down to the appropriate sub-tasks, and then realize that you still aren't getting every student to mastery. You won't be able to stop until you get there. I know that I couldn't.

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