Sunday, February 16, 2014

Contrarian Root Cause Analysis

Over the next few weeks, I will be describing some of the curriculum that I've developed in detail. My goal is to identify and articulate the design principles that I use. By raising these design principles to the conscious level, I hope to refine them and share them with others.

I have two reasons for working on this. First, it bugs me that I don't understand my own process. When I try to explain how I design curriculum to people, I find myself doing a lot of hand-waving. Second, we need a set of design principles that can guide curriculum designers to design better curriculum. The design principles that we use now result in the production of both good and bad curriculum, most of it bad. It seems like if you have good instincts as a curriculum designer, than current design principles enhance what you do. But if you don't have good instincts, they don't help you at all. I feel like good design principles should help all designers become better designers; otherwise, you aren't capturing something important that good designers are doing.

The most popular framework in use today for curriculum design is Understanding by Design, which is based on two design principles: backward design and teaching for understanding. Backward design is simply common sense. Of course, we should identify desired outcomes, determine what constitutes acceptable evidence for those outcomes, and then design learning activities to reach those outcomes. Where it can break down is when designers: (1) don't stretch themselves to select outcomes that force them to iterate and refine their designs, (2) select assessments that don't really provide evidence that an outcome has been reached, or (3) start changing desired outcomes and assessments when a design fails instead of iterating on the design itself. The third breakdown reflects a basic lack of rigor in the application of backward design by the user, but the design principles should be constructed to help the user avoid the first two. Based on the quality of the curriculum that is produced using Understanding by Design, that's not happening.

Teaching for understanding is something that is clearly near and dear to me. I want students to make sense of the things that they learn. It's essential. But I almost always disagree with the design decisions that curriculum designers make when trying to teach for understanding. I know that I would be making completely different design decisions to accomplish the same goal. This tells me that I'm applying a different design principle, even if I don't know what that design principle is on a conscious level, yet. It has something to do with learning progressions, but I don't like the design decisions that curriculum designers make when trying to design a learning progression either. So far, I've been using the term "sense-making" as a kind of placeholder for a design principle, but I think it is time to dive in and actually figure out what I'm doing. The best way to do that is to compare and contrast good curriculum with bad.

When McTighe and Wiggins saw how much crap was being produced using Understanding by Design, they should have sorted this curriculum into good and bad piles, figured out how the two piles were different, and then used their analysis to refine their theory and practice. We should strive for design principles that cause good design, not just settle for design principles that correlate weakly with good design. I think that McTighe and Wiggins tried to do that at first, but when they couldn't easily increase the yield of good curriculum, they stopped trying and decided to cash in instead.

The same thing happened with hands-on learning, cooperative learning, and pretty much every other design principle for good teaching that has ever come along. Someone proposes a great initial idea, and then it stops there. Some individuals may take that idea and refine it on their own, but those refinements are never fed back into the collective consciousness for others to iterate on. We need to stop doing that. I need to stop doing that. So, here we go...

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