The Medium is the Message: (2) Laying out my perspective

So what started as an interesting topic I’d like to entertain is quickly ballooning into something that will likely take me several blog posts to thoroughly explore. I’m okay with that. If you ever meet me in person you’ll learn that I can (and like to!) talk at length about education matters, so really this is no surprise to me.

Source: Amazon

I’ll be up front that I’m going to approach my analysis from a user-centered design perspective. If you are unfamiliar with user-centered design, I encourage you to check out the provided link for additional information. I also highly recommend the book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. It was one of the first books I read in grad school, and it had a tremendous impact on my thinking with regards to designing curriculum materials and instructional technologies. Here’s a quick summary of user-centered design from the Wikipedia article I linked to:

“The chief difference from other product design philosophies is that user-centered design tries to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product.”

Now, I’m not saying that any curriculum materials were designed according to this perspective, but they are definitely worth analyzing from this perspective. The end users – teachers – often have very strong opinions about the materials they use with their students. Throughout my posts you’ll hear me refer repeatedly to constraints and affordances. These are key ideas from Donald Norman’s book. I’m probably not using the terms exactly as Donald Norman did, so I’ll give my working definitions.

A constraint is something that hinders. For example, a constraint of a wooden pencil is that it has a finite supply of lead. Once you have exhausted the lead, you need a new pencil.

An affordance on the other hand is something that enables. For example, the casing of a mechanical pencil enables you to use the same pencil continuously because you can add lead any time you run out. (Granted this quickly raises the constraint that if you run out and have no supply of extra lead, then your mechanical pencil becomes just as useless as the wooden pencil.)

In addition to constraints and affordances, I also foresee myself talking about assumptions and unintended consequences. I’m writing this post before I’ve written any of the meat of this blog series, but I’m interested in both topics so I’m sure they will come up as appropriate. For example, what assumptions does a textbook publisher have about the teachers who will use its product? Or, what are the unintended consequences of introducing digital curriculum materials in a classroom?

And with that question, I’d like to close this post with a quote that sums up the work of curriculum designers:

“The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry…”

Or if you have a more cynical view of the relationship between publishers and teachers:

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

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